The Better Sacrifice

I don’t often make our church’s midweek Bible study, due to conflicts between the time it starts and the time I get home from work.

I did last week, though, entering midway into a study of one of my favourite sections of the Bible: the early chapters of Genesis.

I’d missed the studies on the first three chapters covering the Creation and Fall, and jumped right in with the story of Cain and Abel.

I’m not going to comment right now on the actual historicity or not of this section of primeval history. Whether and how it should be harmonised with what most scientists tell us about Darwin’s theories and all the palaeontological discoveries we’ve made is a separate question, but in a sense, if you don’t treat these chapters as “real” in some sense, you’re going to miss the point of most of the rest of the Bible.

In short, God might have used evolution to create the world and even progressively stamped the Divine image onto increasingly manlike beings, but the theology of salvation and the very underpinnings of the Good News require a Fall of some sort from an original state of grace, otherwise they don’t entirely make sense. The Bible doesn’t tell us that humanity’s problem is that we’re ignorant of the right thing to do or that we need someone to show us the way; it tells us that knowing what is right, we do not do it.

For the Bible to make sense, the first few chapters of Genesis have to be true on at least a spiritual and theological level. Whether they are also true in the sense of being an accurate historical description of real events is a separate question.

But for the purposes of this blog post, I’m going to treat it as a factual account, even if there are some questions about precisely what genre these passages belong in.

The account of Cain and Abel begins some time after the exile from Eden, when Adam and Eve have started having children. The way Cain’s naming is written, Cain might have been their firstborn, but there’s nothing specifically written either way. Eve names him “Gotten”, saying “With the help of YHWH I have gotten (or brought forth) a man”. As an interesting aside, I find it fascinating that this is the first name-giving by someone other than Adam. Adam was the one given the job of naming all the animals in chapter 2, and Adam names Eve, both as to her kind (“ishah”, “woman”; “taken out of ish, man”) and personally (“Eve”, “Breath”, “Life-giver”). Up until this point, it’s been Adam that has told the rest of Creation what it is. Now the focus shifts, and it’s the one Adam calls Lifegiver that gives the names to the next generation.

Many traditions have portrayed Abel as Cain’s younger twin, but all the Bible says is that he was born “afterwards”. There could have been years between them for all we actually know.

Anyway, there’s time in between the notification of their birth (important in the light of the Divine command to “go forth and multiply”) and the rest of this account for them to grow up and become at least young men, and given how much fun God designed sex to be, I don’t expect Adam and Eve were hanging about on the going forth and multiplying. This will become important later, but undoubtedly Cain and Abel had numerous siblings; even without multiple births a pregnancy a year over 100 years of life (Seth, Abel’s “replacement”, was born when Adam was 130) gives 50 offspring from Adam and Eve alone, and those children can potentially start having their own kids at 15-20. This is no Western-style nuclear family with only the named individuals in it.

Simply put, we aren’t told how many years elapsed between Cain and Abel’s birth and the first murder, but it was enough for Cain to grow up and become a farmer and Abel to grow up and become a shepherd.

This is the central tension of almost every preindustrial agricultural society there’s ever been, encapsulated right here. Growers of seed and keepers of livestock. I hesitate to say that this is where all the tension comes from, but it’s an interesting observation that Jesus calls Himself the Good Shepherd, not the Good Farmer.

There’s an awful lot in this passage that isn’t said, including the reasons why Cain’s offering was rejected by God, but so long as we keep in mind that we are speculating, it’s perfectly ok to read between the lines a little.

“In the fullness of time,” the Bible says, Cain brought some of the produce of the ground as an offering. This may just mean that in the course of things once the seed was ripe and the harvest was in, but the Bible does often use this phraseology for Divinely-ordained times, appointed times for an aspect of His unfolding rescue plan for humanity. And if that is the intended sense, it might imply a time that God had set for them to bring an offering.

