This is a very common question that floats around. Not just in church circles but even outside it. The answer I have heard most often basically leaves things to one’s conscience, but I am convinced this answer is completely wrong. It could not be more wrong if you tried harder. I will go one further. I think this issue has deeper consequences, because it has far-reaching implications.
A Category of One
God gave us the ability to recognize and make sense of the world by sorting things into categories. We know not to treat human beings like animals because we recognize they are in different categories. Even those who believe in evolution do not approach human beings who do the right thing by rubbing them on the head and under the chin while saying ‘Who’s a good boy? Who’s a good boy?’ We apply the same logic when it comes to males and females (sorry team LGBT+)
Category distinctions help us understand what we are facing all the time. It becomes an unconscious habit, actually. When we meet something we do not know, we immediately categorize it with things like it, and we proceed likewise. The moment we discover the category does not work well we tend to shift it to another and keep moving it until we find one that works. Things are this way because God made the world in a way that is legible. Things are not as random as we may think they are, because God has given us a system by which to understand things even though we have not dealt with them before.
There is only one being that is in a category of one, a being for whom conventional rules do not apply and that is God. We are to treat him in a way that is different because there is nothing like him. No one or nothing else is Infinite (without boundaries), Omnipresent (everywhere), Omnipotent (all powerful), Omniscient (all knowing) etc. These things are so lofty they are even hard to describe. I say all this to say we should be very careful when we claim or behave like something is in a category of one, with rules and boundaries that only apply to it and nothing else because the moment we cross that line we are breaking the first commandment in a big way.
I Am Not Guilty of This
Perhaps, but I can almost guarantee you are. How, you ask? Can you think of any other category in which you would ask of God whether he deserves of the Net and not of the Gross? Think for a minute. Is there any other category or have you placed the object of this question in a category of one?
Net or Gross does not apply to anything else you say. But is that the case? Far from it. You see Net is the calculation of anything once your obligations are resolved. When it comes to your pay cheque, Net does not only mean what is left after you pay the government. It includes your pension plan as well as any loans you may have from your work place. Sometimes you may even add loans you got elsewhere, as well as utilities, and long-standing bills like school fees. Gross means the total amount before any obligations have been dealt with.
So back to our question. Can you think of a single thing for which you can tell God, ‘Wait a minute, I will sort you out once I have dealt with my obligations (you know, the things that really matter)’? But you may say, that is not what I am saying. Me doing other things does not mean I am saying to God that he does not matter. Oh, really. Let us throw this into a category and see how that plays out.
Imagine you told this to your significant other (if you have one). ‘I will give you your time once I have dealt with all these other things and if there is no time left after all these things then I will give you your time tomorrow or whenever I can.’ It would not take long before the person begins to ask or think that they are not important in your life. Why is this thought inevitable in their mind? Because that is exactly what you have shown them. They are not the priority! If you have to choose between them and the other things you have going on in your life they can’t compete, and it would be foolish to even try.
At this point you might think I am being difficult. In which case I will simply take you back to our overall question that you must answer. Can you think of a single area of your life where God requires of the Net and of not the Gross? Can you think of a single thing for which he says that is yours, and I require nothing of it? I will quote the philosopher Ambassador once again. He is Lord of your acquisitions, Lord of your things, Lord of your chains, Lord of your watches, Lord of your rings. So if he is Lord of all, what makes you think you can give him the Net of anything? Or to quote his words, you shall have no other Gods before me.
Let’s Talk Categories Once Again
Let us apply this Net/Gross reasoning to other areas and make things clear that way. When it comes to Love, the Net is what is left over once we have fulfilled our obligations. Think of the love you would give to a street kid. You give the street kid of the Net and not of the Gross because you first give love to your family. If you have nothing left after that you give nothing to them. This is not to condone apathy to street kids, instead it is pointing out the obvious, which is that you give to them once you are done with your obligations elsewhere and if you have not resolved your obligations there is nothing to give them. Bringing it closer to home, a husband is to love his wife of the Gross and his children of the Net. This is not to say he should not love both, but his wife is the priority in God’s economy.
This also applies to our use of time. A husband who has no time for his wife or children clearly thinks that they should get of the Net of his time and not the Gross. He has other priorities, and they need to sort themselves out with whatever remains and if there is no time then they must make do. He could claim that he is prioritizing work for them, though the only good thing in him saying that is that he is being honest about his priority, and it isn’t them, it is the work. Once his obligation to his employer is done they can sort themselves out on the Net even if it means they have to deal with scraps when he is too tired and just him sitting on the couch is enough to ship him off to dreamland.
This conversation would not be done justice if we do not touch money. The case has already been made above but saying to God you will give him what is left over and if there is nothing left over he gets nothing shows that we give to God of the Net and not the Gross. Most sensible people would not tell their children that they will not pay their school fees because there is no money left over after their fun has been had. This is because they consider their children’s school to be a priority. You could argue that they pay their children’s fees from the Net, but that would be using Net by the governments definition and not by the overall definition.
The moment you place all things in the category where God is the priority the question answers itself. It is idolatry to reduce God to what is left over once your real gods have been appeased.
So How Much of the Gross do I Pay?
Before we get to this. Some might feel cheated because they think I changed the definition in order to answer the question. That is a sensible concern but it is invalid. We do not define things as the government defines it but as God defines it. So Net and Gross is not just about the pay cheque from your “main job”. It is about all of it, even your side jobs, even the gifts you get. It is like this because we should not have any area of our lives where we tell God he does not own that. If you have free time, God reigns supreme over that just as much as he reigns supreme over your money.
In case you have not noticed, I have not been talking about money, or at least not primarily, because this principle of idolatry affects everything and not just our money. And yes, I used the ‘i’ word because that is what this is, Idolatry. We must end with the money question because it would be incomplete without it. What percentage of your money should you pay? Well that’s between you and God. Were you expecting me to fight this battle for you? Sorry, I cannot do that.
I cannot make your commitment to God for you because what you are committing to God is not just your money. Thinking that would be the same sin of idolatry we have been addressing. It would be you telling God he can take of your money and nothing else. Instead, we should think of everything we are and have and make a positive commitment to God with it because all we are and have is his. And once that commitment has been made we should abide by it. This also means the commitment should not be a spur of the moment, it should be well thought through. If you tell God, you will give him all your money then fulfil your vow. Give God what you owe, no one forced you to make the commitment. Give God what you owe him but don’t indulge the thought that he gets the Net of anything