As we consider the topic of how Chinese believers might learn biblical generosity, there are four incorrect assumptions that we must overturn. First, is that poverty prevents Chinese believers from learning generosity; second, that prosperity helps Chinese believers learn generosity; third, obligation is the best way to teach Chinese believers about stewardship or generosity, and finally, that it is best they first be saved and then taught generosity later.
Poverty and Generosity
Does poverty prevent Chinese believers from learning generosity? No! Many Chinese people experience severe poverty. Many pastors suffer extreme poverty because it is illegal for them to accept a salary from their congregations, and most congregations wrongly believe that the poorer the pastor, the more spiritual they are. Poverty actually makes many believers more generous. When people lose all their material goods, they experience the overwhelming value of knowing Christ and become richer spiritually. This causes them to be more generous with the fewer material possessions they have remaining.
The surprising and generous way in which God worked in the Macedonian church fully applies to the persecuted Chinese believers. Paul observed, "Fierce troubles came down…pushing them to the very limit. The trial exposed their true colors: They were incredibly happy, though desperately poor. The pressure triggered something totally unexpected: an outpouring of pure and generous gifts. I was there and saw it for myself. They gave offerings of whatever they could—far more than they could afford!—pleading for the privilege of helping out in the relief of poor Christians." (2 Corinthians 8:2-4) This is the best pattern for Chinese believers to follow in regards to generosity.
It was reported that after a major flood in China, local Christians gave away the relief food and blankets they received rather than meet their own needs. This unselfish generosity deeply touched many unsaved neighbors. The resulting church growth was so phenomenal that the local authorities banned Christians from traveling to the neighboring villages to redistribute supplies.
When John, a prisoner, asked his wife to bring him a winter coat, he also instructed her to get enough coats for all the inmates, most of whom were on death row. When the prison guard saw the winter coats being distributed to all the inmates, he said in total amazement: "I have never seen anything like this in my entire life. People always focus on getting, not giving." Through generosity, John had the privilege of leading many to Christ.
Christian prisoners in North Korea are known to save portions of their rice ration in order to give to other inmates. It is meant not only to lessen their hunger, but also to soften their hearts to accept Christ as their eternal Bread of Life. They call the saved portion "holy rice."
Interestingly, poverty and persecution may be the best tutors to teach Chinese believers regarding biblical generosity.
Prosperity and Generosity
Does recent prosperity in China help Chinese Christians be more generous? No. People who have lived through years of poverty usually cannot stand the test of sudden prosperity. Christian leaders are often the worst. Church leaders who willingly suffered poverty and persecution for the Lord often turn greedy and begin to hoard when suddenly given opportunities to handle financial resources. This is due to an inner sense of "entitlement," which had been suppressed for years, that suddenly finds opportunity to rise to the surface. They did not mind suffering and doing without when the environment required it and they were used to hardship. However, once there is prosperity to be enjoyed, they demand their “long-overdue share," totally forgetting that their reward is to be claimed in heaven.
We were saddened to learn that our years of well-intended generous "investments" in China often resulted in over-dependency and entitlement. To assume that because Chinese believers are now more prosperous, they will be more generous, would be totally naive.
At one time, I was personally entrusted to deliver 6,000RMB (US$960) to a network leader who had spent twenty years in prison and at that time had total control of a church network. The funds, a donation from overseas supporters who had saved their pensions and overtime pay, were designated for the purchase of cassette tapes for duplication and distribution. This leader took the money and had the audacity to purchase a suite for himself and gifts for his two mistresses. When he was finally exposed and confronted, he had no remorse at all claiming he deserved these things after all his prison suffering that was "supposedly" for Christ.
Paul aptly exhorts us saying: "Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don't be obsessed with getting your own advantage…. Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn't think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what…. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human!... He didn't claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death…. Because of that obedience, God lifted him high and honored him far beyond anyone or anything….” (Philippians 2:3-11)
At age 79, Wang Ming Dao was released from prison nearly blind and very deaf. Many offered to relocate him to America for medical treatment and well deserved rest. Mindful of his earlier fall, he declined all offers and remained in China wanting to strengthen other believers who were facing persecution. He lived out what he wrote earlier: "From a man with a selfish heart, any terrible act can emerge. Anyone looking for selfish gain can lie, cheat, practice evil and plot for his self interest. The majority of sins in this world issue from people who are out for selfish gain." Wang Ming Dao was truly generous. He gave away his chances to gain physical comfort to provide other believers spiritual encouragement so they could victoriously persevere despite persecution. Not claiming privileges but freely giving them up for the benefit of others is the fundamental Christ-likeness which is pure generosity.
The best remedy for overcoming entitlement is Christ's example of absolute self-forgetfulness lived out in the lives of leaders. As Chinese believers see this in the lives of their leaders, they will learn generosity.
Earthly Examples and Biblical Generosity
Is there a clear cut earthly example that can help explain the concept of biblical generosity to Chinese believers? No. Some suggest the concept of "filial piety" which is a virtue of respect for one’s father, elders, and ancestors. It means to be good to and take care of one's parents; to engage in good conduct not just towards parents but also outside the home so as to bring a good name to one's parents and ancestors. It is to perform the duties of one's job well so as to obtain the material means to support parents as well as carry out sacrifices to the ancestors. Children are not to be rebellious but to show love, respect, and support. They are to ensure male heirs, uphold fraternity among brothers, wisely advise their parents—including dissuading them from moral unrighteousness—display sorrow for their sickness and death, and carry out sacrifices after their death. It is a social cycle designed to preserve Chinese culture.
