Why I Tithe


In Greek, the word for repentance is metanoia.

The literal meaning of metanoia is “change of heart” or "change of mind." And interestingly, in our vocabulary as Orthodox, we use the very same word -- spelled metania (meh-TAN-ya) -- to refer to the act of bowing after one makes the sign of the cross. In a “small metania,” we bow and reach towards the ground. In a “great metania,” we make a full prostration -- hands, feet, and forehead all on the floor!

And in general, a metania is any physical act that encourages us to turn our hearts back in God’s direction. So even in the way we speak, there is a connection between repentance and action. Simply willing a return to God, or merely remembering that it “should be so,” does not work nearly as well, or as permanently.

As a teacher I know that when students engage a concept in a concrete and physical way, doing so will often illuminate and entrench the idea quite profoundly. Even if the action itself seems silly, it works. “Move your body and your mind will follow” is true on so many levels!

My body moves, and my mind follows. My heart changes. The prodigal returns to God.

A recent study by the Harvard Medical School even showed that when patients knew they were receiving a placebo, the beneficial placebo effect still showed up! There is perhaps a connection between the placebo effect and the physical action of taking the “medicine,” regardless of what one believes.

Similarly, using my will power alone to focus on prayer, or to be present in worship, is usually not enough, no matter how strongly I desire it! My mind is easily distracted, jumping from thought to thought. Did I pay a certain bill? Can anyone else see the wrinkles in my skirt? And so, in their wisdom, the Church Fathers insist that our worship and prayer be filled with bodily metanias.

There are the literal metanias, of course. The crossing and the bowing, I mentioned. But there are others. When the Deacon proclaims “Wisdom! Let us attend!” or “The doors! The doors!” my children stand up a little straighter, and their eyes become a bit more focused. Lighting a candle, smelling incense, kissing an icon -- these are also metanias. They are invitations to participate physically. My body moves, and my mind follows. My heart changes. The prodigal returns to God.

But there are metanias outside of prayer and worship as well. Tithing is one of the first that comes to mind. Often, tithing is described in terms of returning to God what is His to begin with, or as an act of stewardship to support the church in her efforts to be God’s kingdom on earth.

While this is all true, it is also helpful to think of tithing as one big metania -- full of force! It is a critical weekly action that changes me and deepens my desire to move in God’s direction. During the week, I do not have a Deacon by my side to focus my heart with his shouts of “Wisdom! Let us attend!” I certainly do not cross myself and bow in the middle of a chemistry demonstration at school, or while driving down the highway. But the act of tithing is a conscious, concrete reorientation of my heart and priorities. It greatly improves the chance that I will stay on track and keep my desire to become more and more like Jesus Christ. Just as making the sign of the cross and bowing improve my ability to focus on worship and prayer.

I can think of a million reasons, large and small, to avoid tithing. They are reasons we all share. The one reason I need to tithe, is because it is necessary for my own salvation. There is of course no transaction here. I can’t pay my way into heaven! But for me, I need the physical action of writing checks and keeping budgets and tightening belts, with God in mind as my family’s first commitment. This is a metania that helps me return to God each and every day. It reinforces my weak will in a deep way.

When I bow before an icon, that metania sometimes provokes a sense of resentment or rebellion. My back hurts … Someone just said something not-so-nice … I wish I had someone to help me with my crazy kids… But the metania itself is often the start of my healing! The action is a source through which God pours His grace, and it helps me to repent (to “change my heart”!) and to settle me down. In the same way, I may feel a sense of resentment or rebellion when I think about the money my tithe check represents, but once the check is written and given, I find that my heart and mind begin to follow my body. In His grace and love for me, God moves me into a place where I can settle down and return to reality -- the reality of His tender and providential care for all human beings!