That Darn Camel: My Struggle with Tithing

“Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Matthew 19:23 – 25)

While topics such as same-sex marriage and abortion dominate media coverage of religion, I’d venture to say that money is the topic that most vexes American Christians trying to figure out how to live out our faith. It certainly vexes me.

Lest we think that the Bible verse above applies only to multimillionaires, from a global and historical perspective, many of us are indeed rich. As Tim King wrote for Sojourners several months ago, even when he was a cash-poor twenty-something earning a small nonprofit salary while living in expensive Washington, DC, his education, stable housing, steady employment, and regular access to food meant he “was quickly approaching the 1 percent.” King went on to say that, despite his feeling that he had no wiggle room in his budget, he believes God was calling him to a sacrificial 10 percent tithe. To his peers, he writes:

If you are young, college-educated, have an income above the poverty line (that’s about $14,000 annually for all those who are single), and care about justice — you can afford to give away 10 percent of your income to charity.

If you say otherwise, you are lying.

I spent my twenties in the same place, literally, as King—earning a small nonprofit salary while living in Washington, DC. At the time, I also attended a church that required a 10 percent tithe as the starting place for giving. And I gave that 10 percent faithfully, if not always cheerfully.

I keenly felt the absence of that 10 percent from my checkbook. Given how small my salary was, 10 percent wasn’t a lot of money, but it was an awful lot of my money. I vividly remember going to buy new panty hose on a lunch break from work, and standing there in the store aisle realizing that buying a few pairs of panty hose was going to wipe out the cash I had on hand until my next paycheck. Really, I thought, buying panty hose should not be so painful. At moments like that, I resented the 10 percent tithe.

It wasn’t always that painful, though. I had happy life full of work and friends and church. While eating out usually consisted of a shared pizza, and I relied on my mom to periodically buy me clothes to freshen up my work wardrobe, I didn’t often feel deprived. I was frequently grateful that my church forced me to give at such an uncomfortable level, because I knew I wouldn’t do it otherwise.

While we (really, Daniel) now earn about four times what I was making back then, we no longer tithe. I am ashamed of that fact. It seems a no-brainer. With so much more income, shouldn’t we find tithing easier, not harder? But our finances are far more complicated than they used to be. Here’s what I could really use: Someone to sit down and help us figure out where tithing fits into a financial picture that also involves taxes and health insurance premiums and 401(Ks)s and college savings accounts and piano lessons for three kids—things I didn’t have to think about 20 years ago. It’s complicated. Or am I just making it complicated to avoid my duty to tithe?

A few years ago I heard a talk at our Episcopal church from a man who said he and his wife had simply always tithed. He said, “If you just give that 10 percent off the top, you just don’t miss it. We have never missed what we weren’t used to having.” I don’t see how that works. I would miss it. I do miss the money we give away, which is significant even though not at 10 percent. We give away about 5 percent of our gross income every month, divided between a pledge to our church, a monthly gift to an organization addressing global poverty (I will write more about that on Friday), and smaller donations to charities we support.

And I miss that money. I’m glad we give it away, but I miss it. I would like to give more, but I’m also enjoying the financial place we’re in right now. Due to a significant promotion my husband got last year, we are for the first time in our adult lives able to do things like go out to dinner for a birthday and pay for the kids’ summer camps without hyperventilating. I admit that the idea of giving away a higher percentage of our income, and as a result having to seriously curtail some expenses, makes me feel a bit resentful. And then guilty, because really Ellen? You sit here in your lovely home with a kitchen full of food and three children who have never wanted for anything, and you resent giving away money that you’d rather use on, what, new jeans or a renovated kitchen or a vacation? Pathetic.

This money stuff is vexing, indeed.

To help us ponder a Christian approach to money, I have three wonderful guest bloggers posting here this week.

  • Connie Smith Jakab will write about her decision to stop living from a mindset of scarcity, holding onto possessions “just in case.”
  • Tim Fall will ponder the central role that disagreements about money can play in troubled marriages, and discuss how he and his wife make financial decisions together.
  • Jennifer Grant will share what she’s learned about raising compassionate kids in a materialistic culture.

I hope you’ll come back to read each of these posts, and another from me on Friday in which I’ll write about why I’ve chosen to support the World Food Program as a primary recipient of our family’s charitable donations. When it comes to figuring out a healthy relationship between money and faith, we could use all the help we can get, so chime in with your own observations, experiences, questions, and revelations.

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About Ellen Painter Dollar

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer focusing on faith, parenting, family, disability, and ethics. She is the author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Faith, and Parenthood in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012). Visit her web site at http://ellenpainterdollar.com for more on her writing and speaking, and to sign up for a (very) occasional email newsletter.


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