In filial piety, the original provider and protector (the father) eventually becomes the recipient of provision and protection. The original recipient of benefits (the son) later plays the role of the giver of care and resources. On the contrary, in biblical stewardship, the Provider and Protector is eternally the same Person. By grace, the creatures are invited to participate in God’s plan to experience the incredible love of their Father.
Some try to press the fact that because God created everything he ultimately owns everything and we own nothing. I also believe that God created everything, owns everything, and can demand of us anything, at anytime, in any fashion. God demanded that Abraham kill, cut up, and burn Isaac. He is fully entitled to it. However, I prefer not to use this truth to teach generosity to Chinese believers. Rather, in Philemon 8 and 9, Paul says that although in Christ he could be bold and order Philemon to do what he ought to do, he prefers to appeal to him on the basis of love. This is my approach.
God not only "owns" everything, he also "gave" us everything freely including his son's life for our salvation. This is a better truth to teach Chinese believers generosity. I can never forget a father who rescued his young daughter from drowning and used this action to force her into a life of “slavery.” The daughter was not allowed to have a boyfriend or get married. She was forbidden to have any personal life except to serve her father. She obliged because she had to, but with extreme bitterness in her heart. We surely do not want to even hint that our Heavenly Father is demanding all believers to render dutiful submission in stewardship and giving.
Jesus was generous with his glory. He became flesh and sacrificed all so that we might share in his glory. He was willing to share his “heavenly living room” with us all, while some of us might be hesitant to house displaced refuges. Jesus gladly shed every drop of his blood while some of us might be hesitant to give one pint of our blood. He generously used a towel to wipe the disciples’ feet while we might be unwilling to wash the feet of our aging parents. Jesus was generous with his forgiveness, patience, love, time, friendship—with everything. May we get to know him so closely that his generosity will overflow from our lives.
“We can understand someone dying for a person worth dying for, and we can understand how someone good and noble could inspire us to selfless sacrifice. But God put his love on the line for us by offering his Son in sacrificial death while we were of no use whatever to him.” (Romans 5:6-8)
Like the concept of the Trinity, there is no easy earthly example of biblical generosity. We just have to illustrate and demonstrate it until it is clearly understood within the Chinese context.
Salvation or Generosity: Which Should Be First?
Since it is so difficult to teach Chinese Christians about stewardship, should they be saved first and then taught generosity later? Never! The Chinese church has shied away from teaching the subjects of biblical giving and stewardship for a number of reasons such as: faith-based mission groups discouraged mentioning finances; business pursuits are considered secular and not spiritual; making money is sinful in the thinking of some; Christian workers cannot legally be paid a salary; talking about finances in church is taboo; businessmen are considered to be less spiritual than full-time Christian workers. As a result, when it comes to this all-important subject, most believers are ignorant while pastors are tongue-tied. Years of silence make it almost impossible for the average pastor to even bring up the subject of stewardship let alone give it a biblically sound presentation.
I heard one pastor say: "Christian maturity takes a lifetime. The subject of biblical generosity will take so long to learn. Let us just get them saved first; then, we can take time to teach them about generosity, one small step at a time." I am strongly against this. By separating salvation and generosity we destroy the gospel. Paul explained this truth saying: "You are familiar with the generosity of our Master, Jesus Christ. Rich as he was, he gave it all away for us—in one stroke he became poor and we became rich.” (2 Corinthians 8:9)
Salvation is not God giving free grace to us sinners so that we can be rich. The true gospel is God offering his free saving grace to us in order that through us all others can hear the gospel and become rich. The focus is not our receiving (prosperity) but rather, after receiving, passing it on (generosity). First, we must be generous with the gospel we have received and then become generous with all our possessions as the means of giving away the gospel. Those who are not willing to share what they were given are not real followers of Christ.
When Jesus fed five thousand men, he blessed the food and then handed it to the disciples. But the hungry disciples did not immediately eat the food.They could see over their shoulders five thousand hungry people. Even more importantly, they knew that their master meant to feed the entire crowd not just them. They served the crowd, and with baskets of food left over, I’m sure they did not go away hungry. Real followers of Jesus participate in feeding the entire crowd, not just themselves.
When the Good Samaritan saw a wounded traveler, he concluded that both he and the wounded man should benefit from his resources. Initially, when thieves had seen the traveler, they concluded that only one person should benefit from the traveler’s resources, and it had to be them. The religious leaders did not want to use their resources to help the traveler but kept them for themselves, so in this, they are exactly the same as the thieves. Biblical generosity consists in not keeping all of one’s resource for one’s self, but rather in a willingness to use one’s resources to be a part of God’s generosity and blessing of others.
"Toward evening the disciples approached him. ‘We’re out in the country and it’s getting late. Dismiss the people so they can go to the villages and get some supper.’ But Jesus said, ‘There is no need to dismiss them. You give them supper.’ ‘All we have are five loaves of bread and two fish,’ they said. Jesus said, ‘Bring them here.’ Then he had the people sit on the grass. He took the five loaves and two fish, lifted his face to heaven in prayer, blessed, broke, and gave the bread to the disciples. The disciples then gave the food to the congregation. They all ate their fill. They gathered twelve baskets of leftovers. About five thousand were fed.” (Matthew 14:15–21)
Salvation is possible because Jesus decided to share his life, his glory, his all. As Christ followers, when we practice generosity through our actions, we show to others a more complete gospel.