Breaking Out of Poverty
by Jack Hayford
Poverty is more than not having; it is a spirit that is always fearful of not having. That fear affects the entire human race, being so massive a force that even though a person has much he still tends to think it will never be enough.
We are born crying out, our clutching fingers grasping for what we want. Although mind and body develop and tears and tantrums come under reasonable control, only a work of grace can remove our insatiable sense of needing to get, to have, and to keep for ourselves.
I did not recognize how this mentality had characterized my own pastoral work and church leadership. Whatever I did notice, I would never have defined as selfishness, for the self-protectiveness begotten by the spirit of poverty is usually different from greediness. But even though it is not as hateful as stinginess, it can bind us as badly. I would eventually discover how much more motivated I was to get than to give, but the trait had become well-masked in peculiar and seemingly spiritual ways.
I my first pastorate, for example, I did door-to-door work, sincerely believing I was pursuing a Christ-honoring search for the unchurched. God was gracious to allow us to see a few souls brought to His Son through those efforts, but I realize now I was moved more by concern for how my pastorate would grow rather than with Jesus' compassion:
But when He saw the multitudes, He was moved with compassion on them,
because they fainted, and were scattered abroad, as sheep having no shepherd. (Matthew 9:36, KJV)
Another trait of that fear manifested when visitors came to a service. I was tempted to cater to them at the expense of forthrightness. I might have called it diplomacy, but it was in fact dishonesty, motivated by the fear of not being able to "get a crowd" unless I used humanized methods. Experience had taught me how, by the casual modification of some remarks, I could attempt to provide an image of the church that might persuade a visitor's continued attendance.
But I learned that promotional banter, slick presentations, and glad-handed superficiality may gain someone's membership, but it will never cultivate people of strong character and true commitment.
The evidence of such poverty-mindedness—the fear of not getting—eventually surfaced in my thought patterns and terminology.
One Sunday, shortly after we came to pastor in Van Nuys, California, a family of five visited our morning worship. As a result of information I gained while talking with them following the service, I remarked to Anna on the way home, "It sure would be nice to get them into the church. We could use a family like that."
It was then that the Holy Spirit helped me to hear myself: Get. Use. I was smitten with shameful awareness, and for several days I reflected on what seemed like a hundred behavioral patterns undergirded by a spirit that was fundamentally wrong.
Poverty—the fear of not getting, of not having—had to go. Faulty material in the foundation must be removed at any cost. So I submitted to God's Spirit. There could be no true building of the Church of Jesus Christ by my scheming and promoting, or by any concern preoccupied with getting. you can't partner with Christ in His building of the Church if you have clutching hands.
And therein lay a further discovery. My basic fault was my failure to perceive that Jesus is not only the Church's Foundation; He is also its Architect and Builder. "I will build My Church," he announced on a mountainside in Galilee long ago. Now those words were being engraved on my soul.
When I repented, God released a flow of love and giving from me that would eventually take over the congregation. We would come to realize and live in the awareness that the Church's reason for being is to give away and to serve; to lay down its life and watch the Lord Jesus work resurrection miracles over and over.
A refining point of discovery in this realm occurred when the Lord spoke to me again only two months after I saw God's glory in our sanctuary. This message helped me discover several basic principles about Christ and His Church, and it included a perspective on finances that began the liberation process in me and in the leaders within our congregation.
It was past one o'clock in the morning as I sat in our living room rocking chair, my bathrobe wrapped around me against the late-night chill. As I waited in prayer, I paused at one point in my intercession, and with crystal clarity the Lord spoke. His question seemed very peculiar to me.
"You don't believe you're in My will, do you?"
I couldn't have agreed less or been puzzled more. I did believe I was in His will, yet He was suggesting that I didn't—not really. I kept my mouth shut and my mind open.
"Do you believe you are to be pastoring?"
I nodded affirmatively, as though He were seated across from my chair.
"Do you believe you are to pastor in Van Nuys?"
Again I affirmed as much.
"Do you believe you are to pastor the Van Nuys Foursquare Church?"
Of course I did! What kind of a quiz was this? God had suggested I didn't believe I was in His will, yet everything He asked I was affirming.
And then came His final thrust, one that left me in complete disarray:
"You believe that being in the Foursquare denomination is your own idea."
My mind reeled. A dozen different streams of thought converged at once. For the next several moments I attempted to sort them out.
It was true, although I had never perceived it in those terms. I was in the Foursquare denomination. I wasn't unhappy about it nor was I thinking of leaving for another group or becoming independent.
But, upon analysis, I realized I did believer "being Foursquare" was my own decision. I had come to a Foursquare Bible College for training years before, and the natural flow of events seemed to draw me into that fellowship.
Sure. I guess I did think it was a matter of natural choice. I mean, after all, isn't being in a particular denomination anyone's own decision? Surely God doesn't care which you choose. I mean, He's basically indifferent to the whole ecclesiastical hodgepodge, and only actually cares about people, not church groups, and...
