Many stewardship sermons imply that generosity toward God is a guaranteed insurance policy: You will be blessed financially if you pay your tithe. Those who base their action on such promises may feel abandoned by God if things don't work out as expected. Maybe we at times set them up unfairly. Are we being presumptuous to assume that financial rewards from tithing will always come?

We must remember that both Moses and Jesus said that we would always have the poor with us. (They didn't say we would have the poor only until they figured out the guaranteed financial benefits of tithing.) And Solomon says that "time and chance" happen to all people. Even tithe-payers, it seems.

Since books about stewardship--especially those with the narrow financial focus on tithing--don't usually carry stories that end "incorrectly," it seemed appropriate to offer at least one, for the sake of balance. Because, guaranteed, someone is going to put God to the test and feel He has let them down. There may be better reasons for paying tithe than the rewards we expect in return.

The following story is true. Several years ago our family lived in a community that boasted a number of Adventist institutions where many of the church members worked. One Sabbath during the personal-ministries period, a woman who worked at the Adventist hospital told the church how, three or four months before, she and her husband had felt impressed to pay a second tithe. With great enthusiasm she described how almost immediately God had rewarded them. She had received a promotion at work and now was bringing home considerably more money than before. In general, everything in their lives had become more rosy since their decision to be more generous with God. She encouraged everyone to put God to the test and give more generously of their funds. "He will bless you," she assured them. "We have tested Him and have proved what can happen."

The congregation was moved by the woman's enthusiasm. No doubt many resolved to give more. But not everyone was blessed by her exuberant praise to God.

Sitting in the congregation was another woman, whose family was facing a financial crisis. She had recently been laid off from her job at the Adventist hospital--a job she needed desperately. In fact, the woman who was speaking so enthusiastically about God's blessing had been promoted to the position left vacant by the jobless woman's termination!

Needless to say, when the jobless woman heard the praise from the neophyte second-tither, she went home from church more discouraged than when she had come. And those who tried to console her didn't meet with great success.

"I just don't understand why God would take my job and give it to someone else just because they started paying a second tithe," she told me later in a quivering voice. "I mean, we've always paid a second tithe."

I have observed something else in this world of ours. The fastest runner doesn't always win the race, and the strongest warrior doesn't always win the battle. The wise are often poor, and the skilful are not necessarily wealthy. And those who are educated don't always lead successful lives. It is all decided by chance, by being at the right place at the right time. Ecclesiastes 9:11.

James Coffin is a former editor of Record in the South Pacific Division. He is now senior pastor of Markham Woods church in Longwood, Florida, and director of Global Mission's Center for Secular/Postmodern Mission.