The priestly sacrificial system and Law wasn’t formally codified until Mount Sinai, but this isn’t the only foreshadowing of aspects of the Law’s requirements. Noah had to be able to differentiate clean and unclean animals somehow so he would know how many to take into the ark, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob built altars and made sacrifices, and even God Himself had to kill something to provide the “garments of skins” with which He covered Adam and Eve.

It doesn’t especially matter whether this offering was a spontaneous gift or a commanded requirement, but the difference between Cain and Abel goes deeper than what they offered.

If this is a commanded sin-offering, God had established the pattern that something has to die for your sins to be covered, but the Sinaitic Covenant prescribed other kinds of offering than sin-offerings alone. The short answer is that we don’t know.

However, the language used in each case shows an important difference in attitude between the two brothers. Cain brought “some of the fruits of the earth”; the tone suggests that he didn’t take much time or care over its selection. At best, this reveals a jobbing, good-enough attitude which is going to fulfil the letter of what’s required but will do no more. At worst, it’s a surly passive-aggressive resistance to doing what God has asked for, possibly a heart greedy for “his” possessions that “he” had produced from the ground, perhaps an ugly mistrust of God’s goodness, care and provision.

Abel, by contrast, brings “fat portions from the firstborn of his flocks”, the best of the best. If his offering is a token of the attitude of his heart, Abel is a man whose relationship with God is of the highest importance. Who gives to God first, trusting Him to meet his needs.

Cain’s offering looks like the response of a man who thinks he’s really giving something to God. Here, Lord, have some of this grain that I made grow out of my own land with my own two hands. It may be significant in more ways than one that his name is Gotten. I did it; it’s my stuff; I’m doing God a favour by letting Him have some of what I earned. Cain, we might say, is the original self-made man.

Abel, on the other hand, gives like someone who knows that everything is the Lord’s anyway. He’s unstinting, his is a relationship of trust in God’s ability and willingness to take care of him. The firstborn of his flocks, and fat portions of it – the best part, in a time before the current Western obesity epidemic – coming before YHWH with blood on his hands because he knows he doesn’t have any right on his own merit.

And now we’re foreshadowing Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax-collector. The one came to God proudly listing off all the things he’d done to earn the favour of the Almighty, the other not even looking up to heaven, pleading for mercy because he’s a sinner.

And just like in Christ’s parable, it’s the man with blood on his hands that is looked on with favour. The one who trusts not in what he can do or bring, but in God’s merciful character.

And Cain gets mad.

Offended that God wouldn’t favour the offering that he’d worked so hard to produce, he reveals the legalistic religiousity of his mindset. Obviously God ought to be pleased, right? He said to bring an offering, and I jolly well brought an offering. I’ve done what He said; I deserve to merit His favour, right?

Sorry, Cain, but grace doesn’t work that way. We’re all flawed, imperfect, ungodly, sinful. We all fall short, and not one of us has anything to offer of our own. God’s favour is unmerited, otherwise grace is no longer grace. It’s gratis, free, not to be earned. God cannot be bought off and will not accept the fruits of the red earth (“Adamah”, ie Adam, that is, man). Truly, “nothing in my hand I bring,” as the old hymn puts it.

And so God lovingly challenges Cain. “Why is your face downcast? If you do well, won’t you also be accepted? But if you choose not to do well, sin is crouching at your door like a demon. It wants to possess you, but you don’t have to give in to it. You must be its master, not be mastered by it.”

Cain, you know I’m not interested in the offering for its own sake. It’s you that I want, not your stuff. Do well, offer to Me what bears My image, and you will be accepted with love and mercy. The offering’s not because I need it, but because I desire relationship with you, and that’s been broken by the sin that came into My world when your father Adam chose to disobey. Something has to die to cover that sin, Cain, and Abel understands this. Come back, Cain. It’s not too late; you don’t have to walk any further down this dark path.

And Cain hardens his heart.

