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.

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.

  • http://keriwyattkent.com/soul/?p=1161 Tim

    I’m not a tither by doctrine, but constantly use the ten percent figure as a yardstick. It has biblical, historical and cultural support as a measure or perspective for how one views one’s finances. If I see our giving has risen above 10% I don’t get complacent and think we’ve done our duty, and if it is below 10% I don’t get all wigged out that God is disappointed with how we’re handling our money. The reason I don’t fall into either mindset is because I don’t think that’s how God views the matter. I think giving under the New Novenant is guided by passages such as Luke 12:48, Romans 12:8 and 2 Cor. 9:7. (I think the camel analogy is Jesus’ answer to a works-based inquiry.)

    Regarding the richest-1%-of-the-population position, I was at a human trafficking conference with my son this weekend being held at Mount Hermon. One seminar on free trade started with the presenter mentioning that if we took a hot shower that morning we were among the richest people on the planet. I felt ok, though, since I had showered the night before and thus technically didn’t fall into his category. Still, I knew what he meant, and usually employ a similar analogy by asking people to consider how many pairs of shoes they own. Anything more than one pair makes a person richer than most people on earth. When it came to everyone attending the conference, we were all stinking rich compared to those we had gathered to learn about and find ways to serve.

    Thanks for getting this conversation going, Ellen.

    Tim

    • mike

      Thanks for the passages => Luke 12:48, Romans 12:8 and 2 Cor. 9:7

  • Deb

    Someone in our church also said years ago that he pledged as much as he spent on his own entertainment. I thought that was a good place to start. It kind of makes you think about how much you really spend on yourself that’s outside of the necessities.

  • Taffy Wilcox

    Ellen,

    I very much look forward to reading what your fellow bloggers have to say.

    Taffy

  • Kate B.

    This will be good. When I talk seriously with E about money I always tell her that we are among the richest people the world has ever known, in part because of some very basic things like a reliable source of safe, clean, drinking water, never ever having to worry about food, plenty of clothing, and a warm, comfortable home–things which even kings and queens lacked until this past century or so.

  • http://www.ellenpainterdollar.com Ellen Painter Dollar

    I’m getting lots of questions about tithing on my Facebook page, so think I need to do more research and write more about tithing. If anyone has any tithing insights to add, please do!

  • ALEXAandra Mwaura

    I dont know much but what I’ve been taught at church is that we give God back his 10% . Thats the tithe; 10% of your gross income not net income. So if say you earn $10 before taxes, you give God $1 then all other deductions follow. Now after that…say your expenses plus tax plus insurance e.t.c. are deducted then your left with say $2.5 you then give offerings based on the $2.5 say in this case 0.5$. You are now left with $2 to do as you please, eat out , vacation money e.t.c. Though ideally the financial and investment experts tell us that you should save a tithe of your income so also $1 goes to savings.
    I dont exactly live by this rule 100% but I do tithe the 10% initially which belongs to God (read Malachi 3 vs 7b -12. )As a family we’ve proved and tested over the years (not too many, like 12) that when we tithe faithfully, give offerings as we are able (help the widows, orphans, less fortunate in our families and others) we have been blessed tremendously in our family business…kind of like a formula for success. Yes there have been many “faith” walks but God always comes through, kids fees are paid fully (private school) and needs met, not necessarily all the wants but the needs are met. Personally when I count out how much I’ve spent on helping others rather than “improving” my living room or bedroom, I realize I spend more than on myself and I dont get to lack…people also give to me….so the song that goes….give and it will come back to you good measure pressed down shaken together and running over(Ron Kenoly) based on Luke 6 vs 38. The same concept is found in 2Corinthians 8 vs 13 – 15. (Am from Africa and I live and work among and with the other 80% or so that live under the poverty line… but I consider myself rich….seriously rich in comparison)


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