Common Questions About Biblical Generosity

In a recent post, I described generosity as An Irrational Financial Act, going on to explain why it’s actually essential for anyone who wants to experience simple, meaningful financial success.

With this post, I’d like to answer two very common questions about generosity.

How Much to Give

I believe the first principle to follow when deciding how much to give is one that cannot be measured in dollars and cents.  I call it The Principle of the Choice Gift, which is very much a matter of the heart.

It comes from the experience of Adam and Eve’s sons, Cain and Abel.  As described in Genesis 4, when they were young adults they each brought gifts to the Lord.  Cain brought “some of the fruits of the soil,” which scholars have explained means he gave a portion of his crops, but not the best portion. By contrast, Abel brought “fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock.” In other words, he gave a choice gift.

Their gifts said much about their hearts, and the Bible says, “The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor.”

Quantifying a Choice Gift

One of Pascal’s most famous quotes is: “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.”  In other words, it’s difficult for us to fully understand the motives of our own hearts.

When it comes to generosity, our hearts may lead us to give truly choice gifts, or not.  That’s why it can be helpful to get a bit more specific in answering the question: How much should I give?

The historical biblical starting point of generosity is a tithe, or 10 percent of income.  As Randy Alcorn points out in the best book I’ve ever read about biblical generosity, it’s where God started his Old Covenant children: “Does God expect His New Covenant children to give less or more? Jesus raised the spiritual bar; he never lowered it (Matthew 5:27-28).”

At the same time, the Bible teaches that 10 percent is not the intended stopping point.  After all, it encourages us to give both tithes and offerings.  And besides, while 10 percent may be the choicest of gifts for a person making very little, for a person making a lot, 10 percent may be far from a choice gift.

So, my counsel is to base the amount that you give on a percentage of income, using 10 percent as a benchmark – a place to move toward if you’re not there already, and a place to move beyond if you are.

Where to Give

When deciding where to give, the Bible clearly reveals three causes that are important to God where our financial gifts can support His work in the world: The poor, those who don’t know Him, and those who teach His Word.

The local church is typically all about those three causes.  It is usually active in helping to meet the needs of the poor in its community and elsewhere.  It introduces visitors to God and often supports missionaries in other parts of the world who are spreading God’s Word.  And, of course, it is a primary source of our biblical instruction.

Since the local church is, in essence, a one-stop shop for those three causes, at very least, a solid case can be made that it would be good stewardship to make our home church our first priority for the money we give, and then give to other organizations God puts on our heart.

Some pastors get more specific, teaching that the tithe should go to the local church, and then other God-honoring causes should be supported with money above and beyond the tithe.  If you are a member of such a church, I encourage you to do as your pastor teaches.

Pay Your Purpose First

Part of the conventional wisdom in our culture is to “Pay yourself first.”  The idea is that if we are to build a reserve and be able to retire one day, we need to make savings our highest priority.

Saving and investing are important.  However, simple, meaningful success is found in paying our purpose first, and the first purpose of our lives is to honor God.  Financially, that means devoting the first portion (what the Bible calls the firstfruits) of all that we receive to supporting His work in the world.

If you’re new to the idea of giving truly choice gifts to God, at first it will feel like a lot.  Eventually, though, it will feel like it’s not enough.

That’s been my experience.  It was difficult at first.  Honestly, I didn’t want to.  I didn’t even see how it could be possible.  But I have discovered the truth of Matthew 6:21: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  There is something about the practice of generosity that increasingly orients our hearts toward God.

As we grow in generosity, we discover that there is great joy in using money to make life changing, eternity shaping differences in the lives of other people.

Got a response to any of the above?  Meet me in the comments section.

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16 Responses to Common Questions About Biblical Generosity

  1. Samson February 17, 2012 at 2:46 AM #

    What a timely message. I’ m greatly blessed

  2. Taylor February 13, 2012 at 9:04 AM #


    First, thank you very much for the practical, Biblically-based blog.

    I feel that has followers of Christ, our worldview should be very different from those who have not yet joined the kingdom. We need to think of our finances differently than our neighbors do. This quote from C.S. Lewis threw down a challenge to me about a year ago (of course, Jesus was way more confrontational about the use of money on several occasions):

    “I do not believe one can settle how much we ought to give. I’m afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare. In other words, if our expenditure on comforts, luxuries, and amusement, is up to the standard common of those with the same income as our own, we are probably giving away too little.”

    • Matt Bell February 13, 2012 at 4:43 PM #

      Great point, Taylor, and an awesome, unnerving quote from C.S. Lewis. I agree that there should be something noticeably different about us. Living well within one’s means (in part, in order to give generously) definitely counts as odd, noteworthy behavior and tends to generate questions.