This often seems to be the response of the religiously legalistic when confronted with the righteousness of faith. In a foreshadowing of every act of persecution and religious violence from the Pharisees to the Taliban, via the Crusades and Stalin’s purges, Cain decides that his righteous brother is the problem, and no more brother = no more problem.

And even after he commits the first murder, still God comes after him. Like His incarnate Son, God seems to like asking leading questions; the faux-innocent “Where is your brother Abel?” allows Cain a moment to decide whether he’s going to face up to what he’s done or try to wriggle out of it.

Adam and Eve pointed the finger of blame everywhere but at themselves, but at least they did not contest what they had done. Cain goes one worse. He lies, trying to pretend that not only did he not do it, but that he’s not even sure what’s been done.

“Am I my brother’s keeper?” I’ve got enough to do being responsible for me and my righteousness, now you think I can be responsible for my brother too? He’s an adult, let him be responsible for himself.

But YHWH pierces this self-serving smokescreen, saying “What have you done? Your brother’s blood is crying out to Me from the ground!” I know what you did; I’m not asking because I don’t know, I’m asking to try and help you.

Cain fails even where Adam does seem to succeed. Adam accepts his punishment, watches meekly while God kills something to cover the nakedness of his sin. Cain’s still trying to argue with God, like he knows better than the Omniscient One. “You’re driving me away from my livelihood, I’m going to be a restless vagabond, and anyone who finds me is going to feel no compunction about killing me!”

And so once again, the Lord in His patience and mercy reaches out, putting a mark on Cain so that no-one would kill him out of hand, lest they suffer the sevenfold vengeance God decrees. The form this took is not clear, but the consequence is. God is even concerned not to let anyone else take Cain’s life, just in case he should repent later.

And yet, we see that even then, Cain’s still trying to squirm out of the consequences of his sin. God told him he would be a homeless wanderer on the earth, but not four verses later we read that Cain is building a city named after his son Enoch.

Now, various people have famously fluffed the answer to “where did Cain’s wife come from?”, because “he married his sister” is incest in our modern world and we don’t like the implications.

But this is one of those times at which it only makes sense if you consider all the implications of an act of special creation.

In the beginning, God did not create mankind with a whole host of genetic defects. This is why incest is so categorically a bad idea; it’s one of those commandmemts that has a solid biological basis. Having children with a close relative is so terrible because it doubles the chances of all of the various accumulated genetic weaknesses and defects producing something really catastrophic.

Biologists call this “genetic load”, and it’s one of the subtle problems caused by any population bottleneck.

But Adam and Eve had no genetic load. In all likelihood, incest didn’t become an issue until the Israelites were in Egypt, and the accumulated damage of centuries upon centuries of harsh solar radiation, chemical damage and just general mutational effects was sufficient to make it deadly.

So yes, Cain, and Seth, and their brothers and sisters and offspring, married close family. It couldn’t be any other way, and it wasn’t the problem many people seem to think it was.

Cain’s descendents seem to have become worse and worse, until Lamech, seventh from Cain, becomes the first polygamist and is so ruled by the idea of revenge that he’s prepared to kill in response to being struck.

And yet there’s hope. “In the fullness of time” Eve bears another son, which she understands as being a sort of replacement for Abel, who was killed. His name is Seth, which means “Granted”, or “Given”.

And that right there says it all, really. The offspring of Cain are the lineage of Gotten, of I-did-it, of humanistic pride and self-righteousness and religious legalism. Seth’s line are the children of Granted, of He-did-it, of the righteousness which is a gift of God and is by faith.

Following the Instructions

I recently finally saw The Lego Movie. I was quite sceptical when I first heard they were making a Lego film; I figured it would be a giant marketing ploy designed to showcase all the latest sets available.

Having seen it, yeah, it’s a giant marketing ploy, but it’s done right. As in, it has a plot, it’s funny, it works with the genius of what Lego is and it actually makes sense on its own terms.

