What a great theme we have here. It is one of the main themes of New Testament Scripture, interwoven into and permeating almost every aspect of our Lord's teaching. It is at the centre of the Christian life and affects our attitude to just about everything which we do. A thorough understanding of Christian stewardship and a correct attitude to it is basic to our whole Christian life. But do we really understand what true Christian stewardship is about?
Let us clear up one negative first: stewardship is not principally and not exclusively about money. It is quite true that possessions (or money) do come into stewardship, but it is a total distortion to start here and to make money the central issue in any discussion of the subject.
A text quite often used as a basis for a discussion of stewardship is Matthew 6:19, which speaks about laying up treasures upon earth where they rust and are stolen, or laying them up in heaven where these problems do not occur. But it is a misunderstanding of the word "treasures" to suggest that the topic of the verse is money. One can treasure many things in this earth other than money and it makes no sense to talk about laying up in heaven material things such as earthly financial treasures. It must surely be obvious that the context here refers to treasures other than financial ones.
Let's go back to basics.
Do you believe in God? That must be the starting point of our discussion, because we have to accept that God created all things, including ourselves. In the diversity of human experience there are many paths which converge on the one central object, namely God. Well, I'm going to take it for granted that my readers have no doubt about the logic of believing in God.
But then we come to the next question: "What is the nature of this God?" We must realise that conscience, justice, love and care are right at the centre of man's experience. There is in these something equally fundamental to our human experience in the reality of God. We then have to accept that we are made by God, and spiritually we are made in the image of God. We also have to see that there are so many things which come to us in this life which hugely exceed our rights or our reasonable expectations. There is indeed a fundamental force at work in our world which is in our favour, which is caring and immensely tolerant of our perversity and waywardness. Rejoice and be glad in that.
We then identify Christ as the utter likeness of this creative, caring and loving force around us. He has shown the way, indeed he is the way, to the fullest and deepest life, and he has shown us the way if we will but open our eyes and ears and put aside our selfish pride, admit that we have been wrong and start the new and different way of life.
Now we cannot hope to repay God for all he has done for us. When we pause to think how much we take for granted and how much we have received as gifts from God, what can our response be? The Scriptures draw the analogy between father and son, on the one hand, and God and us his children on the other. No father gives to his son on the basis of what he will receive back. So God does not even expect us to repay him for all his work. But, as every father would like to think that his son recognises how good he has been to him and would like his son to show that he realises it, so we must show God that we do indeed recognise our total indebtedness to him.
But further than that, we must accept that all we have comes from God and that it ultimately must be rendered back to him. We have, as it were, got it on loan. We are free to make full use of what he has given us, but in the end we must be prepared to lose it and to give an account of how we have used it. Have we used it for good or for evil? Have we used it for our own selfish ends or has ultimate goodness been seen in our lives as we use his gifts?
Now let us reword these ideas to see their relevance to our present theme. Have we been good stewards of his gifts to us?
This question must be answered in three parts.
How do we use our time?
God was not invented by man as a consolation for our sorrows. He created us and he created us for himself. We owe it all to God and we should rejoice and be glad in that fact. So how much time do we have for God? It has been laid down in the experience of man and by the decree of God that man needs to lay aside one seventh of his time (for other things). In ancient times there were fewer distractions than there are today and that other seventh was naturally spent in worshipping God. A day in seven was laid aside for that purpose. Nowadays there are many distractions, from television to football to what-not, but the principle still holds that man needs time to consider his ultimate destiny. He needs time to learn of God and of the way God would have him live on this earth. Without that, life is hollow and soon becomes pointless. There is no motivation and there is no ultimate goal.
Further, we must consider God's works on this earth. He does not need our help, but do we not have a need to associate ourselves with his work? Without being his servants, how do we really identify with him? We have the need, not him. So we have to find time to do his work on earth. We may feel so busy with our own affairs and we may feel so tired if we are fortunate enough to have had a job all day, but that just means it's time we got our lives sorted out. It's time we got things in perspective and sought out the things that really matter in this world. How much time do we spend in futile activities which do ourselves no good whatsoever and which do no good to anyone else either? How many opportunities are missed and how much time is wasted? How many elderly people need our company or our help. We need time to listen to people, to make them feel wanted and to help them in their troubles and distresses. Oh dear, I don't need to list how we can do God's work, in small ways and sometimes in big. But the real questions are — how much time is wasted? — how many opportunities are thrown away? — have we time for God in our lives?
How do we use our talents?
Each of us has abilities. Some have more than others, no doubt. The situation is clearly described in Matthew 15, in the parable which starts at verse 14. To one man God gave five talents and fewer to the others. But he required that these talents, many or few, should be developed, multiplied and used for his work. We all experience that our talents are developed by use, and they are developed well by good use. They can be left to rust and are then ultimately lost or taken away from us. Or they can be exercised to the glory of God. It is to his glory when we admit them to be God's gifts, but they show his glory far more when they are also used in his work.