  3. Brian Jewell February 11, 2012 at 2:44 PM #

    Matt, this is very well said. I agree that God wants His people to be generous givers, and that our gifts should both support the work of our local church and help provide to people in our world who are in need. I’m really committed to the idea of Christians financing the work of the Kingdom of God through their giving to the church. I wrote a whole post about the idea over at my blog “God, Money & Me” —

  4. Moses Olayefa February 9, 2012 at 4:37 AM #

    Your post is such a good lesson on biblical generosity. Can you come up with a lesson on the pros and cons on biblical generosity!

  5. Jason Cabler (@DrCabler) February 6, 2012 at 5:37 PM #

    Right on brother! I think some people have a hard time wrapping their mind around this stuff because it really is an irrational act. But if you are a believer you find out that giving is an extremely rational act that has spiritual consequences. It changes you, it promotes you spiritually, and it prospers you even as you share the little or much that you have.

    • Matt Bell February 9, 2012 at 7:39 AM #

      Well said, Jason. I like how you said that – “It changes you.” That’s so true in so many ways. Giving has a very powerful influence over loosening our grip on stuff, and therefore, loosening stuff’s grip on us!

  6. Don Thompson February 6, 2012 at 1:37 PM #

    I teach Bible based Budgeting class. One question I would like you to comment on applies to retired individuals now withdrawing from their 401k/IRA’s and from social security. They have already tithed on their savingsand soc.sec. withholding while working. How should they give as they receive income from these plans?

    • Matt Bell February 9, 2012 at 7:37 AM #

      Don – That’s a really good question. To be honest, I’ve never thought about that. Here’s what I would say, but I’d love to hear how you’ve addressed this in the past, and I’d love to hear from others as well.

      The spirit of biblical generosity is that it is to come from our “increase.” So, while a person in the situation you described has already given on the income used to contribute to their retirement plan, hopefully there’s been quite an increase in that amount over the years in the form of interest.

      For example, if you put $400/month into a 401(k) for 40 years, you will have contributed $192,000. But if you had been able to earn an average of 7% all those years, you’ll have over $1 million in that account. So, 80% of the total is your “increase.” One idea is to consider 80% of whatever they’re taking out each month to be their increase. If they take $5,000 per month, they might give $400 (10% of $4,000).

      Of course, it’s difficult to figure out exactly how much was contributed over the years and how much of that constituted an increase since people don’t tend to keep such records over long periods of time.

      And, they may feel led to give even more than a tithe on their increase. But I think this may be a useful general way of coming up with a benchmark.

      • JO February 14, 2012 at 5:17 PM #

        Great C.S.Lewis quote!

        when I retired 11 years ago, I felt my generous giving days were over so I wrote to the missionaries and some organizations we supported and told them that we had to stop giving to them. But God didn’t let us stop and today we give more than when we were taking a paycheck. God has been faithful beyond anything we could ever imagine. FYI we have no pension, just what was saved over the years. Yes we have gone through some tight times and still have not recovered from the “great recession”. Matt’s words are good. There is nothing like the knowledge that it is all God’s, anyway. May we all be good managers of what He had entrusted to us!

  7. ImulseSave February 6, 2012 at 1:04 PM #

    Thank you so much for the post. It’s exactly what I needed to see today! I recently started earning a regular paycheck and am starting to figure out budgets, bills, and all that adult stuff. I was asking my dad yesterday if I should give 10% of my pay before or after taxes. Honestly, I hoped he would say “After taxes, of course!” But he just said, “It depends on how much you want to be blessed.” I was so convicted. It’s so easy to make excuses for how little you can give, but ultimately it’s a matter of faith and giving with a glad heart.

    I set up my budget for 10% before taxes. It was hard, but God is good and I’m confident he will provide.

    • Matt Bell February 7, 2012 at 1:19 PM #

      ImulseSave – What a great story! You have a great dad, and you have a great attitude. You’re demonstrating exactly what it takes to give generously: Set a goal in faith, and then follow through with a plan.

  8. Em in Philly February 6, 2012 at 12:48 PM #

    Thanks, Matt! I have to admit I’m not much of a tither. And I had a bad bad bad experience the one time I flirted with the concept of the “prosperity gospel.” I SO agree that we have to give with open hearts!

    Quick question: What’s your opinion on 10% net v. 10% gross income? Perhaps start (or shoot for) 10% net and then shoot for 10% gross (and then beyond)?

    • Matt Bell February 7, 2012 at 1:15 PM #

      Em – I believe the tithe is intended to be based on gross income. I also know that for a lot of us, generosity is a journey. If your journey takes you from where you are to 10 percent of net to 10 percent of gross to… who can argue with that?

  9. MSal February 6, 2012 at 11:21 AM #


    This was an excellent piece you’ve written. Clear, understandable and empathetic to those who are new to the whole giving thing! Thanks. Very appreciative of both the simplicity and the depth…

    • Matt Bell February 6, 2012 at 12:18 PM #

      Thanks, MSal. Glad to hear that the content and tone resonated with you. Money is a touchy subject, and the topic of generosity can really make people squirm! So, I appreciate your feedback.