God loves a cheerful giver (2 Cor. 9:7). Reading that verse, our eyes naturally fall on the word “cheerful.” Paul, writing to the Corinthians, teaches that God delights in those who give gladly; he isn’t pleased if we do so grudgingly. Christian offerings aren’t meant to be a tax levied on citizens of the kingdom. They’re meant to be the overflow of gratitude for God’s grace to us in his Son, who became poor that we might become rich (2 Cor. 8:9).
But what if we shifted our focus to talk about how cheerful generosity results in God’s love for the giver? That sounds wrong. After all, the Bible—in this very text—seems to teach the opposite. We give because of God’s initiating love. We sacrifice with generosity in happy response to the sacrifice of our Savior. This is the heart of gospel-centered living and giving.
Yet Paul supplies us with more than just one reason to give. He urges the Corinthians, and us, toward glad-hearted generosity by employing multiple motivations. Therefore, we do ourselves a disservice by not considering, with Paul’s help, our many reasons to give.
In 2 Corinthians, Paul spends two chapters persuading the churches of Achaia to participate in his offering for suffering saints in Jerusalem. He does so, at least in part, because the Corinthians were having second thoughts about their giving. The Corinthian congregation had been infiltrated by those undermining Paul’s ministry, criticizing him for vacillating on his prior plans to visit. Some challenged him on his references and qualifications. They even questioned his refusal to receive support in the past and now wondered whether he might be skimming off the top of his so-called collection.
In other words, Paul had reason for concern. He was anything but certain the Corinthians would follow through on their previous pledge. So he set out to sway them, using a full arsenal of motivators.
Christian offerings aren’t meant to be a tax levied on citizens of the kingdom. They’re meant to be the overflow of gratitude for God’s grace to us in his Son, in Christ who became poor that we might become rich.
First, Paul encourages them with the sacrificial giving of the churches in Macedonia (2 Cor. 8:1–5). Though stretched by severe poverty, they had given abundantly with joy. Clearly, Paul wants the Corinthians to follow their example and thereby prove—to themselves and those around them—the sincerity of their love for Christ. Beyond that, Paul exhorts them with the genuine need of the church in Jerusalem, how the Corinthians’ abundance could supply what others lack. He also reassures them of his integrity in the offering’s administration, delivered through the capable hands of Titus and another well-respected brother. Just imagine the trust necessary to hand over a large sum to an emissary who would travel long distances to deliver funds in person!
Up until this point, the motivations Paul uses sound largely familiar. Today, pastors and missionaries might encourage us to give through the example of others, as a demonstration of our faith in Christ and love for his church. They also do so conveying the critical need, whether relief of the poor or advance of the gospel, all while assuring us of their fiscal integrity.
Bordering on Manipulation
But we might be surprised by the other ways Paul seeks to stimulate giving, with arguments that appear self-serving and to border on manipulation. For instance, Paul tells the Corinthians that participating in the offering will be to their benefit (2 Cor. 8:10). He reminds them that sparing givers are sparing reapers (2 Cor. 9:6). He assures them of God’s provision and inspires them with a harvest that includes righteousness for them (2 Cor. 9:8–10). In fact, Paul envisions that, upon receipt of their gift, the Jerusalem church will respond by glorifying God and returning prayers for the Corinthians (2 Cor. 9:12–14). Within that context of heightened self-awareness, we might reimagine Paul’s intended effect in saying cheerful giving results in God’s love (2 Cor. 9:7).
Clearly, Paul is not afraid to motivate with more than altruism. In fact, some of us might blush at his method of persuasion, such as when he makes a not-so-subtle reference to the Corinthians’ abundance (2 Cor. 8:14). To note their profusion is a slight tap on the shoulder of shame—not because wealth is inherently evil, but because the Macedonians, who were themselves destitute, had already given abundantly.
To note the Corinthian profusion is a slight tap on the shoulder of shame—not because wealth is inherently evil, but because the Macedonians, who were themselves destitute, had already given abundantly.
Such a rhetorical move connects to the relational dynamic of honor and shame that permeates Paul’s instruction. In chapter 7, he relates his confidence in the Corinthians. Their reception of his prior letter leads Paul to boast in them once again, just as he did to the Macedonians months earlier. In fact, we learn Paul initially motivated the Macedonians to give because of the Corinthians’ eagerness to participate. Now he returns the favor, urging the Corinthians not to let him down. If they don’t follow through, he’ll be humiliated. In fact, Paul suggests such a failure will result in their disgrace (2 Cor. 9:4).
Rethinking Our Giving
If the apostle’s logic strikes us as strange, it would be wise to question our assumptions and inclinations about Christian charity.
When we teach on giving from 2 Corinthians 8–9, if we focus only on God’s grace and not the possibility of our public shame—if we emphasize calls for individual commitment (2 Cor. 9:7) but dismiss ones for collective fairness (2 Cor. 8:13–14), if we elevate objective truth and ignore subjective appeals—then perhaps our culture has blinded us more than we’d care to admit. Perhaps we’re not communicating the whole counsel of God.
With that in mind, I offer a few proposals for rethinking our approach to giving.
1. Giving Need Not Be a Private Grace
When Jesus instructed us to not let one hand know what the other is doing, he wasn’t advocating for privatized virtue. He was correcting those who gave offerings to be seen by others and win their acclaim. Some churches, because of Jesus’s teaching or perhaps to avoid the appearance of money-grabbing, don’t include times of offering in their worship. With the advent of online giving, we’re also losing the communal demonstration of Christian faith which can happen in corporate worship (Luke 21:1–4). But giving is most powerful when it’s public, fostering sacrifice and fueling joy.
2. Persuasion ≠ Manipulation
Many of us have experienced churches that speak about giving in unhealthy ways. Some make stewardship the primary focus of worship and prosperity the expected outcome of generosity. Thus, we’re right to be cautious about overdoing appeals for money. But this doesn’t mean we should stop persuading Christians to give. If we oppose outright the idea of “shaming someone into giving,” we might oppose Paul in the process. While it will take great care and wisdom, some of our teachers need to recover the art of persuasion while avoiding manipulation.
3. Gospel-Centeredness Doesn’t Mean Grace Is the Only Motive
Yes, the greatest reason for giving is gratitude to God for the gift of his Son. But we shrink the Scriptures if we only talk about our sacrifice in response to Christ’s. According to Paul, we also give to others for their good and ours. We give to glorify God. We give for our growth in righteousness, assurance of faith, and abundant joy. We give to encourage other Christians to give by our example. We give to honor our leaders and not shame ourselves. We even give cheerfully because we know God loves it when we do.