And together with a family trip to the Lego Discovery Centre that’s close to where I live,it reignited the joy of Lego that never truly died but just didn’t have much of an outlet.

Of the various themes running through it, I think the one that stands out is the conflict between rules and instructions (personified in President Business and his minions) and unleashed creativity (exemplified by Cloud Cuckoo Land and the Master Builders).

Every Lego set, of course, has its set of step-by-step instructions. How to build the X-Wing Fighter or Seaside Cottage or Batcave or Pirate Ship or whatever. These are, of course, quite necessary, otherwise you wouldn’t have a clue how to put the bricks together to get what’s on the box.

But they’re a beginning.

For me, they always were. I seldom built the thing on the box more than once, and seldom kept it built the first time more than a couple of days. A new Lego set to me was primarily a source of bricks to be used in the various Lego projects I was forever building (massive spaceships, usually). The Lego Movie character Benny, the “1980-something space guy” definitely strikes a chord.

“Spaceship!!!” (Source: Lego Wiki @ Wikia.com)

Almost everything I ever built was an original creation. There were no instructions for what I did; Lego was about building something new. I had friends who would make the thing on the box and then set it on a shelf somewhere. I never understood that impulse. I was the opposite: “Right, built that now. Let’s see what we can do with all these cool bricks!”

I was never nearly as comfortable with the Technic stuff. I was far less interested in stuff that would really work, with their rack-and-pinion steering setups and motors and pneumatic levers and whatnot. I wanted an aesthetically finished spaceship, not a go-kart that had a proper piston engine and real steering and so on. The Technic Lego was far less conducive to my aversion to following the instructions.

I almost think there are too many different sets these days. It’s nice to be able to get a Darth Vader figure that looks like Vader, but having a kit to build an X-Wing out of Lego seems almost like a betrayal of the hours I spent as a child trying to make the old-style flat hinges cooperate for an X-Wing. The fun of Lego was always seeing if you could built the AT-AT walker from The Empire Strikes Back, just using the pictures in your Star Wars collectible sticker album for reference and without any instructions. You re-enacted the lightsaber duel using the transparent antenna bricks as lightsabers. It wasn’t perfect, but part of the game was getting as close as you could. It was a challenge; it gave you something to aim for.

These days, there’s a kit for that. It’s almost as bad as mobile phone apps. Movie tie-ins seem to be the rule. I guess it makes them more money, and Lego is a business, but it’s almost as though it strikes at the heart of what Lego is.

On the other hand, the tie-in sets open up new worlds of possibility for making something original. And I have to admit that my attitude is more than a little hypocritical, because if they had come out with an X-Wing set back then, I know that I would have killed small furry animals to get one.

On a slightly more serious and less reminicsent note, I’m wondering whether my aversion to following the instructions in Lego building has carried over at all into my adult life.

There’s that Christiany saying about how the Bible is “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth”. Even in secular terms, we talk about the definitive guide book for a certain area of work being that area’s “Bible”. We as Christians talk about Scripture being “the Maker’s instructions”. If it is, what does my Lego Movie Cloud Cuckoo-esque desire to not follow the instructions say about my obedience to God?

Well, surprisingly I don’t think I have an issue with following the commands of God.

What I do have an issue with is the perspective that views the Scripture through the lens of a Lego instruction booklet.

The Bible is kind of like an instruction manual, but you have to use a broader definition of “instruction”. It’s for teaching, correcting, encouraging, and so on.

What it is categorically not is a step-by-step formula for How To Get Right With God And Live A Holy Life.

It’s full of narrative passages, and in many of them the moral lesson is not even clearly marked. It contains poetry, proverbs, prophecy, law codes for Bronze Age Israel, history and letters. Moreover, it was written in a completely different language and time period and culture, so to get from the Bible text to “what should I do about my son’s addiction to video games” takes quite a lot of interpretive stretching. We need to take on board the whole counsel of God, immerse ourselves in the thoughts of the Almighty, understand from the whole of Scripture what God is asking of us, rather than thumb through the index looking for the section on “help regarding addictions”.