I am not simply referring to those who give up everything to be his ministers and missionaries. Many of them indeed have been given great talents which they develop and use in his work and to his glory. But many of us do not have the correct talents for this particular field of work and it is essential that we should recognise that very many other jobs are equally the work of God. The central point is that we seek to have worthwhile talents and to develop them to his glory. Just as the body requires physical exercise to keep the muscles in good trim, so all our talents require exercising. How does the mathematician develop his skills but by exercising them, often on problems which have already been solved by others? How does the speaker develop his skill but by speaking? And this applies to absolutely everything within the broadest sweep of human endeavour.
But the experience of centuries has shown that never are talents developed so well as when they are used to the glory of God. Even in activities which are not specifically seen as church activities, it is necessary to see the use of our time and our talents as part of the work which God has given as opportunities for us to serve him and to glorify him. There is no sitting on the fence in these matters. Even those who hold back from the fullest commitment to Christ are seen by the outside world as "those Christians". So if they fail as stewards, then they have done harm to the cause of Christ and therefore have acted against him. They are not neutral. There is a deep truth in the verse in Luke 11:23, where Christ says, "he that is not with me is against me". And being "with me" is not a passive thing. It is a continuous activity which requires our time and the exercise and development of our talents.
There is a sense in which it is the minister who, by virtue of his particular position, has the easy way out. He does what is expected of him and he gets free access where others can have difficulty. But the pastoral care of people requires time and skill, caring for the innermost needs of people. On the other hand there is a great deal of manual work which old folk are unable to do, but need desperately. It is sometimes thought that only work about the church is God's work, but hammering a nail in for an elderly lady can be far more God's work than painting all the church railings. And where is there greater need these days than for time spent with young people?
How do we use our possessions?
We cannot get entirely away from the issue of possessions, or money. But now we can see this issue in the context of the whole of stewardship. We are, given our possessions as gifts of God. We may sometimes feel that we have worked jolly hard for them, to provide for ourselves and our families. But all our work and effort would be of no avail if God was not with us. He has enabled us to do things which are gainful. All the better that these activities should exercise our talents, redound to his glory and at the same time be gainful to ourselves. But we cannot get away from the fact that our gains are the gift of God. He has allowed us to have them and now there is the question of how we are going to use these possessions. How much for our own comfort — for the needs of our families — for the support of God's work on earth? We will have to lay up something for possible adversity or old age, since we should not plan to be dependent on others' charity in our times of weakness and need. But what is the balance in all these things?
There are no easy answers to these questions, but every person must consider them seriously in the light of the fact that we would have nothing but for the grace and goodness of the Lord.
Unfortunately, some people make the argument that the church does not spend their (or the Lord's) money on the right things. And other folk have other criticisms. But you see, we are a democratic church. We all have the right to express our thoughts, but equally we are all obliged to accept the will of the majority. Above all, we have no right to withhold our support of any kind from the Lord on the pretext that we don't like how it is used by his other servants. But we do have the right to express our views on how the church's money should be spent. And we do have the right to expect that courts and committees of the church will not ignore our views. But when there is a diversity of opinion and none have overriding Scriptural backing, then democratic methods must prevail. It must be clearly recognised on the one hand by committees that ours is a democratic church, and if you can't persuade the people then you can't go forward. On the other hand it must be clearly recognised that withholding time or talents or possessions from God is not an option.
A healthy balance
So the challenge is: "where do you exercise your stewardship?" Take up James' challenge and show your faith by your works. Accept that faith without works is dead and useless. Do you spend time with God and time for God? Do you develop your talents and use them to the glory of God. Do you share your possessions with him? To share your possessions with him is still required even if you spend time for him and use your talents for him.
If you spend little of your time and talents then how much more is it necessary to fulfill that third requirement! If your particular talents do not give you as great an opportunity as you would like for service, then there is no doubt that money will allow others the greater opportunity to give total service. Undoubtedly there are many essential modes of service which are best undertaken by those who have devoted the whole of their lives to those tasks and have developed the necessary talents to a high degree.
On the other hand, there are no kinds of activity which are exclusively for the full time professional. Even the preacher and missionary Paul worked as a tent maker and claimed he needed nobody's charity — his collections were for the widows of Jerusalem.
But do not make the mistake of thinking that you can pay for shortcomings in the first two items by simply increasing your givings. There has to be a healthy balance involving all these three points if you are to enjoy a healthy spiritual Christian life.
A healthy exercise of Christian stewardship will enliven congregational life and allow the Christian church to exercise itself in a new and renewing way in the community. It will be seen at the work bench, in the office and at the desk. The electrifying stimulus of giving God his place in life will bring new life, but it will also give light to the community and will sharpen the salt of Christian influence in our land. There is the challenge.
Where do you stand in your Christian stewardship? Where do you exercise your time, your talents and how do you use your possessions?