Should I claim what I donate to God and the church as a deduction on my income tax? How would this fit in with what Jesus says about giving in secret?
Let's begin with the second part of your question. The passage about "secret giving" is found in the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew 6:1-4. It runs as follows:
Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them. Otherwise you have no reward from your Father in heaven. Therefore, when you do a charitable deed, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory from men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, that your charitable deed may be in secret; and your Father, who sees in secret, will Himself reward you openly.
It would be a mistake to take these words and turn them into an iron-clad legalistic rule. Context makes it clear that Jesus' emphasis here is upon the motive of the heart and the purpose of the gift. He isn't necessarily saying that it's wrong to let anybody know when we donate to charity, contribute to the needs of the poor, or support the local church with a portion of our earnings. That probably isn't realistic in most cases. Instead, He's telling us to search our hearts and ask ourselves why we're giving. If, like the "hypocrites," we're hoping to be "seen by men" and to "have glory from them," we'd better take a second look and come up with a different plan. That's where the part about "not letting your left hand know what your right hand is doing" comes into play.
Interestingly, earlier in the same sermon Jesus says, "Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven" (Matthew 5:16). Is there a contradiction here? Only superficially. The larger context of this passage revolves around the idea that the community of Jesus' disciples is called to serve as a "light for the world." They're a "city set on a hill," appointed to show the rest of society the meaning of love in action. Motives aside, no single individual can possibly get any glory when Christians band together in this way. When the Church shines as the Body of Christ, all the praise rightly goes to our Heavenly Father.
How does this affect our way of looking at the first part of your question – the appropriateness of taking a tax deduction for charitable giving? Only slightly, if at all. It's highly doubtful that anyone claims a tax deduction because he wants the government to "see" how righteous and generous he is. Besides, the tax return is a private document, and most churches and charitable organizations take great care in keeping donations confidential. The tax deduction is a legitimate benefit that the government has made available to all Americans, and there's a sense in which it would be poor stewardship not to take advantage of it. The point here is not "secret giving" but rather the wisest possible use of the resources God has entrusted to our care.
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