I’m not saying anything that the vast majority of believers in Jesus would see as abnormal, but I do worry sometimes whether our simplified idea of “the-Bible-as-instruction-manual” isn’t overly simplistic and a promoter of sloppy thinking.

Yes, there are direct commands from God – Lego-style instructions, if you like – recorded in Scripture. But even some of these aren’t quite as straightforward as they first appear. The Deuteronomic command not to cook a young goat in it’s mother’s milk, from which our Jewish brothers and sisters get the kosher injunction to separate meat and dairy, turns out to be about a Canaanite fertility ritual. A more appropriate application may be to trust God with your fertility rather than trying to use the “magic” of Science to manipulate it. Or not; I leave it up to you.

The idea that the Bible is God’s Little Instruction Book is attractive, but only partially true. In reading it, yes you can find out How To Get Right With God And Live A Holy Life, but it’s not really laid out propositionally or in a step-by-step manner.

If it were, Christianity would be like Islam. Not that the Qur’an is laid out systematically like that either, but Islam at its root is a legal code. These are the instructions for How To Please God. Follow them and you’re righteous. The mindset is one of the Lego instruction booklet.

It’s worlds away from Biblical Christianity, which is not about doing stuff or following the instructions at all. As we like to say, it’s not about religion; it’s relationship. To quote from another kids’ movie, Toy Story 2, Biblical Christianity is living before God with a heart attitude of “You have saved our lives; we are eternally grateful”.

In essence: Don’t (merely) follow the instuctions; get to know the One who wrote the Book.

What Did You Learn From Your Father?

Whenever Father’s Day rolls around again, it seems like someone in my church circle asks this question.

It’s a good question, because a lot of what we learn from our own fathers can frame our understanding of God as Father, but it also seems in some ways a very American one.

Americans are obsessed with the father-child relationship. It comes into almost every film an American has had a hand in, from The Empire Strikes Back to Despicable Me. It would be interesting to speculate on why this is, but in this post I want to actually answer the question.

The contrast between the sorts of responses I’ve typically given to this question and the sorts of responses I’ve heard from almost every American I’ve heard give an answer are striking. They are different enough, in fact, that in answering this question I tend to feel more like an alien than at any other time except perhaps the Fourth of July.

In my experience, the number one thing Americans say about their Dads is Hard Worker.

There are various forms this takes, but in essence it’s the same. The value of hard work. Always working around the house. Doing whatever was needed to keep things working.

It’s not that my Dad was lazy, but hard worker simply isn’t what I most associate with him and what I consider I learned from him.

So while everyone else is talking about working hard and putting in an honest day’s work, I’m talking about how Dad would never let other people’s opinions slow him down, about generosity, about knowing what you want and then going for it wholeheartedly.

Dad’s never been afraid to be in a minority, even a minority of one. If he knows he’s right, the whole world can be against him and he simply doesn’t care. He wants to do the best thing (at least, as far as he sees it), and whether that is simple or very hard is nigh-on irrelevant.

When making decisions in a group setting, the absolute worst thing you can say to him is “we’ve never done it that way before”. Say that, and it’s a virtual guarantee that that will become the way he wants it. Other people’s opinions, whether current or filtered through the overarching structure of tradition, simply don’t matter to him.

It’s given me a unique perspective on the world. I come from a country famous for being attached to its traditions, but my father would seem to break traditions just to watch them explode, especially if he could see a better way.

His desire to do the best thing carries over into his generosity. As a child, I knew our family weren’t made of money. There were things I might have asked for for Christmas some years that I didn’t want badly enough to ask my parents to pay the massive price tag involved (a Grifter bike like some of my friends had was what I can currently remember). I figured that I could ask for it, but I probably wasn’t going to get it, so why go through the motions?

