9 Marks of a Generous Giver

(This post appeared on The Gospel Coalition website on September 24, 2015. Some links have been updated)

By Dan Olson

With a nod to our friends at 9Marks, I want to unpack nine marks of Christian generosity that I’ve seen over the years. For some of you, it may get you thinking afresh about how God might have you give. The first three marks involve where your giving goes; the next three tease out heart motives in your giving; and the final three explore dynamics between your giving and Caesar (as well as non-profits you support).

1. You see your role as a steward.
“All the earth is the LORD’s and all things therein” (Ps. 24:1). You know you’re merely returning to God what rightly belongs to him. You read Matthew 6:19–20 and know you’re storing up treasures in heaven.

Perhaps you’ve begun to learn what George Müller observed: “It is the Lord’s order, that, in whatever way he is pleased to make us his stewards, whether as to temporal or spiritual things, if we are indeed acting as stewards and not as owners, he will make us stewards over more.”

Contrary to prosperity teaching, the water cycle illustrates the heart of a steward. All water runs to the ocean—the storehouse of 98 percent of the earth’s water. God fills clouds that will water his work. Here today and gone tomorrow, a steward is a cloud who knows God owns the rain. As Paul reminds us, “We brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world” (1 Tim. 6:7).

2. You first give locally.
First and foremost, you give locally—to your family, your church, your neighbors. In addition to the clear command in 1 Timothy 5:8, Jesus illustrates this “proximity principle” in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37). Your giving to your local church helps keeps your heart and prayers rooted with your brothers and sisters in Christ. Whether you interpret the tithe as an enduring command, or superseded by the new covenant of grace, you realize giving to your church is what Randy Alcorn calls the training wheels of Christian giving. Alcorn suggests 10 percent is a good start. As you grow in grace, you will yearn to give more.

3. You begin giving to kingdom causes.
You’re excited (and sometimes disoriented) by the countless gospel-centered organizations. You’ve started giving to support works of evangelism, Christian education, campus ministry, cultural renewal, overseas missions, and so on. As you’re able, you give generously to a few of these organizations in big ways. And you sow seeds in more ways than one.
Let me share my experience. When I was a child, my parents would invite the missionaries who visited our church to dinner at our home. My siblings and I would linger at the table listening to stories of gospel growth in China, the Philippines, and other far-off places.
I now know these missionaries received financial and prayer support from my parents—but their giving also sowed seeds of vision for the gospel’s advance in us.

4. You give sacrificially.
Here you’re inspired by biblical examples like the widow’s mite (Mark 12:41–44) and the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matt. 25:31–46), where Jesus concludes, “As you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (v. 40). Reflecting on this parable, C. S. Lewis concluded: “I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare” (Mere Christianity, 87).

As you sacrifice, you trust God’s Word in fighting anxiety (see 2 Cor. 9:11) and pride (see God’s warning in Hosea 6:6)—and he gives you a cheerful heart.

5. You know God loves a cheerful giver.
You’re convinced God treasures cheerful giving (2 Cor. 9:7–8; Prov. 22:9; Deut. 15:10; Rom. 12:8). You’re growing to grasp the depth of God’s generosity to you in Christ (2 Cor. 9:14)—and you realize that your giving is an instrument in his kingdom. You overflow with joy at participating in God’s work in the world.

6. Your giving is marked by (mostly) secret generosity.
You’re aware of your heart’s tendency toward Pharisaism—doing the right thing for the wrong reason. So, you heed Matthew 6:1–4, where Jesus commands: “Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret.”

Secret giving goes against convention in philanthropy, where supporters are listed by size of gift and buildings bear the names of wealthy donors. Churches and Christian organizations often rightly avoid these conventions. I think Jesus makes room for (occasional) exceptions, however. He made public the generosity of the widow in Mark 12:41–44. He knew her example would inspire and convict. Don’t go seeking adulation, but if invited by your pastor or development professional, prayerfully consider a rare God-honoring public testimony. The Lord may use your faithfulness to influence others.

7. You give consistently.
You’re not a haphazard giver—making impulse gifts occasionally. Faithful generosity requires discipline, which in turn provides stability to your church and other kingdom causes. You might set up a monthly giving plan or write checks each Christmas out of your abundance. You even plan around a “graduated tithe.” As you grow in consistent giving, you start evaluating ways to give even more.

8. Your giving is tax-smart.
You do this in order to give as much to kingdom purposes as possible. Perhaps you see yourself in one of these scenarios: your income fluctuates; you have wealth in complicated assets (property, stocks, or business interests); and/or you have significant wealth in your IRA. In these kinds of scenarios, two common giving tools are the donor-advised fund and the IRA charitable distribution.

Donor-advised funds can be convenient and tax-effective tools. For instance, in a given year you may receive a large bonus. With a donor-advised fund, you decide to donate this bonus into the fund—and, from a tax perspective, it is treated as a charitable gift. For years to come, then—even when your income is down—out of this fund you give consistent grants to your church and the ministries you love. Also, many donors use donor-advised funds as a place to give long-term appreciated capital assets. This is a helpful way of not incurring capital gains tax so that more funds can be used for kingdom purposes. See the National Christian Foundation to learn more.

What about the IRA charitable distribution? After the age of 70 ½ you’re required to take taxable mandatory distributions as income out of your IRA. In each of the last nine years, however, donors have been allowed to make tax-free donations (up to $100,000) to qualified charities from this mandatory distribution. You’re giving generously already—this can be a tax-smart way to give.

On both of the above, do consult the IRS’s publication 526 and a tax professional regarding your particular situation. Also, a warning that taking advantage of the IRA charitable distribution can be difficult due to Congress’s annual delay.

9. You have a trustee mindset.
Our first mark was a stewardship mindset; you remember you are not the owner of your own resources. As a trustee, you remember you are not the owner of the work you support.

A heart test of a trustee mindset is “strings-attached giving.” When you’re disappointed by various outcomes at your church or from a missionary you support, is your first thought to withhold your generosity? If so, you may want to reflect on your heart motives.

Don’t misunderstand me. Use discernment. “Mission drift” certainly happens (see Harvard), and the Lord leads people to give elsewhere. But if an organization is aligned with your passions, ECFA-accredited, and works to communicate their work well, remember that the outcomes are ultimately in God’s hands, not yours.

Expect mistakes. Be ready to forgive. Accompany your giving not with strings, but with grace.

Good for the Soul
A Christian gives as a steward, gives locally, gives to kingdom causes, gives sacrificially, gives cheerfully, gives (mostly) privately, gives consistently, gives tax-smartly, and gives as a trustee.
Giving is good for our souls. May God loosen our grasp on possessions and grow in us a heart to advance his kingdom through radical generosity.

Dan Olson is a former director of advancement for The Gospel Coalition, where he oversaw fund development strategy and donor and foundation relationships. Prior to TGC, Dan spent the last nine years involved in urban ministry and development with Hope Academy (Minneapolis). He received his BA from Wheaton College in Illinois and his MA in theological studies from Regent College in Vancouver. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife, Lucy, and their four

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