Testing God with my finances
Here is the story about how Terry and Ralph Modica’s testimony about sacrificial giving affected the life of Nancy (Gardner) Viola, as explained to the congregation of her parish during a stewardship drive in 2003.
I am a single mom of two, and the step mom of five grown children and ten Grandchildren. My youngest, Mindy, lives at home while attending college. I’m also a college student as well as a second-year student in the Lay Pastoral Ministry Institute. When time permits me to do so, I serve as Reader, Eucharist Minister or Altar Server at our Daily Masses and have recently signed up to be a Reader here at the 11:30 Sunday Mass. I’m also involved in a local Catholic Lay Evangelization organization called “Good News Ministries”. On top of all this, I work in Tampa as a Senior Staff Accountant.
Well, now that you know about me, I’ll explain why I am here talking to you this morning.
Father Pat telephoned me a few weeks ago asking if I would give a testimony on stewardship. I took a big gulp and then said yes, I would be happy to. That was no lie. In fact I really am happy to be here to share with you my story of how I got this opportunity to speak with you today.
Now, if I was a gambling woman, I would wager that someone is here this morning who is just like me; someone is wishing they woke up this morning not feeling good and opted to miss Mass on this particular fine morning. ANY excuse would do if it would have allowed you to avoid hearing this message. Well, it’s no joke when I say that I have felt that exact same way. I truly dislike it when Father has to ask for money from the pulpit. But, as I have heard Father Pat say before, “It’s a dirty job but someone’s got to do it.” And so Father Pat thought of me.
I’ve been a practicing Catholic for about 26 years now. However, I’ve not always tithed my earnings. Shortly after I returned to the Church back in 1977, I joined the Contemporary Choir in the little town where I lived. I sang and played the guitar and considered that as a “good enough” tithing. And indeed, that is part of stewardship: giving of your time and talent.
One Sunday in 1996, I was sitting in the choir section, doing my duty of giving my time and talent, with my bass guitar in my lap, patiently waiting to hear the homily. I remember this particular Sunday and I’ll tell you why in a moment. So there I was, eager to hear what Father had to say about that day’s readings, when instead he just stood up momentarily in front of his chair and told us to listen to the couple he had invited to speak to us about “stewardship”. He sat down while I watched this couple approached the podium.
The hair on the back of my neck went up as I thought, “Here we go again.” I had to listen to yet another yuppie couple tell me how to spend my hard-earned money. Even though I was playing and singing in the choir and had served as a CCD teacher for my daughter’s 8th grade class earlier that same morning, deep down inside was a tiny feeling of guilt for never giving any of my money to the church. On one hand, I felt it was right to throw away the church envelopes that were mailed to me each month, but on the other hand, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. So, I just left them there in the pile of unpaid bills.
No, it never felt right about not giving. I tried to logic away my guilt by justifying in my mind God’s view of how I was handling the whole situation. My “logic” had figured that God must be tallying my time and talent as being well over that 10% which he was asking from us. So, needless to say, I was a bit miffed to have to sit there and listen to this couple talk about a subject that always made me quite uncomfortable.
I don’t know if it was the timing of the message, or the message itself, but for some reason, THIS message sank deep into my ears. From there it went into my brain and sank even deeper into my heart. I could not ignore this couple’s words that poured out of them like bullets from a machine gun being fired directly at me. That night, I went home wondering what the heck hit me?!
Now, here is how God works. At the time, I didn’t know this couple. But two years later, in a freakish sort of way, I met the woman and we became fast friends. Not because of what she had to say that day. In fact, it wasn’t until a few years later that I found out it was these same two people who had given that speech. But, since we did indeed become friends, I was able to obtain that same speech for your ears today. Since I don’t know why this speech touched me so powerfully, I have to conclude that Jesus actually wrote it by using their hands and voices to get HIS message across to me. I figure there has got to be someone here today who will hear this message as I did back then, and therefore I’m honored to be here to share it with you today.