...And now my thoughts were being interrupted by a revelation from God's heart to mine. He was showing me that I didn't truly believer it was His will for me to be in the Foursquare Church; and suddenly I saw three things.
First, I saw the ludicrous nature of the supposition that I could claim to be in God's will pastoring the Van Nuys Foursquare Church if the "Foursquare" part was immaterial. It was an inseparable proposition, the significance of which had been wholly imperceptible to me until the moment.
The second thing I saw was that God loves denominations.
Please notice, I did not say God loves denominationalism. Denominationalism is seen in the smallness, divisiveness, and sniping that proceed from the sectarian love of a denomination for its own sake. That mind-set completely lacks God's endorsement.
Such "isms" may be embraced by independents or denominations and called "a kindred spirit." But the painful truth is that often the spirit of supposed unity is actually a sectarian party spirit, born along by a false order of joy derived through self-congratulation over one's own doctrinal purity, personal piety, ecclesiastical accomplishment, or public recognition. This separation is an "ism," and needs to be seen as such.
Yet God does love denominations, because God loves people. The true essence of a denomination is that it is a distinct family group of people within the larger family of our Father, "of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named" (Ephesians 3:15, KJV). Just as Israel had tribes with family groups within those tribes, yet they were all one people, so the Church is not outside of the divine will where denominations exist.
What transgresses God's will is the absence of love, and the pride that supposes any of us has a corner on truth. We need to see that our denomination of apple trees is only part of the ranch, and that trees of oranges, apricots, peaches, and even lemons might be as fruitful in His eyes as our own self-approved corner of the field.
Furthermore, it jarred me to see that God might have some isolated trees outside the orchards, as a professional landscaper might have for ornamentation. In other words what appeared to me to be "independent" churches may have a place in His plan, too.
The danger of sectarian smallness can grip an independent pastor, of course, as readily as it could grip me as a denominational pastor. We are all vulnerable to the pride that carries us toward self-assertion and self-authentication, prying us apart from each other, binding us in the rigidity of lovelessness.
The third revelation flashing into my awareness in that midnight moment was that God told me my denomination was right in all its processes and procedures. While I presume all of us seek to be as precisely structured to New Testament church methods as possible, we would all do well to acknowledge honestly that there isn't enough information in the Scriptures to instruct us conclusively in our own formation of ecclesiastical structures.
Any debate as to whether the congregational, episcopal, or Presbyterian form of church government is most righteous, or as to whether deacons or elders ought to lead the church, or as to whether a congregation ought to use literature from the presses of its denomination exclusively, or as to which parachurch organizations are justified and which are not—all this debate is so much rhetorical rummaging.
God could not care less about our self-justifying arguments. The real issue is this: Do you function in a spirit of submission and loving self-giving in the circle of fellowship where He has placed you?
That night the issue was solved for me, because I was not functioning in that spirit. It was not as though I was making trouble or arguing or sowing discord, because I wasn't. Rather, my unwillingness to submit showed up in the partial participation I gave toward the financial program of my denomination.
Nor was I alone in this limited pattern of cooperation. I had learned it from the majority of pastors in our fellowship. Let me explain.
Our denomination funds its mission by a monthly "extension tithe." This guideline calls for each participating church to send ten percent of its general tithes and offerings each month to the regional office of the denomination. (Missionary offerings and specially designated funds, such as building or development gifts, are exempt from the extension tithe.)
Although the corporate bylaws of the denomination show this tithe to be a required point of participation, the matter has come to depend over the years on the leadership of each local pastor. Thus, the extension tithe has become a voluntary matter, and I never heard of a pastor or congregation being disciplined for not participating in the program.
The irony of our situation was that, at the time, we were sending a "token tithe" or $100 per month to our regional office when our church's monthly income was about $2,500. This tokenism was not uncommon with many Foursquare congregations, but when I look back, I marvel at how I rationalized this practice.
What a ridiculous term—"token tithe." To be sure! Imagine Abraham saying to Melchizedek, "You know, sir, the plunder from this victory is so great that it seems unreasonable to give you a full tenth. If you please, I think I'll simply give you this token, which I think you'll agree is quite sizable enough."
It's sadly laughable; for the Bible says that Abraham, in whose footsteps of faith the New Testament tells us all to walk (Romans 4:12-16), "gave him tithes of all" (Genesis 14:20, italics added).
I was beginning to realize that my pastoral leadership would determine the mood of the whole congregation. First, the spirit of poverty was dictating a withheld tithe; and that fear of not having enough--the fear of giving more than we had to--had to be broken. Further, the spirit of submission in all of our congregation could be extended or hindered by my response.
