When our family moved to Poland in 1991, we left behind a wealthy area of Southern California. In fact, the church where I’d served was in one of the world’s wealthiest cities.
Even though my wife and I came from humbler roots, we had lived in Orange County as a married couple for seven years. When we arrived in Poland, we entered a very different world.
The Communist government had just collapsed, and the economy was in very bad shape. Seeing so many people face severe financial hardship deeply impacted Marla and me. A good full-time salary was $300/month.
Distribution systems had collapsed, the private sector was slowly beginning to emerge, and the entire country was experiencing food and fuel shortages. Getting basic and essential items often required widespread searches and long lines, and many people didn’t have the financial resources even if they could find what they needed.
I remember the phone ringing one day. Our missionary friends from Texas—also now in Krakow— were calling to tell us they’d found tortilla chips at a store in the city square. I immediately jumped on the bus and headed downtown. I was so excited you might have thought they were giving away free kielbasa.
I arrived at the store and—sure enough—the chips were there! The price per bag was 50,000 zloty (zloty is the Polish currency), about $4 US. At that time Polish people had no idea what a tortilla chip was, and 50,000 zloty ($4 US) meant the chips would have been a very extravagant purchase.
I told the owner I wanted seven bags. (I chose seven because it was the easiest number for me to say that was close to ten.) He repeated my seven back to me, thinking I had misspoken, or that he had misheard, because only an idiot would spend 350,000 zloty on some weird food item.
I repeated seven; then he repeated seven. We both said seven at least seven times until he wrote the number on a piece of paper to confirm my lunacy. I bought the chips and headed home. I felt as if I’d bagged a deer out in the woods for the family meat supply!
And to celebrate his big sale, the owner closed the store for the day—and probably went home and told his wife how crazy Americans can be.
Too Poor to Give?
Poland—like so many of the Eastern European countries—experienced a dramatic economic revival in the 1990s, but it was grim at the beginning of our time there.
And Marla and I were profoundly impacted by the harsh reality we’d entered. We struggled to reconcile the wealth we’d left behind with the poverty we found in Poland.
We also deeply desired to fit in to our new culture. We studied Polish, ate Polish food, worshipped in a Polish church, and made every effort to enculturate ourselves. Soon we discovered that an essential aspect of melding into a new culture is disconnecting from your old culture.
To do so, you find negative qualities of your former culture and criticize them so that you feel—in my case—more Polish. One quality I focused on to criticize was the wealth and materialism of the United States.
The economic poverty in Poland and my critique of American materialism combined to make me an outspoken spokesperson for the “They’re too poor to give” movement. I squashed any wealthy American who even delicately suggested that Poles should support their own ministry.
I had at the ready a set of stories that painted a stark picture of the economic plight of Polish Christians—stories I knew would make Americans feel guilty. In some cases, I made people feel bad for even suggesting the possibility of a self-supporting ministry in Poland.
I would later come to regret this era in my life, but at the time I was a “radical” Christian in the John the Baptist mold!
And this same “They’re too poor to give” phenomenon still exists today. Across television and the media, even within our Christian community, is the subtle message that there are the haves and the have-nots. The haves should give, and the have-nots should receive.
This way of thinking is based on the notion that many people are too poor to give. Now, this is not a book about Christian relief work or cures for poverty.
However, I will tell you that the message I advocated in my early ministry days was simply not biblical. In fact, I was grievously wrong. I also discovered that my thinking didn’t match reality.
I discovered that before speaking about people being too poor to give, maybe the “poor” should be consulted.
Someone Forgot to Tell Them…
I was in a church in Southwestern Uganda alongside a Christian leader I greatly admire, Bishop Cranmer Mugisha. Bishop Cranmer had asked me to travel with him and preach at a service where he would be confirming new members.
I won’t go into all the details, but a Humvee would have had difficulty on the road we had to travel. And if I ever get kidney stones, I’ll go back there for a visit.
We eventually did make it to the sanctuary with its dirt floor, no windows, and an amazing number of people packed in for the service. I had the opportunity to preach, and then the people sang and danced to honor the bishop.
Afterward, an altar boy in a white robe came out with an envelope and ceremoniously handed it to me. On the envelope was written “Preacher.” It was my honorarium. It totaled 6,000 schilling ($2 US).