I do remember one year, though. I was completely obsessed with lego, and Space lego was a brand new thing. These were the original blue-brick sets with grey wings, yellow-tinted windows and a gold planet logo on the front. The spaceman figures came in all-red and all-white suits only (though they later introduced first yellow and then blue-suited spacemen) and specially-shaped bricks were the minority rather than the norm.

The ultimate set of these original space lego kits was the big Space Cruiser. I can’t remember how much it cost, but it seemed like an exorbitant amount to my child brain.

I can remember calculationg to myself, “Well, I’m pretty sure the Space Cruiser is out of reach, but I might be able to ask for the next one down, the Space Transporter.

The Transporter was pretty cool-looking. It had a little moon buggy thing that came out of the back of it. (So did the Space Cruiser, but they didn’t show it on the box so I wasn’t aware of it). I would have been well satisfied with the Transporter.

Come Christmas Day and the opening of main family presents in the afternoon, I unwrapped the big present from Mum and Dad to find… The Space Cruiser itself. The big mama of all the original space lego sets.

I actually thought at first that they’d got it by mistake, thinking it was the smaller Transporter. The two ships were alike enough in appearance that you could get them confused. Had they got it for me thinking it was the smaller set I’d asked for?

But no. This is my Dad’s generosity at work. I got the Space Cruiser I had really wanted but hadn’t dared to ask for.

He’ll spend whatever he needs to spend (within reason) to get something that the recipient will be really happy with. If that’s a small amount, that’s what he’ll spend. If it’s a big amount, he’ll try and find a way to make it affordable.

Stack that up against your hard worker for what my father taught me about God.

The biggest thing I learned from my Dad, though, the one thing he tried to impress on me, was “you can do anything you set your mind to”. High expectations? Yeah, but in fairness, not unreasonably so. I was a lazybones as a kid, and more critically, hadn’t a clue what I wanted. I know it must have aggravated him; his whole mindset was geared towards knowing what you wanted to achieve and then wholeheartedly working toward it, not letting anyone tell you you couldn’t.

I didn’t know what I wanted to do, and was brainy enough that I didn’t often need to make much effort in learning things. It carried over into a tendency to coast and drift, and Dad was determined that I wasn’t going to get away with it.

This is as close to the value of hard work that my Dad got. But it was more about working smart, using all of your powers, putting the effort in to make something of yourself.

I never had to deal with the situation some people describe, though, where they want to be a chef or a journalist or whatever and their father was determined that they should follow in his footsteps and join the Army. Dad made sure I always knew that the decision about my future was mine, not his. He just wanted me to hurry up and make it.

Whatever I decided, once I’d really made my decision, I knew that he’d back me, even if it wasn’t the one he’d have made. (If it wasn’t the one he’d have made, he’d try to talk me into his way of seeing, but it was almost like he wanted you to fight him sometimes. Like his opposition was more of a test to see how badly you wanted something. If you were willing to argue with him over it, you had the right level of commitment.)

Give him credit, too; the rules he laid down were always negotiable if you could present a good case. If it really wasn’t working, he was always willing to revisit it. Responsibility, not rules, was what drove him.

So this is what I learned from my Dad. Independence, Generosity, Commitment, Responsibility.

The really interesting part is when you make the step to think about what those imply about God.

I learned that truth is not a popularity contest. I learned that God doesn’t care about What Everyone Thinks as much as he cares about Doing The Right Thing. I learned that God is more generous than we sometimes dare to ask; that He’ll do whatever it takes to bring us an eternal happiness that will not fade. I learned that He cares about commitment. And most of all, I learned that He is not a rules mechanic. He doesn’t want legalism, He wants our hearts right with Him. He couldn’t care less about the religious niceties of our “do this”es and “don’t do that”s. He will, in fact, sometimes bust those wide open just to watch them explode.

A happy Father’s Day to all. I’m off to enjoy the day with my own father. For once I have him here with me.

