Monday, November 29, 2010

Faith and Giving in Hard Times

It was Thomas Paine who, early in the history of our country, wrote “These are the times that try men's souls….” he could just as easily have been writing about the economic downturn of the past two years.

Virtually all of us have been impacted adversely in some way by the recession and rampant unemployment. As a result, giving to charities has undergone a double-digit decline.  Ministries such as ours have been impacted.

Recently former Arkansas governor and presidential candidate Mike Huckabee spoke in Birmingham. Addressing the economic downturn and its impact on support for ministries, he suggested that, although giving in our tough economy was difficult, he and his wife had decided to increase their giving.

I was reminded of the account in First Kings chapter 17 of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath. The Prophet had predicted a drought on Israel in response to King Ahab's wicked reign, and the prediction came true. Elijah had hidden near the Brook Cherith, east of the Jordan River, where God had supernaturally provided food from ravens twice daily, and water from the brook. But finally the brook dried up.

God's instructions to the Prophet must have seemed strange. “Go to Zarephath.”  Located near Sidon, this village was literally in the backyard of Ahab and Jezebel.

The Lord had commanded a widow to provide for the Prophet. Elijah must have realized that widows in that society, occupied the bottom of the food chain! How could a widow provide for him?

Following God's direction, the Prophet first to asked the widow for a cup of water, then for “a morsel of bread.”  Her response to his second request was graphic: “my son and I are literally down to our last meal. We will eat what we have, then die.” (v. 12, paraphrased)

Although I speak to friends of our college every week who have suffered financially over these past two years, I have not yet encountered anyone who circumstances were as dire as this widow. Yet both God and the Prophet requested that she give.

But Elijah tempered his request with a promise. “Don't be afraid… the Lord God will provide flour and oil until the drought is ended.” And according to verse 16, God's Word through Elijah was fulfilled!”

So what are the lessons we can learn from the situation?

First, consider the idolatry factor. There was a reason for the hard times everyone experienced. The drought was directly connected to pervasive idolatry.  Ahab and Jezebel had promoted the worship of Baal, the god of storm, thunder and lightning. In this way the Lord demonstrated that He, not Baal, was in sovereign control.  Perhaps our country has been judged economically because of idolatry.

But, you respond, we don't worship engraved images in our country in the 21st century. No but has money become a god? Do we routinely make sacrifices at the altar of the almighty dollar? I would suggest that many have sacrificed integrity, family and even their souls. And as Jesus said, “You cannot serve God and money” (Matthew 6:24).

Second consider the Faith factor.  The Prophet, under God's direction, challenged this poor widow to look beyond her means and provide for the needs of someone else-- someone in His service. If anyone could have responded by saying “I can't afford to give,” it would have been this woman.  Yet as the Prophet explained what God wanted her to do, and how he would provide for her needs, she simply obeyed.  Perhaps at the heart of his instruction was the word, “Do not fear”.  These are fearful times in which we are living, yet Elijah's words have relevance for us today. Faith and fear are like oil and water; they do not mix. May God give us the grace in these difficult times to trust him for our needs, as well as for the resources to partner with ministries that are doing God's work.

Third, consider the generosity factor.  It would not have been shocking if the widow had refused Elijah's request.  After all, she had a son to think about-- not to mention her own impending starvation. Yet verse 15 affirms that she did exactly what Elijah requested. That's generosity where the rubber meets the road. Her action reminds me of another widow, one Jesus commended for demonstrating greater generosity than all the wealthy who gave at the Temple in Jerusalem (Mark 12:42). I'm also reminded of the Macedonian believers who, “… and a great trial of affliction, with abundant joy, out of the poverty, abounded in the riches of their generosity.” (2 Corinthians 8:2).

So how does this relate to us? Had we been walking in the widow’s sandals we might have dismissed Elijah as a religious fanatic. Or we might have bargained—“You can have a third; but what will I get in return?” This is how many who subscribe to what we might call “name it and claim it” prosperity theology might respond.

Yet I believe God wants us to respond to our difficult circumstances with fearless faith.

May God lead us and give us the same kind of grace he gave the widow of Zarephath during these difficult times. I believe that we, like the widow, will be significantly blessed, and God's work will move forward.