Lying to God

By: Dr. Gregory S. Neal

Ananias, Peter asked, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, were not the proceeds at your disposal? How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You did not lie to us but to God! Now when Ananias heard these words, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard of it. (Acts 5:3-5 NRSV)


Ananias and Sapphira conspired together a lie. They had made a promise, a free-will commitment to God, to give the proceeds of the sale of their property to the Church. This wasn't a requirement — the church didn't demand it of them, nor did God anywhere mandate that it be done. Rather, during those early years it had simply become the practice of the Jerusalem Church for all members to sell their property and give the proceeds of the sale to the Church. They didn't give just 10%, 50%, or even 90% of the proceeds from the sale … no, they gave 100% of the income! To us this may seem strange, but we don't live in their day-and-age and don't have the same expectation for the immediate return of Jesus which they shared. As I am fond of saying, the Early Christians were anticipating the Second Coming of Jesus to occur "sometime next Tuesday." Since they held this expectation, there seemed to be no point in their keeping private property or finances: the goods and money of the Church members could be better put to use caring for the poor of their community and spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ. With so little time left before His return, this seemed the logical thing for them to do. And many did. But nowhere in the Old or New Testament do we find it stated that God demanded this of his People, nor we anywhere find the Apostles asserting such a demand. The Biblical Tithe called for 10% of one's income; Paul's own standard was "as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver." Neither standard — and they are compatible, by the way — can be seen as mandating the communism of the Jerusalem Church, nor limiting such giving. If those who joined the Church wished to give so abundantly, they were free to do so. And, of course, as Peter pointed out so eloquently, if they did not wish to sell their property or give the church proceeds of the sale, they were a liberty not to. What they were not a liberty to do was lie.

Please allow me to belabor this point for a moment: the sin of Ananias and Sapphira was not in that they failed to give all of the proceeds from the sale of their property. No, indeed, their sin was in conspiring together to lie to God as to the nature of their gift. They claimed it was all that they had received for the sale of their property, when it truth they had kept back a portion of what they had received.

This doesn't appear to merit a death sentence, does it? After all, who was harmed in this "little fib?" The Church still received money from the sale — and probably quite a bit more than just a paltry tithe! And, certainly, the Apostles were not hurt by the failure of these two people to keep their promise in terms of the nature of their gift. Whom did this hurt? And, why did it merit both the husband and the wife keeling over and dying of fright?

The answer here is simple, yet not quite so evident as one might expect. Clearly, Ananias and Sapphira were hurt — they died! — and, yet, even their physical death isn't the worst part of the story or of what happened to them. They harmed themselves even more by demonstrating, and acting upon, poor faith. There must have been some reason for their withholding part of the proceeds from the sale of their property. Why would they do this unless they had some doubt in their hearts as to the reality of the Gospel or the trustworthiness of God? As the saying goes, "if you cannot trust God with your money, how can you trust God with your eternal soul?" This husband and wife expressed their lack of faith in the very faithfulness of God by failing to do as they had promised and, as a consequence, lying about the nature of the amount which they did turn in. And, it was the realization and horror of their sin in this struck them down.

We are faced with the very same thing. We may not live in a time when we feel called to give everything we have to the Church — gracious, not enough of us give the marginal 10% that the Tithe would call for, nor do we all give "cheerfully," as Paul enjoined. Nevertheless, we are faced with the very same question as confronted Ananias and Sapphira: are we lying to God, and failing to keep our promises, or are we acting in faith and doing what God calls us to do in our own spiritual lives?

When United Methodists join their churches we promised to support them through our "Prayers, Presence, Gifts, Service, and Witness." How are we doing at keeping these promises? As a pastor I am very sorry to have to say this, but many of us are not doing very well; some of us — more than we would like to admit — are guilty of lying to God. Here's a test for you to take: when was the last time you prayed for your church? When was the last time you attended worship, Bible study, or other Church functions? When was the last time you gave — cheerfully, not grudgingly — from your God-given financial resources? And, finally, when was the last time you offered your services to the Lord through the Church? If your answer to any or all of these is "several weeks" to "months or more" then you probably need to give careful consideration to the question: "Have I lied to God?"

© 2005, Dr. Gregory S. Neal
All Rights Reserved

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The Reverend Dr. Gregory S. Neal is the Senior Pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Commerce, Texas, and an ordained Elder in the North Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church. A graduate of Southern Methodist University, Duke University, and Trinity College, Dr. Neal is a scholar of Systematic Theology, New Testament origins, and Biblical Languages. His areas of specialization include the Theology of the Sacraments, in which he did his doctoral dissertation, and the formation and early transmission of the New Testament. Trained as a Christian educator, he has taught classes in these and related fields while also serving for more than 25 years as the pastor of United Methodist churches in North Texas.

As a popular teacher, preacher, and retreat leader, Dr. Neal is known for his ability to translate complex theological concepts into common, everyday terms. HIs preaching and teaching ministry is in demand around the world, and much of his work can be found on this website. He is the author of several books, including
Grace Upon Grace: Sacramental Theology and the Christian Life, which is in its second edition, and Seeking the Shepherd's Arms: Reflections from the Pastoral Side of Life, a work of devotional literature. Both of these books are currently available from Amazon.com.