A Condition of Blessing?

The proximate cause of this post was Levi Thetford’s recent quotation from C. H. Spurgeon, but the subject is something I’ve been thinking about for a while.


Giving to God shouldn’t be this complicated.

Ten percent of your income, right? According to the standard teaching on tithing that I’ve heard, that’s ten percent of your gross income, before any taxes and other things come out. This is, so we’re told, God’s Bit; it doesn’t belong to you and if you infringe on it, you’re robbing God. Also according to the standard tithe teaching, this part is all supposed to go to your church, and any giving to Christian organisations or individual missionaries that you’d like to do is “offerings” on top of that. I’m going to talk about both under the general heading of “tithe”, because I’m lazy (and a two-fingered typist) and typing “tithes and offerings” all the time is hard work.

Preferably, we’d like to do the sensible thing and budget our giving, set up standing orders to handle most of it so that the church and the individuals and organisations we support have a guaranteed, regular amount coming in.

This is easy if you have a fixed salary and know from week to week or month to month how much you’re going to make. But I work in the rather weather-dependent construction industry, and if it rains, I don’t work and don’t get paid. As no-one has yet found a way to schedule rainfall, this means I don’t know from week to week how much I’m going to earn.

In addition, due to the insane way America handles taxation, a massive proportion of my family’s annual income comes in the form of tax credits and refund. This comes in the form of a single annual amount, part of which is over-tax refunded (and has thus had tithe paid on it) and part of which is tax credits and other money the government gives us for reasons of social engineering (and thus hasn’t). I’m not an accountant. My degree is in Biology, which is the science you do if you hate maths. (How I came to be in construction is a long story). I’ve been committed to following the standard teaching on tithing and not robbing God, but I find calculating all of this to be an utter pain and a real burden. It really shouldn’t be this complicated.

Jesus said about the Sabbath that it was made for man, not man for it (Mark 2:27). By extension, what God requires is not supposed to be an unreasonable burden, but is for our good and benefit. I like to give, but I hate the hassle of calculating it all out so that I know I’m not holding out on God. It’s a pain.

So I’m coming to question the whole idea of how we approach the tithe.

The passages about tithing are all in the Old Testament. The Law, particularly the book of Deuteronomy, lays out the method by which the tribe of Levi were to be supported by the other eleven tribes (twelve if you count the division of Joseph into Ephraim and Manasseh). The New Testament doesn’t even mention the word, apart from when Jesus is castigating the Pharisees for tithing their fine herbs while neglecting justice and mercy (Mt 23:23). Tithing wasn’t a requirement put on Gentile believers by the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15), nor was in mentioned as an instruction in any of the New Testament letters.

This is a far cry from what you’d expect if you listened to some of those well-known preachers whose whole message appears to be how God will automatically bless you and make you rich if you are faithful in tithing to Him. According to this teaching, the requirement to tithe is for all time and all peoples, a condition of receiving the blessing of God. If you don’t give God His cut, then He will cause all of your money to trickle away, and He will withdraw His hand of blessing from your life.  And on top of the tithe, there are offerings, which are free-will gifts that you nevertheless ought to feel obligated to give, because God will not bless you unless you do.

Yay. Guilt and fear, all in the same package.

I touched on the automatic nature of God’s blessing that this seems to assume in a previous post, but it’s worth reiterating. God is not a vending machine, where you put tithe in and get blessing out. Unlike pagan gods, you don’t buy His favour.

Those whose teaching heavily emphasises the tithe usually phrase it as something like “God has covenanted Himself to bless you if you tithe”, neatly wiggling around the accusation that they are making God into a Coke machine. But the effect is the same, so really, isn’t the distinction pure semantics?

