by Bob Lupton The young church was struggling. Its membership was growing at an encouraging rate but most of those joining were people of lower and modest means. The need frequently outpaced the available resources, which often called for sacrificial giving and the exercise of faith. Which in some ways was good. Miracles happen when people reach the limits of their own capacities. And when God intervenes in supernatural ways – someone is healed of a debilitating ailment or food mysteriously shows up just when the cupboards are empty – such divine movement excites the soul and draws in increasing numbers of spiritually hungry people. So it was with this new fellowship.
One particular couple who were attracted to the church were better off than most. During one of the services where the Spirit was moving mightily and the outpouring of generosity was nothing less than astonishing, they both were impressed to offer a rather large gift. In an emotional moment they stood and declared that God had told them to donate to the church some wooded acreage they owned on the outskirts of town. The congregation applauded and praised God for His faithfulness. It was yet another evidence of the amazing work of God in their midst.
The following week as the couple was in the process of listing the pledged property with a real estate agent, they made a startling discovery. The land which they assumed was worth somewhere between $100,000 to $130,000 was actually appraised at nearly three times that amount. Recent commercial development in the area had substantially increased the value of their land. Was it was God’s way of blessing them for their generosity? they wondered. The sale closed in less than 30 days for $325,000, another confirmation of divine favor.
The church was expecting at most $130,000 from the proceeds of the sale – the maximum amount the couple assumed it was worth at the time of their commitment. So should the couple honor the dollar amount of their pledge or give the full selling price to the church? $130,000 was certainly a most generous gift – the largest by far the church had ever received from a single donor. The leadership would be more than grateful – even if they were told about the actual selling price. Announcing this windfall publicly could serve as an example to the congregation of how God rewards those who give by faith – He returns threefold what you offer. It could actually encourage others to give more to the church!
But it could also go the other way. Church folk might judge the couple, accuse them of being greedy for keeping for themselves a portion of what they had pledged to the church. The couple wished they had been more specific about the details of their pledge – not so caught up in the emotion of the moment. What they should have said was they would give up to $130,000 from the proceeds of their land. That way no one could accuse them of being selfish. But this was before they had any idea that their property was worth so much. Better to keep these details to themselves, they reasoned. It would be best to say nothing about the sales price. Just give the $130,000. No need to take the risk of stirring up a controversy.
“But what if some busybody asks how much we got for the land?” the couple worried. “We told them publicly we were donating the land, not a percentage of the proceeds.” It was a perplexing ethical dilemma. They were not about to donate the full amount of their windfall profits to the church. No one was expecting a gift of $325,000. $130,000 was more than generous. And besides, this unexpected blessing was doubtless God’s way of rewarding them for their generosity. He probably meant for them to keep it quiet and avoid creating divisive misunderstandings. Let church folk assume that the $130,000 was the full sale price. Hopefully no one would ask. But if anyone did, it would probably be better just to side-step the question and avoid unnecessary controversy. They both agreed.
A church that struggles month to month to meet its obligations does not forget the promise of a major gift. It is spent before the gift ever arrives in the offering plate. So the Sunday morning when the couple’s contribution was presented was no small event. The congregation clapped enthusiastically and praised God as the husband was called to the front. The couple had intended to present the donation together, but the wife was unavoidably delayed. This left the husband, who was somewhat prone to exaggeration, to do the presentation on his own without the calm control of his wife. The emotional affirmation of the congregation swelled his ego and before he could weigh his words he blurted out that the donation he presented was the full purchase price of the land.
The pastor, who had been as excited as anyone in the congregation, immediately stopped clapping. He could hardly believe what he was hearing. His jubilant expression faded to a sober stare. He knew what the land had sold for – a clerk at the county courthouse had told him. This church member was lying, lying to the whole congregation, lying to God! Such deception could not be merely swept under the rug. Right there, in front of the whole congregation, the pastor confronted the deceiver: “Why have you let Satan fill your heart? You lied to the Holy Spirit, and you kept some of the money for yourself. 4 The property was yours to sell or not sell, as you wished. And after selling it, the money was also yours to give away. How could you do a thing like this? You weren’t lying to us but to God!”
The man stood there in stunned silence for several long, agonizing moments. His heart raced. His face burned. He thought of bolting out of the church but his legs would not respond. The world began to tilt and then turn dark. He collapsed to the floor. Several men rushed forward to help but nothing could be done to revive him. His heart had given out.
“Where’s his wife?” several of the women asked as the men debated what they should do with the body. But she wasn’t at home when congregation members raced to find her. Not until three hours later did she show up, totally unaware of the tragedy that had befallen her husband. Everyone held their breath as she entered the church. Very soon this woman would learn the awful truth that she was now a widow. It would be even worse when she realized that her husband had deceived the entire congregation. She would need much support, the pastor knew. The congregation would be there for her when the crushing news hit her, especially when her innocence in this matter was confirmed. “Did you and your husband sell your land for $130,000?” the pastor asked, giving her the opportunity to publicly correct her husband’s deception.
“Yes, we did,” she lied without a hint of hesitation.
The pastor was dumbstruck. “How could you and your husband even think of doing a thing like this—conspiring together to test the Spirit of God’s ability to know what is going on? Just outside that door are the young men who buried your husband, and they will carry you out too.”
Some said God struck them dead. Everyone agreed that it was certainly more than mere coincidence that a husband and wife would both have fatal heart attacks on the same day in the same church. One thing was sure: nobody was about to tell any lies at that church!
So what’s the point of this (modernized) biblical account? Why were the tragic Ananius and Sapphira players included in the drama of early church history? To put the fear of lying in us? Maybe. But perhaps the story of their demise is intended to show us the deadly nature of self-deception, how fatally delusional it is to rationalize as God’s will that which is clearly contrary to His revealed word. Telling a lie is one thing, but deceiving oneself (and others) into believing that something is right when it is actually wrong – that is a very dangerous path. As Solomon warned: “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.” (Prov 16:25 ESV) And when it involves money, especially a lot of money, the temptation to hold onto it and claim it as God’s provision rather than release it by faith in a spirit of generosity – such temptation is nearly irresistible. I suppose that’s one reason why Christ said it was so hard for rich people (like us) to enter His Kingdom. Ananius and Sapphira were two that didn’t make it in.