As I read parts of their speech to you, I’ll pause and interject thoughts that came to me that day. This is my story of how I began to grow closer to God through this calling of tithing. Their speech began with a brief introduction and then Jesus must have entered the room with the next line:
God’s ways are not our ways. God’s thoughts are higher than our thoughts. We are here to share with you our journey. A lesson from God about sacrificial giving.
Sacrificial giving? HA! Here is where I sat back in my chair, crossed my arms over my guitar and put on the face of disgust and rolling eyes. I was listening, but with my defensively bad attitude! But surprisingly listening none the less.
They went on to say:
In 1975, when we were first married, we didn’t know that God cared about our daily needs. But then we read Matthew 6:25-26: “Do not worry about your life…Look at the birds of the air… Your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?” We began to learn: “Do not be afraid, do not worry about tomorrow; God knows our needs and will take care of us.”
Well, those opening lines struck a chord in me. I had recently left my husband and was struggling to make ends meet on a meager $250 a week take-home pay. I began to listen to see how they were going to tie God caring about me, and MY life, with giving my hard-earned money to the Church. They had my attention now as they went on:
We heard talks on sacrificial giving and tithing (giving 10% of all income), but we were sure we could NOT afford to give more than a dollar a week.
Wow! I thought to myself. A dollar a week! That was far more than I was giving!
They said: We served in other ways…
Well, I did have to admit that I had something in common with this couple, and I decided to let go of my defensive attitude. I began to tune in and pay closer attention to what they had to say as they continued:
We heard someone say: “If you really want to know whom or what you love and serve, look at your checkbook.”
I reared back with a sarcastic thought “Look at MY checkbook?” Well, if you looked at all the minus signs in my checkbook, you’d think I was a terrible follower of MY god unless red ink kept him well fed. But then they struck yet another chord when they begin to list their true gods:
We looked and realized that we served many strange gods, gods with strange names such as Visa, MasterCard…. However Matthew 6:24 says: “You cannot serve both God and money.”
Here, the woman gave a litany of statistics that I really was not listening to. I was still picturing the gods listed in MY checkbook… gods such as Rent, Electricity, Groceries, Gasoline, Auto Insurance. Back then, I didn’t have credit cards; I didn’t make enough money and my husband left me with really bad credit. So I thought, how can these entries in my checkbook be gods? They were for things I needed in order to survive. I was puzzled and began to wonder if they meant that these too were gods. Were these MY gods at that time? My attention grew and I continued to listen:
We decided to shift our focus off of money TO GOD. That meant deciding to not worry about tomorrow, but to trust God instead.
Here is where I really began to connect with this couple and what they were saying. We were not in the same league, but we spoke the same language in that I too focused all my thoughts on MONEY. I was always worrying about paying my rent on time, or if I’d be able to keep my lights on for another month, or would there be enough food in the house to feed my daughter. She wasn’t a big eater, but she still needed to eat. On my small wage, God forbid for her to get sick. God forbid for ME to get sick! I was always watching the gas gauge on my old, beat-up Ford, constantly worrying if there would be enough in the tank to last until my next paycheck. The car was always breaking down and I was constantly borrowing money to fix it. THESE were MY focal points. These were MY gods.
When it came to my checkbook and my finances, God wasn’t on the bottom of the list. God wasn’t on the list at all!
The couple broke my thoughts as I continued to listen:
Scripture says that when we are generous, God returns the generosity 10 or 100-fold. We believe God returned our generosity with the car 10-fold. I thought we had found a great way to turn $10 into $100! But, this is not a get-rich-quick scheme. God doesn’t work that way. What he wants is for us to realize that he’s in charge, not us. His ways work better than our own ways — we should trust him instead of being afraid and worrying about tomorrow. He is the provider, not me.
My thoughts took off like a rocket. “HE’S THE PROVIDER, NOT ME!!” To a newly separated mother, in need of a provider, this one hit a Bass Chord that resonated all the way down to my toes! By this time, I am sure I was sitting at the edge of my seat. I still wanted to know how they were going to tie together tithing and God providing. It did not make sense yet. Who was providing what and to whom? I was getting confused, but intrigued to know more, and so I listened as they went on to explain a Basic Principle:
The basic principle of giving is this (they paused for emphasis AND so God could make sure he had my full attention). God owns everything — everything we have he’s given to us, including our talents that helped us get jobs. We’re stewards of God’s gifts.
