Give As You Purpose!
As the world church focuses on stewardship lessons this quarter, a text from Ellen White's writings has caught much attention: “Everyone is to be his own assessor and is left to give as he purposes in his heart.”i These words have led some to conclude the following:
- There are no clear divine instructions about the necessity of giving.
- God has no definite instructions about the percentage to allocate as tithe.
- Tithe is calculated on whichever portion (gross, net, or else) of income a person considers appropriate.
These conclusions highlight humans' complete discretion in the matter of giving. Reviewing Chapter 41, “Sacredness of Vow,” of Testimonies for the Church, vol. 4, the source of the quote, we'll assess if these conclusions align with this passage.
No divine instructions about giving
In contrast to the conclusion, “No divine instructions about giving,” the thrust of the chapter is about God who wants His children to give. Ellen White uses the word “claims” not less than ten times to refer to God’s expectation regarding giving. In one such occurrence, she even associates the word “claims” with “imperative”: “If a Christian has ten or twenty thousand dollars, God's claims are imperative upon him, not only to give his proportion according to the tithing system, but to present his sin offerings and thank offerings to God” (4T 467.1). God is not silent about the need for His children to give. Another passage conveys the precise thought of God about the obligation of giving for all, whichever their source of income: “When men of business, farmers, mechanics, merchants, lawyers, etc., become members of the church, they become servants of Christ; and although their talents may be entirely different, their responsibility to advance the cause of God by personal effort, and with their means, is no less than that which rests upon the minister" (4T 468.3). Giving is the responsibility of the redeemed.
No instruction about what percentage to allocate as tithe
It appears clearly from the reading of this chapter that God has designed how His children should give. While referring to the vowing experience of the Patriarch Jacob, Ellen White cites the King James version: “and of all that Thou shalt give me I will surely give the tenth unto Thee.” Did Jacob mean a symbolic tenth which would designate any amount? The description of the fulfillment of Jacob’s vow brings further clarity: “Jacob gave the tenth of all that he had, and then reckoned the use of the tenth, and gave the Lord the benefit of that which he had used for his own interest during the time he was in a heathen land and could not pay his vow"(4T 466.4). The tithe was not any proportion of Jacob's income but represented the tenth.
The writer employs a commonly used expression, in the Adventist circle, “systematic benevolence,” to elaborate on the way God wants His children to give: “God, the Creator of man, by instituting the plan of systematic benevolence, has made the work bear equally upon all according to their several abilities" (4T 469.1). Systematic benevolence comprises the 10 percent tithe and a proportion of income as offerings. She also uses the "tithing system" to confirm that giving is not supposed to be a random exercise at the sole discretion of the giver but following God’s previous instructions.
Tithe is 10% of any portion of income
The citation under consideration is often applied to settle the discussion about tithing on gross or net income or any other portion of income. It has led some to conclude that this issue is a matter of preference or personal choice. However, several passages in this same chapter contradict this conclusion. For example, the author includes the expression "of all" when writing about the tithe promised and returned by Jacob.
Furthermore, Ellen White provides an application of the “of all” principle for our current situation: “Of all our income we should make the first appropriation to God” (4T 474.1). This sentence provides two pieces of information: a) Our giving to God is calculated on the totality of our income, and b) The baseline for calculation is the amount earned before any other appropriations or deductions. What a salaried person brings home after paying taxes, mortgages, and servicing debts do not fit well with this understanding of God's instructions.
A Plea for Faithfulness
After discounting the erroneous conclusions, which do not align with the message of the chapter, the citation deserves our consideration. How should we understand the admonition: “to give as he purposes in his heart?” The main idea of chapter 41 is to raise awareness about the issue of the sacredness of vows or pledges. Jacob is presented as a positive example while Ananias and Saphira are portrayed as examples not to emulate. They defrauded God and practiced deception and their story is reported as “a warning was thus given to all who professed Christ at that time" (4T 463.3).
The expression “purposes in his heart” often interpreted as any human’s impulsion, desires, plans, or wishes, has a different meaning in the chapter. In this context, it refers to the resolutions taken as the result of the action of the Holy Spirit on a person’s heart. Reporting the experience of Jacob, Ellen White writes: "Jacob made his vow while refreshed by the dews of grace and invigorated by the presence and assurance of God" (4T 466.2). Ananias and Saphira also went through a similar experience: "While under the direct influence of the Spirit of God, they made a pledge to give to the Lord certain lands…” (4T 463.1). In these cases, the "purposes in the heart" result from divine regeneration; they are noble, pure, unselfish, and generous. The author confirms this understanding: “When the hearts of men are softened by the presence of the Spirit of God, they are more susceptible to impressions of the Holy Spirit, and resolves are made to deny self and to sacrifice for the cause of God” (4T 470.3).
The action of God’s Spirit on us requires a consistent response. For Jacob, it was to vow a tithe of all, following the example set by his grandfather, Abraham (Genesis 14:19), for Ananias and Saphira, it was to give the entire proceeds of the sale of a property, inspired by what other believers were doing (Acts 4:36). In addition, there is an appeal to act upon these decisions made under the conviction of the Holy Spirit: “God requires faithfulness in the performance of vows” (4T 463.3). Jacob remained faithful to his vow to tithe: “This was a large amount, but he did not hesitate; that which he had vowed to God he did not regard as his, but as the Lord's” (4T 466.4). In contrast, the infamous couple failed! They ended up acting against the "purposes" that God had planted in their hearts: “but when they were no longer under this heavenly influence, the impression was less forcible, and they began to question and draw back from fulfilling the pledge which they had made" (4T 463.1).
The quote under consideration starts with these words: “Everyone is to be his own assessor." It is an invitation to examine oneself: Am I living in harmony with the conviction that God's Word and His Spirit have created in me, or have I drifted away from my resolutions?
Believers must undertake this exercise regularly and personally to avoid the same pitfall as Ananias and Saphira. Does this expression imply that human agents have no role in influencing others to give?
Ellen White suggests the contrary: “God works through human instrumentalities; and whoever shall awaken the consciences of men, provoking them to good works and a real interest in the advancement of the cause of truth, does not do it of himself, but by the Spirit of God which worketh in him. Pledges made under these circumstances are of a sacred character, being the fruit of the work of the Spirit of God” (4T 4723.1). Through our examples and words, we can inspire others to “purpose in their hearts.” From the perspective of the author, we even have the responsibility of reminding our fellow companions: "A church is responsible for the pledges of its individual members. If they see that there is a brother who is neglecting to fulfill his vows, they should labor with him kindly but plainly" (4T 476.1).
After examining this quote in the context of the chapter where it is situated, we can conclude with confidence that God has provided clear instructions about giving and how to give. Divine guidelines exist for this vital discipline of the Christian lifestyle. God influences me through His Spirit, and what He brings me to “purpose in my heart” does not contradict what He has already instructed. In response, it is my utmost responsibility to scrutinize my personal life to check if I remain true to the light received and faithful to my commitment to God.
GC, Stewardship Ministries
i. Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, vol.9 (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn.,1876), p.469.
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