Scattered Thoughts on Tithing

My post on planning to give made me think about tithing: the Christian practice of giving the first ten percent of income earned to charity. I found myself going in two different directions on this topic. So, while my thoughts aren’t particularly organized, I want to take a post to lay them out.

On the one hand, tithing seems like a reasonable, achievable, and worthy goal. The post at ideas42 that I originally linked to pointed out that the average American gives about three percent of her annual income to charity, and believes that her neighbor ought to give about six percent. In other words, she believes that she should be giving about twice what she currently gives. Tithing would be an even bigger jump, tripling the amount of money going to charitable causes. That would be about $500 billion more dollars going to feed, clothe, house, educate, and care for people (among other things).

Moreover, for many people, this doesn’t seem like an unreasonable amount to give. Yes, reducing our take home pay by ten percent would mean changing our lifestyle. But perhaps it would be beneficial to have smaller houses, eat out less often, own less expensive cars, buy fewer new clothes, and so on. This is especially true if it means that low-income families would have houses, food, transportation, clothing, and so on.

Of course, I realize that not everyone is in a position to tithe. For some people, ten percent really does represent a significant portion of their income. But, for those of us who are in a position to entertain the idea, working our way towards tithing can be a good thing.

On the other hand, giving should encourage generosity, and tithing seems to – at least sometimes, as in the header image to this post – create a ceiling instead of a floor. We can come to believe that once we hit the ten percent mark, we’re doing enough, and we can say to the next person who asks for help, “No, sorry, I’ve already done my part.” We can come to believe that, as the sign says, “10% is good enough for Jesus.”

The problem, of course, is that ten percent is that ten percent is not good enough for Jesus. The Biblical narrative is clear that Jesus demands no less than everything:

Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Luke 12:33-34)

Now, I’m not saying that Jesus demands that we sell everything we have, give our money away, and live in destitution. What Jesus means – and I can go into this more another time – is that our lives should show that we don’t care about money. We shouldn’t be counting our way to ten percent and marking the task completed. Instead, we should give generously; perhaps even foolishly.

Tithing is good when it’s a starting point. Tithing is good when it leads us to always ask what more we can do for our brothers and sisters who are the least of these. But it’s bad when it becomes an accounting tool or a task we can get out of the way.

And that’s how I think the principle of tithing – even if we’re not concerned about a percentage – can be good. Rather than striving for ten percent, our average American, who gives three percent, might ask: what needs to change so she can give four percent next year? And, after that, so she can give five percent? In other words, tithing and percentages and all such things can be a tool for growing in generosity until she doesn’t care about percentages, but gives freely to people who are in need.