To this day I have that envelope and gift pinned on the bulletin board over my desk. It remains one of the most precious gifts I’ve ever received. Someone forgot to tell them that they were too poor to give.
Someone also forgot to tell the Philippians, as we see in 2 Corinthians 8:
"Brothers and sisters, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. In the midst of a very severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the Lord’s people. And they exceeded our expectations: They gave themselves first of all to the Lord, and then by the will of God also to us." (2 Corinthians 8:1-5 NIV)
Before looking at the Macedonians’—aka Philippians’—giving, let’s look at their circumstances. Macedonia is a region in what we know today as the Balkans.
At the time of Paul, Macedonia was a Greek-speaking district and part of the vast Roman Empire. Philippi was a city in Macedonia, established by the Romans and home to many former Roman legionnaires.
Paul had visited Philippi and later written his letter—“the gospel of joy”—to the Christians there. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul praised them especially regarding their gracious material support of his ministry.
In 2 Corinthians 2:13 and 7:5, Paul indicated that he wrote 2 Corinthians from Macedonia where he was, among other things, fundraising for the Jerusalem church.
In 2 Corinthians 8:1-5, Paul noted two issues affecting the church of Philippi:
- Extreme Poverty – The church was characterized as extremely poor (v. 2). In fact, the term (ba,qouj ptwcei,a) in Greek could be literally translated “rock-bottom poor.” Rocks are at the bottom of a well, the bottom of the cistern, the bottom of a stream or river. Nothing in that well, cistern, or river is below that rock. In other words, the members of the Philippian church were the poorest of the poor.
- Persecution – According to Paul’s letter, the believers in Philippi were being persecuted. In verse 2, Paul’s exact words were in the midst of a very severe trial, (o[ti evn pollh/| dokimh/| qli,yewj). He wasn’t clear whether this trial was economic and related to the rock-bottom poverty mentioned or whether the trial was persecution due to their faith in Jesus Christ. Whatever the case, the Christian community was suffering.
Yet even from this place of extreme poverty and persecution, the Philippian believers gave.
This is what Paul said about their giving:
- They took the initiative. They chose entirely on their own to give to the offering for the Jerusalem church (2 Corinthians 8:3 NIV).
- In fact, they pleaded to participate in the offering (v. 4). Paul didn’t have to convince or coerce them. They begged to contribute.
- The Philippians knew the Jerusalem church was experiencing hardship and—perhaps because of their own struggling—felt an urgency to give (v. 4).
- The Philippians saw the offering as a ministry to God (v. 5) and to His people in Jerusalem (v. 4). The word service (th/j diakoni,aj) is a form of the word deacon in Greek and connotes serving, service, waiting, relief, aid, or commissioning for ministry.
- They gave beyond what Paul thought they would be able to give (v. 3). Paul had some idea of the resources available and seemed amazed by the amount the Philippians gave. It was more than he thought they would give.
This passage gives us quite an example of godly giving and, in fact, sets the bar high. Even though the church was experiencing extreme poverty and a severe trial of some kind, the believers overflowed with joy and gave generously.
This giving of even more than they seemed able to give was evidence of God’s grace flowing through them. They clearly desired to give glory to God by sharing with and serving God’s people.
We find no hint that the Philippians thought of themselves as have-nots unable to give and able only to receive.
What is God teaching us in this passage?
I believe He would have us understand that no one is too poor to give and that every believer can experience the grace and dignity and joy of giving by sharing according to his means. In fact, seeing the gifts of those with meager resources is inspiring!
It seems that Paul cited the example of the Philippians to encourage the Corinthians to follow through on their financial commitments.
After all, the Corinthians had made those commitments before God, and we know that God takes them seriously, a topic we will address in due course.
Furthermore, the Corinthians lived in a city that scholars widely believe was a generally wealthy metropolis. Not so subtly, Paul seemed to remind them that the rock-bottom-poor Philippians had given generously. Maybe that fact would prompt the Corinthians to participate in the Jerusalem offering.
I don’t believe that Paul’s major concern was to teach the Corinthians that no one is too poor to give. However, I do believe that the important truth is evident in this passage. No one is too poor to give.
And writing that very true statement reminds me of how wrong I was in my early years of ministry in Poland. Most definitely, I was traveling on the wrong road. Next week we will look at the practical impact of this truth.