You’d expect that if they were right about how important tithing is, that there would be more teaching about it in the New Testament. If we’re expected to tithe, Jew and Gentile, there are very real and serious questions that need to be addressed. Should the Jew’s tithe go to the physical Levites in the physical temple, as the Law says? Should the Gentile’s tithe go to support those who administer the ministry of the Good News, or likewise to the (Jewish) Levites and temple? What about the fact that it was those in charge of the temple who were most hostile to the Gospel? And why should a Gentile believer in Jesus be required to keep the part of the Law regarding tithe when “Christ is the end of the Law” (Rom 10:4)?

The New Testament does talk about giving quite a lot. But it manages to do so without once mentioning the tithe.

The summary of New Testament teaching on giving is that there is an expectation that we, as believers, will be doing so. This is natural and right; God is a generous God and if we are walking in step with His Spirit we will naturally want to be generous like Him. The New Testament says we should give generously (“with liberality”, as the King James Bible puts it: unstintingly, without measure, not counting it out). We should give cheerfully. And we should give what we have decided in our heart to give, not grudgingly or under compulsion (II Cor 9:7 and others).

Now, I have several pastors and numerous missionaries among my friends, and I know none of them are rolling in it at the best of times. They have to feed their families out of a part of what is given to the church. Anything which puts these worthy servants of the Lord further from the breadline is OK by me.

But I have to stand against the idea that tithe is a requirement and condition of blessing.

We’re told that we shouldn’t give under compulsion. I’ve seen churches that make the receiving of the offering into a huge “celebration” with dancing and clapping up to the front of the church to give. Can you say “psychological pressure”? Yeah. Everybody is given the opportunity to look and judge, and there’s a real sense of “we’re going to try and manipulate your emotions so that you will feel obligated to give more”. The Bible is clear. No compulsion.

But then, too, what is the tithe at all but compulsion formalised and writ large? If tithing is an absolute requirement, it’s a compulsion, and the New Testament specifically says that we should give what we have decided to in our heart, cheerfully because we want to rather than grudgingly because we have to.

If tithing is a condition of God’s blessing, how is this not legalism? Blessing is the favour of God. We’re now apparently saying that God’s favour is conditional on our tithing faithfulness; thus, it’s something we can earn and buy. Not only that, but that we have to earn and buy it; God’s favour is “conditional on our tithing”. We just made the favour of God into something conditional on a thing we have to do (tithing). Has no-one actually read Galatians?

“Oh, but we’re not saying that if you don’t tithe, you can’t be saved. Just that God’s blessing is conditional on your faithfulness in the tithe”. Grace is grace. Unmerited favour is just that, unmerited. I might say, with St. Paul; “Having begun with the Spirit, are you now trying to achieve your goal by human effort?” (Gal 3:3). Salvation, justification, sanctification and blessing are all by the grace of God.

I don’t want to burst anyone’s bubble, but there is a New Covenant. We’re not under Law but under grace. The righteous requirements of the Law? Met in Jesus. Not only can we not earn God’s favour by what we do (including tithing), but we aren’t supposed to try, because trying to earn it is an offence against the grace and generosity of God.

Now I’m not saying we shouldn’t give. God is the ultimate Giver, and we want to be like Him. But let’s lose this legalistic approach to tithing and let God’s grace be our guide for giving. Seriously, which is the greater amount of giving: 10% or “with liberality”? Given Jesus’ interpretation of the commandments about murder, vengeance and adultery, why should we suppose God’s holy standards would be any lower in the lesser matter of giving? If the Spirit of the holy, gracious, generous God of Heaven truly dwells in our hearts, then He is the One setting the priorities for “what we have decided in our heart to give”. God’s generosity ought to be our standard, not ten percent. Getting tied up in exactly how much our tithe ought to be just seems a lot like Pharisaism and the attempt to buy off God like He’s some pagan idol or Mob boss.

“Freely you have received. Now freely give” (Mt 10:8).

So my family will be trying an experiment this year in not tithing. Instead, we will ask God what He wants us to give and then joyfully do what He says. I can almost guarantee that we’ll end up giving more.