About twice a year I get on a purging kick, where I spin circles around the house and collect all the things we no longer use, for a donation to Goodwill. Just because we don’t use them doesn’t mean they’re worthless. In fact, we hope our castoffs will help alleviate someone else’s burden. But the giving comes at little cost to us.
That’s not true of all gifts. A few years ago my mom and I were talking about my parents’ divorce. I asked about her wedding ring—her first wedding ring that my dad had given her.
“Where is it now?” I asked. “Do you still have it?”
“No, I sold it,” she said, pausing. “I sold it one year so I could buy you kids Christmas presents.”
True, the ring no longer had the same sentimental value since my parents were divorced. But it did cost my mom something—both emotionally and financially. And though the Atari game system or the Cabbage Patch Kid she bought with the money are long gone, selling the ring was a sacrifice Mom was willing, even happy, to make.
Somewhere between donating extras and happily letting go of an heirloom lies the difference between giving and sacrificing, two points on the generosity spectrum that Scripture challenges us to span. Sometimes we’re called to give out of abundance, like the Old Testament precept of not harvesting to the edge of the fields so those in need might provide for themselves (Lev. 19:9-10). Other times, we’re called to go beyond that, like the widow who gave all she had to live on (Mark 12:41-44).
It reminds me of King David, who made a costly mistake when he decided to take a census against the Lord’s wishes (2 Sam. 24). That misstep, which cost the lives of 70,000 people in a plague, left David anguished. Seeing his remorse, God sent the prophet Gad to offer a plan: Build an altar on the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite and make a sacrifice to God as a sign of repentance.
When David approached Araunah, the man wanted to just give him the property. But the Jewish king would hear nothing of it. He insisted, “I will not offer burnt offerings to the Lord my God which cost me nothing” (2 Samuel 24:24). The Hebrew word translated as “paying” is qanah, which means “to get or acquire.” It’s the same word used to describe God as Creator in Genesis 14:22. But it’s also used to describe God’s redeeming work, which, from Passover to the cross, always came at a price. David knew his prayer to prevent further deaths from the plague must come at a cost to himself, too.
In modern times, the kind of costless charity Araunah offered is sometimes called “regifting.” Somebody gives you something, and you pass it along to someone else as a gift from you. In one sense, you might argue that all our giving is actually just regifting back to God since everything we have comes from Him. On the other hand, we also work for the resources we have. They’re all we’ve got. We can give them away for the work of the kingdom or to help those in greater need, but we also rely on them to provide food, shelter, and other necessities for us and our families. Inevitably, we find ourselves conflicted.
Perhaps this is a reason behind the tithing requirement in Scripture. Through both working and giving a portion of our income to God, we bear His image as caretakers of all the people, property, and ministries entrusted to us. Specifically, tithing was instituted as God’s way to care for the nation’s spiritual and physical needs. In Numbers 18, God said tithes were to be given to the Levites for their priestly work (Num. 18:21-24). I also like how the apostle Paul explains it in 2 Corinthians 8-9—as similar to the provision of manna to the Israelites, where each person got what he or she needed: By giving a percent of their income, the Corinthians who had more would naturally give more than those who earned less. The money could then be redistributed to those in need so that no one went without. Our tithe, then, serves as a benchmark to help us see how we can both take care of our responsibilities and give to kingdom work.
But giving isn’t just a logistical necessity for Christians. Otherwise, why would the Lord also require the Levites themselves to tithe 10 percent as an act of worship (Num. 18:26)? Maybe it’s because when we give, we also bear the image of God as a generous benefactor. You might even say the more we give, the more we become like Him.
See, while tithing makes us responsible members of God’s family, we were never supposed to stop there. Our heavenly Father invites us to give extravagantly—sacrificially, even. This is the point Paul was so eager for the Corinthians to understand. In writing about the way the Macedonians gave, out of “deep poverty” and “beyond their ability,” he acknowledged that this kind of giving comes with great cost. The Macedonians went without. It was a sacrifice. But it also comes with great reward. They gave cheerfully because “they first gave themselves to the Lord and to us by the will of God” (2 Corinthians 8:5).
Seeing this command to give as mere compulsion would be usury, not sacrifice. Instead, Paul urged his fellow believers to give willingly, out of the joy of belonging to God and as an expression of trusting Him. Paul wanted the Corinthians to see what happens when we’re generous like the Lord: “You will be enriched in everything for all liberality, which through us is producing thanksgiving to God” (2 Corinthians 9:11).
A sacrifice is a gift that costs us something, but we give it anyway—happily, even—because we trust God and find ourselves becoming more like Him with every offering.
We need only look to the cross to see this nexus of great cost and great joy as the definition of true sacrifice. We need only look to Jesus, “who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2).
How much is enough to transform a gift into a sacrifice? It’s not merely a matter of degree. We can’t simply “give ’til it hurts” to bring a sacrifice to the Lord. If that were the case, churches could simply send out invoices to parishioners and compel them to pay a tithe or beyond. Instead, a sacrifice is a gift that costs us something, but we give it anyway—happily, even—because we trust God and find ourselves becoming more like Him with every offering.
Illustrations by Adam Cruft