It’s rare to find a book that deals so practically with theology. Mark Allan Powell has unpacked the often-contentious subject of stewardship quite deftly, however, making plain what clergy and academics have tried to parse for years. Particularly since the Protestant divorce from the Catholic Church, stewardship has been called into question. Rigorous campaigns at parishes across the world have often aimed to ensure that parishioners are tithing. But the sense of obligation that this instills damages the true spirit of stewardship. Indeed, as Powell articulates, stewardship applied to material possessions is often responded to with disgust. Who is the church to demand money of me? I, myself, have seen this play out at churches I have been a part of; it leaves one feeling the need to be remunerated, the need to “get something out of church.” I never left mass feeling very good about myself when the traditional sermon was replaced with a lesson on the merits of giving—straight from the pulpit.
A sensitive approach to stewardship of material and intangible gifts is imperative for all faithful. It’s not important because it is required for the survival of churches, or for the payment of salaries, or for building maintenance. Rather, it is important because it helps us understand the nature of worship while building a spiritual maturity in relationship with the divine. Shouldn’t there be, after all, a spiritual core to stewardship?
There are several points that Powell brings up that got me thinking. For the sake of his explanation of stewardship, these points are sufficient in themselves. At the same time, however, they are ripe for elaboration. And, as I am intent on understanding human nature as it relates to the divine, I feel them worth exploring.
Part of Powell’s re-definition of stewardship (counter to obligatory giving) involves an understanding that when we give our gifts in worship—material or intangible—we are “expressing heartfelt devotion to the God that is so good to us.” But I think we can take this to a deeper level – an existential one.
If God created all things in this world, as Powell articulates, then we, too, are of God, as are all our gifts, abilities, and talents. When we give these back to God in worship, we consciously recognize that we are a part of God. Tame as this may sound, it is immensely powerful; to be aware of our commingling in life of God and ourselves is to be aware of a much broader sense of being. The gifts we give, then, are no longer dollar bills or cans of soup; they are symbols of temporary keeping that connect us with the divine. Pretty amazing that a can of soup can do that, isn’t it?
At the same time that our existence in and with God is a beautiful thing, it can also be dangerous. We shouldn’t think that this enables us to act according to our will because it is, without fault, that of God. Indeed not. We are separate beings, while at the same time being a part of God. The key, I think, is recognizing that we are not ALL of God, whatever that may mean. We live in and through Him, but are not Him. Does that make sense?
Think of it in terms of human relationships. You know your best friend well—perhaps better than anyone else. So much so, that experiences he or she has are affected by the relationship that you have with them. You are a part of them in that their personality has become a regular part of your living experience. You rituals, habits, and activities coincide. In a similar way, God works through us. We are uniquely ourselves, and yet, are shaped by our ever-growing and expanding relationship with Him. Just like a human relationship, however, if we neglect God and fail to spend time with Him, we lose our connection; we fall further from away from the divine.
In terms of stewardship, our giving of gifts is not only a recognition of our involvement in God’s life, but also a commitment to restore, preserve, and maintain everything that God is. If we are a part of God, doesn’t it stand to reason that everyone is? And if our spirit grows through a deepening relationship with God, shouldn’t we do our best to make sure God—as manifested in humanity—remains healthy? So we give our gifts to help others and in so doing, maintain an enriching relationship with God. Here’s the problem: If we approach stewardship in this way, we risk looking at God as something or someone that can be improved, shaped, or changed. We might even go so far as to give gifts that improve aspects of God in the world that we think would suit us best. Yet, as we innately know, God knows what’s best for us, and often, it’s not what we think is best for us. Even more important to understand: God cannot be changed.
So where do we balance things out and keep a check in place? Relationships. Giving to God is not only about giving material gifts at church that we know will be distributed to needy people. We can’t do this assuming that others’ well-being will ensure our right relationship with God. Instead, we need to interact with God directly; we need to reach out to other people who need our help. In so doing, we will build genuine relationship. And what comes from relationships? A deeper understanding of how the world is seen and God is understood, ourselves being a part of both. In this way, we learn about what God’s will is in an unbiased manner. Discernment on our own is only part of the picture. We have to listen to others’ thoughts, views, feelings, and ideas. What do our new friends think is best for us? Their ideas might well be drastically different than what our own.
Lastly, I would venture to say that stewardship should never be done solely out of a desire to improve our own well-being. This is fundamentally contrary to what stewardship truly is. I’m not sure you can even call this kind of giving stewardship; it’s giving as a means to receive. True stewardship is giving for its own sake; it is a recognition of giving as worship, as a statement of faith, and as a discipline for spiritual growth. While obligation is certainly no pretense for giving, neither is egocentrism. Strange though it may seem, it is this sort of giving that created such a problem for the Catholic Church. How else can we see the indulgences that were the spark of the great Reformation? The dangers of turning in on self are just as apparent today. While we might not create international turmoil and schism, we could very well alienate friends, family, and damage a fulfilling relationship with the divine. And since we are a part of that divinity, what do you suppose it would do to us?