The Circle of Blessing

(Malachi 3:6-12; 2 Corinthians 9:6-15)

I spent some time last week talking about our need for mercy, and I know that puzzled a couple people, since there’s nothing at all about mercy in last week’s passage from Malachi; but it seems to me that while that passage, which is the pivot point of this book and the central element in the prophet’s message, does indeed deal with the justice of God and his judgment on sin, it isn’t merely about justice.

As we saw, the initial complaint God raises in the end of chapter 2 is against those who are accusing him of being unjust for not judging their enemies, failing to recognize that by that same standard he’s also unjust for not judging them. I talked about this in terms of mercy, but the biblical language is more often of the patience or forbearance of God—his withholding his anger and his judgment on sin in order to give sinners opportunity to repent. Before we complain about this, we should remember that we, too, are its beneficiaries.

That’s underscored in verse 6, which is something of a transitional verse from the previous round of argument into this one; and what’s particularly interesting is that this verse links the patience of God with his people to his faithfulness, his unchanging nature and commitment to his word. “You, O children of Jacob”—righteous and unrighteous alike—“are not destroyed”: why? Because “I the LORD do not change.” Because when God says a thing, he will do it, when he makes a commitment, he holds to it, when he gives a promise, he keeps it—and when he chooses a person or a people, he does not let go, and he does not go back on his choice. He declares to Israel, in effect, that the only reason they still exist is because he is trustworthy—and the same is true for us. If we couldn’t trust God, we wouldn’t be here. Some of us wouldn’t be anywhere at all.

And yet, though we can trust him with our very lives, and with every part of our lives, we don’t, not consistently; sometimes we do better, but distrust keeps creeping in, and the desire to put our trust in ourselves. This is the crux of God’s charge against his people here in Malachi: they’re robbing him because they don’t trust him. They are literally faithless—lacking in the necessary faith to obey God fully. Obedience is an expression of trust; they do not trust, and so they do not obey.

We talked about this earlier this year with respect to money, considering our tendency to put our trust in our money (and our ability to earn more of it) rather than in God; and we’ve talked about it more generally as well, looking at the various ways that we draw back from obeying our Lord and heeding his call in our lives because we don’t quite believe that what he commands us to do is really best—we think we have a better idea. What I think we really need to hear is God’s response to this, which we see clear as crystal in the prophet, because it isn’t the demand for obedience that we tend to imagine.

Consider: the people of Israel are struggling to survive, and so they’re holding back on their giving to God—as they were cheating him with their sacrifices, as we saw a few weeks ago—because they don’t think they can afford to give the full tithe, the full 10%. In response, God says, “Robbing me with your giving isn’t the solution to your financial problems—it’s the cause of your problems. You’re struggling because I’m not blessing you, because you’re not being faithful to me in your giving.”

And then we get this: “Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house”—why? “Or else I’ll continue to curse you?” “Because it’s your duty?” “Because I said so?” No; instead, God says this: “Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, and thereby put me to the test. See if I won’t throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there won’t be room to store it.” In a nutshell, God says, “Just trust me. Just trust me enough to obey me, that I will take care of you better than you can.”

Now, as we’ve noted before, this doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone who gives faithfully will end up materially wealthy; God’s blessings go beyond just numbers in the bank account. But it is a promise that those who are faithful will be blessed in many ways, and that if the nation as a whole will give God what he requires, he will bless the nation and everybody will have enough, without having to fight so hard to survive. We will not have all we want, but he will never fail to give us all we need.

In 2 Corinthians, Paul takes this and develops it in a more individual direction. “You know how it works,” he says: “you reap what you sow. If you only sow a little seed, you only get a small harvest, but if you sow a great deal of seed, you reap a huge harvest.” This, Paul says, is how our giving works, too. We need to remember, first, that God owns everything, including all that is ours to use, and thus that he is ultimately the one who gives us success in our labors, not we ourselves; and second, that not only is he able to bless us with all good things, he wants to do so.

Thus Paul says in verse 8, “God is able to provide you with every kind of blessing in abundance, so that in every circumstance you may always have everything you need and still have ample resources for every kind of good work.” The word “blessing” here is the word kharis, the word “grace,” which underscores the point that the blessings in view here are spiritual, not just material; at the same time, the promise is clear that we don’t have to worry about money. If we give freely, generously and gladly to God, we will always have enough to live as he has given us to live, and to do what he has called us to do.

Note that “freely, generously and gladly” really does matter—how much we give matters, but so do why and how we give. Thus Paul tells the Corinthians, “If you really don’t want to give, or if you’re only giving under pressure or because you’re worried what others will think, then don’t; for it’s the cheerful and open-hearted giver that God loves.” The call is to give generously and gladly back to God from what he has given us, in gratitude for all the ways in which he has blessed us, believing that if we do so, he will continue to bless us and provide for all our needs. Again, the point is trust: are we willing to stake our lives on trust in God rather than trust in our own sweat and our own wits? That kind of trust, that kind of faith, is what God wants from us.

The fact that Paul describes the blessing of God in terms of grain, seed and bread, is telling, I think; because with grain, what you eat and what you sow are the same thing. As such, there’s always the tension—especially in poor areas—between how much of the crop you eat now and how much you sow back into the ground for next year. You can’t sow it all, obviously, or you’ll have nothing to eat this year; but if you eat too much of the harvest, then your harvest next year is guaranteed to be poor, because you can’t reap the benefits of seed you didn’t sow. That’s how it is with the blessings of God, because God hasn’t just blessed us for our own benefit: he’s blessed us so that we have things with which to bless others, and opportunities to do so. Like the grain, God’s gifts are partly for us to keep for ourselves and partly for us to sow in his service.

As such, there’s a feedback loop here; there’s a cycle, the circle of blessing. God provides for us, and out of his providence we give back to him, and that then becomes the basis for more of his blessings to us. This is how it works, how it’s designed to work; this is the nature of the blessings of God. It is God who gives the harvest, it isn’t our own doing, but he gives it out of what we have given back to him as our expression of humble faith in his provision; and then we give back to him again, and he returns again the harvest, and so it goes. Faith in action.

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