WHOOOAH!! HOLD THE PHONE. STOP THE PRESSES. WHAT DO YOU MEAN “GOD OWNS EVERYTHING”???? I was not prepared to hear that! I was in the process of taking ownership of myself. I was coming out of a relationship with a control freak who tried to convince me that HE owned everything, including me and my daughter. I fought and took back what was rightfully mine, and now you tell me that God owns it? But like all truth, it had a ring to it that could not be denied. So, like an obedient but still-defiant child, I sat back in my seat and listened more. Never had a tithing testimony stirred so much emotion or captured my attention so much:
We’ve learned that everything we have are gifts God has given us so that we can use them to help others. We are distributors of God’s grace, to help others. Looking at our checkbook, we saw how little of our money we distributed to the Church and other charities.
Yes, I felt connected, at least we had the same bank account. I too failed to give to the Church and other charities. I was in the choir and served as a CCD teacher. I had my excuse in hand. But at that moment, these excuses felt like I was trying to hold water in my hand.
The couple labored on:
Because we had been giving more of our time and talents to the Church, we thought that meant we were right with God, but we were hanging on to our money, because we were afraid … afraid that we could NOT afford to give more than a buck or two per week. However, I learned something from St. John of the Cross… We were attached to our money. We were tied down by our fears that we couldn’t be more generous.
Okay. So by this time they had me good. But, I knew my circumstances. I knew that all of my money that I was going to receive that Friday was already spent. Each week, I’d hold my breath wondering if a check would bounce today and where I would find the money to cover the check along with the bank’s bouncing charges. My listening grew to an eagerness to know how to do this tithing thing they were talking about as they continued:
God was challenging us to grow in trusting him. But, were we willing to prove that we believed God and trusted him? Were we willing to prove that God was more important to us than anything else we wanted to do with our money? We’ve heard we’re not supposed to put God to the test, yet there’s one place in scripture where we’re told to test God. It has to do with money: Giving to God based on what he’s given to us. In Malachi 3:10, God commands us to “Bring the whole tithe to me. Test me in this, and see if I will not open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing upon you that you won’t be able to contain it.”
What? God says, “Test me in this”? Another chord was struck. For the first time, I didn’t hear someone telling me that God was saying, “Trust me”, they said God said, “Test me”. I knew that “test me” meant, “Try me. I won’t fail you.”
I’d try anything once. I felt God was telling me personally, “I dare ya Nance. I double-dare ya!” Oh, I love a challenge. By this time, my ears were on fire!!!
But, I still didn’t know how to do this. I am sure God didn’t mean that he wanted me to write the Church a bad check! So, I listened more to what they had to say, with baited breath:
This sounded like a good deal to us! So we decided to try it. We made the commitment to set aside a certain percentage of our income, right off the top. To make it a regular discipline, we gave that amount every week and started using church envelopes. We gave half to the Church and the other half to other charities. We wrote these checks before we paid our bills. Our goal was to give the 10% that God asked for in the Bible, but we still had some fear that we couldn’t afford it, so we started small and increased the amount every few months.
BINGO!!! They finally got to something doable for me! Start in small increments and increase it over time.
While this couple chose to increase it every few months. I was not fortunate enough to do it quite the way they suggested. I did however, begin to give, using church envelopes. Each week, I’d write a check in the amount of $5. Five bucks was a lot of money for me back then. Five bucks would buy a week’s worth of school lunches for my daughter. Five bucks was a half of a tank of gas, or milk and bread for the week. But five bucks also bought me two packs of cigarettes or a couple of 4-packs of wine coolers that I used to like to drink on the weekends to unwind.
But, God said “Test me in this”. I was responding, not so much on faith, but on a dare. I was indeed testing God to see what he would do. I so desperately needed him to intervene in my life. I needed him to be my PROVIDER. I needed him to “open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing upon me that I wouldn’t be able to contain it.”