I am convinced that the conflicts within many congregations are simply the sad projection of the pastor's own lack of submission to God's will in some part of his own life. Psalm 133, which celebrates the blessedness of brethren dwelling in unity, says that unity is "like the precious ointment upon the head, that ran down upon the beard, even Aaron's beard: that went down to the skirts of his garments" (vv. 1-2, KJV).
Unity flows down from the head, and I cannot expect any more unity, love, or submittedness in my congregation than I exhibit in the way I obey God; in the way I lead my household in love and peace; and in the way I submit to those whom God has placed over me in government, be it civil or ecclesiastical.
God was not endorsing my denomination's financial plan above any other, but He was teaching me that the imperfection in all human government can be compensated for only by His grace. That grace flows in its richest dimensions only when those within a group submit graciously and lovingly to the methods of operation by which that particular group has chosen to govern itself. It is only wisdom to perceive that His government is in spirit and truth, and is not perfected in the hands of legalists, but in the hearts of free and loving people.
As a result of this late-night encounter with the Lord, I asked the men of our church council to meet with me. I told them I believed we should bring our church's extension tithe to a consistent tenth, and I explained why. Relating God's dealing with me on this matter, I went on to explain.
Our particular denomination, I observed, took the principle of the extension tithe from Numbers 18:26, in which the Lord told Moses to require the Levites to offer a tithe of the tithes they received to Him. (See also Nehemiah 10:38.)
A New Testament principle was also at stake:
Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God. (Romans 13:1-2, KJV)
When I expressed how deeply it appeared to me that God was summoning us to manifest our submission to those authorities that He had placed over us in family association, the brothers consented heartily. We paid our tithe, retroactive to the preceding month, and from that date we have given as a faithful minimum.
That sum for that year totaled over one-third of a million dollars, and we delight in the knowledge that those monies were used by our denomination's leaders, among other needful things, to help birth many new congregations in different parts of the Nation, and to strengthen weak churches unto health.
With that decision, it was as though a lid came off. An entirely new viewpoint captured my mind, and the liberty it brought began to swell within the hearts of those in the congregation. While every congregation has its own basic financial needs to tend to, we began to realize that our largest responsibility was to be available prayerfully and unselfishly to give. The giving was more than merely monetary. It affected other attitudes of selfishness we had failed to recognize.
When people felt they were to leave our church to go to another, for example, instead of forcing them to slip out the side door secretively, as it were, we began to teach people a fearlessness in this regard. Members of the congregation became free to express to the pastor or elders their sense of God's direction when they felt drawn to another assembly.
We refused to attempt to dissuade them. We began to take delight in sending people forth with our blessing, allowing them to go with a positive sense of God's purpose and ministry for them. Our will to function in this spirit was not less gracious when folks expressed their plans to attend a congregation of another denomination.
And, as we served and gave more and more, doors of opportunity opened more and more, making room for God to show His hand of power and provision through us.
This is no magic wand principle. Learning to give does not preempt recurrent lessons in faith or periodic confrontations again with the fearful spirit of poverty.
And I wholly reject the popularized notion that to break poverty is to enter into a self-gratifying wealth. Without recognizing it, some American Bible teachers have developed an unbiblical, humanistic theology of abundance that is, in actuality, nothing more than an attempt to justify North American acquisitiveness and affluence. This attempt to give license to selfishness washes out in the face of life's realities being lived by most people in the rest of the world.
Neither will it hold water when character-testing trials confront believers in this land. I do affirm that God wants us all to abound, and the Bible does teach that poverty is a broken curse; but the abundance He wants to lavish upon us—upon His Church—is not for our own aggrandizement. It is for our service and ministry to the rest of His Body and to the world.
Just as the breaking of poverty does not argue for a superficial justification of affluence, neither does it result from a mismanaged giveaway philosophy. Some idealists have proposed that everyone in the Church should give away everything. They propose that we be "like the New Testament church," and they quote from the book of Acts to underscore their supposedly righteous program of "community"—everybody having the same things.
But Acts 4:32-5:1 illustrates a responsible sharing in need, not an equalizing of resources. God does bless people who learn diligence, order, and management, and there is no guilt to be associated with the possession of large resources. But the possession of much is not the essence of freedom from poverty. The essence of this freedom is freedom from the need to get; freedom from the need to be in control; freedom from the need to protect yourself compulsively at every turn.
So it was that we began to realize the beginning of freedom from the yoke of poverty. Monies tithed were discovered to "cost" us nothing; for God's blessing, which cannot be bought, is released through this obedience. People released in faith to serve elsewhere went away with their relationship to us intact, and the Holy Spirit was freed to expand us because of our interest in Christ's whole Church, rather than a preoccupation with only our own.
People sent are given, not lost. Monies sent or expended are directed or invested, not "spent," for you cannot actually spend what comes from Him and "we give it out of His Hand" (I Chronicles 29:14, Dutch translation).