A couple years ago, I went through a faith crisis which lasted about a year. I was angry at God and frustrated with the Church. I didn’t want anything to do with the Church anymore, and I was seriously considering leaving for good and not coming back. The circumstances of what led me to that point are another story, but the law of tithing had a big part to play in my journey back to faith and the Church.
When I was trying to leave the Church, I went through a process of rooting out different spiritual things from my life and getting rid of them. I stopped reading the scriptures, I stopped attending the temple, I started drinking coffee, I would shop or go to the movies on Sundays. But tithing was different. Oddly enough, that was the commandment I couldn’t stop following. I remember getting my paycheck from the restaurant where I was working and thinking, “I don’t have to pay tithing on this. I don’t want to pay tithing on this. No one is going to make me do it.”
But I paid tithing anyway. I was poor and I could have used that money for a lot of things, but I couldn’t stop paying tithing. When checks came in from my other job, I paid tithing on that too, despite my anger and frustration toward God and the church.
I remember thinking to myself, “giving 10% of my income to a charity of some kind is a good practice anyway, and I’ll just keep paying tithing until I find a charity that I really want to give my money to.” But, in the end, I just kept paying tithing, and that became a pivotal point in turning around and coming back to the Church.
What I have come to understand about tithing throughout this process is that even though tithing is technically 10% of our income, tithing is not about money. Here are a few examples of what tithing has come to mean to me:
- Tithing means trusting God. Even when we need to ask help for rent, or when we sell our only electric guitar to a pawn shop so we can pay our utility bills (true story), we keep paying tithing to show God we trust him and want to give back, even when we don’t have much.
- Tithing means acknowledgement of the Divine. All material things we have, down to the last penny, already belong to God anyway. Ownership is an illusion. It is a metanarrative that serves a purpose in society, but in the end, is meaningless. Tithing is a healthy, regular reminder of that fact.
- Tithing means acknowledging we rely upon God for everything. We talk a lot in the Church about self-reliance, and I think that’s generally a good thing, but the word “self-reliance” in a gospel context is a bit of a misnomer. We all rely upon God for everything we have. The sort of rugged individualism about the “self-made man” we often hear from the world—and sometimes from members of the Church—is not born from humility and Gospel principles. Tithing is a reminder that we are all beggars.
The Spirit of Generosity
Another thing I often think about in the context of tithing is the example of my parents. I remember when I was very little seeing my parents pay tithing. I wasn’t much taller than the kitchen table where my dad had all the bills splayed out before him in different piles, his checkbook at the ready. I walked over to him asked him what he was doing. I found him writing on a tithing slip. He explained to me not just what tithing was, but all the different donations you could make on this slip. I saw that he was giving some money to the temple building fund, the general missionary fund, humanitarian aid, etc., explaining that these were all good things and that they put a little bit of money into each of them. This was a very formative moment for me, and I didn’t realize it until I was older looking back on this experience, but my parents didn’t have much to begin with. I remember sometimes eating ramen noodles or just rice and lima beans for dinner. I learned from my parents that you never have so little that you can’t give back in some way. Giving of oneself without expectation of reward isn’t just a principle of the Gospel, but a principle of what makes a good person.
“For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it” (Matt. 16:25). This paradoxical fact about life reaffirms to me that tithing isn’t so much about money. It is a reminder of how life works: the more you give of yourself, the more you have, and the more you hoard, steal, or squander, the less you have.
Christ teaches this same principle in the parable of the talents:
And so he that had received five talents came and brought other five talents, saying, Lord, thou deliveredst unto me five talents: behold, I have gained beside them five talents more. His lord said unto him, Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy Lord. He also that had received two talents came and said, Lord, thou deliveredst unto me two talents: behold, I have gained two other talents beside them. His lord said unto him, Well done, good and faithful servant; thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord. Then he which had received the one talent came and said, Lord, I knew thee that thou art an hard man, reaping where thou hast not sown, and gathering where thou hast not strawed: And I was afraid, and went and hid thy talent in the earth: lo, there thou hast that is thine. His lord answered and said unto him, Thou wicked and slothful servant. (Matthew 25:20-26)
One possible interpretation of this parable is the principle that the more you give of yourself the more you have, and the less you give of yourself the less you have. Again, I’m not just talking about money. I’m talking about giving time, talents, kindness, love, patience, and all the other good things and virtues we might have.
This parable also offers an interesting reversal of what Jesus usually taught about wealth. Jesus usually taught that rich men have a very hard time getting into heaven, but a close look at this parable reveals that it’s not the money that makes salvation difficult for wealthy people, it’s the vices that usually accompany money. In the parable of the talents, the one who was given more was “good and faithful,” and it was the one who had the least amount who was “wicked and slothful.” It wasn’t about money, but about the virtues these servants had (or didn’t have) in giving back and being generous.
How not to Think
King Benjamin’s address in the Book of Mormon has a great example of how we sometimes justify not being generous with our time, money, and even our thoughts, specifically towards beggars. He said, “Perhaps thou shalt say: The man has brought upon himself his misery; therefore I will stay my hand, and will not suffer, for his punishments are just” (Mosiah 4:17). This is extremely relevant to our day. I hear people say similar things all the time, claiming homelessness and poverty are a form of justice, because they bring it upon themselves.
King Benjamin completely shoots down this way of thinking by saying, “whosoever doeth this the same hath great cause to repent; and except he repenteth of that which he hath done he perisheth forever, and hath no interest in the kingdom of God. For behold, are we not all beggars? Do we not all depend upon the same Being, even God, for all the substance which we have?” (Mosiah 4:18-19).
It may be a popular belief to think that homelessness and poverty are forms of justice, but homelessness and poverty are, in fact, forms of injustice, and God has said on many occasions throughout the scriptures that it is our responsibility to care for the poorest among us. They are part of our stewardship who have been given more.
Sometimes we have no money to give to the poor, and there may even be better strategies for helping the poor than handing out money on the street, but at the very least we can embody the spirit of generosity with our thoughts or with our time. Homeless people are very lonely, and sitting down to talk with them could be very generous.
At the very least, we can be generous toward the least among us with our thoughts by choosing not to judge them for the situation they’ve found themselves in. The truth is we do not know what circumstances led them to their current situation. Mental illness, emotional distress, and abuse are often factors in their lives. To assume they deserve such things is about as far away from charity and generosity as you can get, and we’ve been warned against passing such judgments by the Savior Himself.
Back to the subject of tithing, I’m not saying that we should pay more than 10%. That’s not asked of us, and it’s not necessary. But if all we do is pay 10% of our income without learning from it and letting it change us, we’re probably missing the point. Tithing is more of a spiritual law than a temporal one. Its purpose, I think, is changing us from the “natural man” who hoards and steals everything they have—including money—into more celestial people who give freely of themselves in the true spirit of generosity. I believe that those of us who truly understand and practice tithing as a spiritual law and not just a temporal one, will become the kinds of people we want to be and will understand what it really means to care for each other in the true spirit of generosity.