Well, as each Sunday rolled around, it was a struggle to get up enough strength or will-power to write a check to the Church and put it into the envelope, even though it was only five bucks. But I guess God was already doing his part by giving me that strength, because on my own and considering how I felt about money back then, I didn’t have it in me keep this up. Each Sunday was a battle of wills between me and God. Of course, he had the upper hand, because he had my willingness and desire to try to do this. And so for him it was a no-brainer and he’d win every time.
When God delivered me from my bad habits of cigarette smoking and drinking, I was able to increase my tithing to $20 a week. Whenever I received an increase in pay, I’d write the Church a bigger check. If a bill came in lower than what I had budgeted, or if received a bonus check, or a family member gave me a gift of cash for my birthday or Christmas, I’d share a portion of it in my envelope.
Even if I took out a loan, I’d give a portion of that money back to God, who was, after all, the rightful owner of it. I figured that if I give a smidge of everything back to him, he’d in turn help me pay it back on time. I had a dire need to establish good credit, because I wanted to buy my daughter and myself our own home. We were renting shabby houses and apartments in areas that were not safe for a woman and child living alone.
In 1997, one year after I began tithing, I found a 3-bedroom, 2-bath home with a fireplace on two acres of land. When I went to the closing, the agent was astonished at how smoothly the deal went down. She called me to tell me that I had to bring $5.65 to the closing table. Guess what? I didn’t have that much in my checking account at that moment and almost had to borrow it from somebody!
In 1999, I sold that home and made enough profit to purchase the home I live in today. Did this happen just because I began to tithe? Maybe. I’ll never know for sure, but I won’t doubt it.
Like I said, I didn’t give a set percentage, I simply “began to give” and by doing so, God could begin to give in return. 10 to 100 fold? I don’t know. I don’t count my blessings. All I know is that God told me to “test him” in this.
Do you know that you cannot out-give God? Well I didn’t know this. I thought that if I gave until it hurt, I’d just go home hurting more from where I gave. But that never happened. Somehow, through some means, God had wonderful blessings waiting in the wings just for those occasion when I would really need him the most.
I’ve been fortunate to have kept the same job for ten years now. Creditors like that a lot. God saw to it that I was never passed up for a promotion I had sought. I began as an accounting clerk and have reached as high as I am interested in going in this company.
When I desired to attend Daily Mass, God graciously found a way for that to happen. It was as easy as asking my boss. Did God soften his heart? Who knows. He used to mess with Pharaoh’s heart while dealing with Moses in Exodus.
That old beat-up Ford is three vehicles ago now. Today I drive a newer and safer vehicle, one that I like very much. I don’t have a savings account, but somehow I’m able to buy clothes when I need them and have plenty of food in the refrigerator and pantry.
BUT more than all this material stuff that truly has no value in the Kingdom of God, I was given something that is priceless, something that will remain with me for all eternity: I have gained a new awareness of God in my life and his infinite love for me.
Was it — or more to the point, is it — scary to test him? You betchya! Even today, as I write a check equal to 10% of my gross wages, I still pray this exact same prayer: “Dear Lord. Help me to find a way.”
I’m still a struggling, single mom with a child at home relying on me. I was ordered by my company to go to school and get a degree, not for promotional opportunities, but just so I can keep this job. It’s hard work. It’s dog tiring sometimes and I want to lay down and quit it all. But, God is good and is taking good care of us. He has been faithful in keeping up his end of the bargain by opening the floodgates of heaven and pouring out so much blessing upon us that we are not able to contain it!
By testing God with my finances, and by him doing his part in not letting me down, together we have built the foundation I needed in order to trust him. When God said to me that day, “Nancy, test me in this. I won’t let you down”, he meant it! He has not let me down. God is such a gentlemen. He has never made me look like a fool for loving him this way and he won’t make YOU look like a fool either.
His blessings in my life are far more than what I have shared with you this morning. But if you really want to hear about them, see me after Mass. I love bragging about God and all that he has done for me and all that he would love to do for you.
God Bless You.
© 2003 by Nancy (Gardner) Viola
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See also “Fernando’s Story: The Decision that Makes the Difference“