When he’s on his game, CS Lewis is awesome. I have often turned to his view on giving and found it really helpful. Here is a particular principle he outlines:
I do not believe one can settle how much we ought to give. I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare. In other words, if our expenditure on comforts, luxuries, amusement, etc., is up to the standard common among those with the same income as our own, we are probably giving away too little. If our giving does not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say it is too small. There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot because our commitment to giving excludes them.
I think, in the average church, particularly those with more affluent members, this advice is excellent. Comparing ourselves to those with means like ours, there should be things we might like to have, that we don’t have, because our commitment to giving means we can’t afford them.
My question is, how does that apply in churches where the overwhelming majority of members always do without stuff they might like, often stuff they vitally need (like food and heating), because they can’t afford almost anything? If they compare themselves to other people of their means, they would almost certainly look on and see them with nothing too. How are asylum seekers, who are on half of what a single man on job seekers allowance receives and – if on a second appeal, nothing more than a handful fo food vouchers – supposed to apply this principle?
There is nobody in my church – whether working, on benefits or seeking asylum – I wouldn’t want to encourage to give. I say this on several grounds. First, and most importantly, it is a Biblical imperative. The Lord calls us to give and doesn’t give us a level of income at which that kicks in – Jesus’ praising the widow giving her mite makes that clear enough. Second, it says something about the faith of the individual giving. It speaks to their trust in the Lord and their desire to support his work and his people. Third, encouraging their giving is predicated on the knowledge that the church will support those who are unable to support themselves. It may well be that the church ends up supporting that person with vastly more than they give. But their giving shows their love for the Lord and his church, it obeys the scriptural principle to give and the church, in turn, must obey the scriptural principle to support those in need (cf. 1 Jn 3:17 et al).
That everyone should give is, Biblically, beyond doubt. The question here is what they should give and by what measure. Giving enough to go without what others of their means might have doesn’t adequately work when everyone of the same means has nothing. Giving nothing doesn’t allow you to obey scripture. So what measure, or form of encouragement, do we use with those who have nearly nothing?
CS Lewis is absolutely right, ‘I do not believe one can settle how much we ought to give. I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare’. I think the rest of what he says starts to outline things to a point where a contradiction opens up, forcing some to choose giving nothing when we realise that people of the same means as us have the same nothing as we do. The point, then, is that we should all give more than we can spare. What that means in practice, however, is not so easy to define. Even Lewis’ suggestion breaks down for many from the lowest socio-economic backgrounds.