In another post (here), I mentioned the exegetical fallacy of “reverse etymology.” This is where people force the modern meaning of a word onto its original meaning. In that other post, I talked about how some critics attack the Bible because the Hebrew word עוֹף (oph) seems to contradict their understanding of the modern word “bird” (Leviticus 11:13,19). However, the fallacy of reverse etymology isn't practiced only by critics. It is more often used by well meaning Christians – even pastors. One example of this fallacy I've heard from well meaning Christians concerns 2 Corinthians 9:7:
Each one must do just as he has purposed in his heart, not grudgingly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.
The word translated here as “cheerful” is the Greek word ἱλαρός (hilaros) – used here in the neuter, ἱλαρὸν. You might recognize the word. It is from ἱλαρός that we derive our English word “hilarious” and it is on that fact that I've heard many well intended pastors pounce. They say, for example, that tithing shouldn't just be joyous, it should be “hilarious.” The problem with this view is that English word hilarious, though it may be derived from the Greek, still carries a different meaning to the modern hearer than it did for the original audience.
Strong (word # 2430) defines the word simply as “joyous, cheerful, not grudging.” HELPS Word Studies expounds on this a little: “properly, propitious; disposed because satisfied – describing someone who is cheerfully ready to act because already approving ("already persuaded"). hilarós ("won over, already inclined") is only used in 2 Cor 9:7 where it describes spontaneously non-reluctant giving.”
Tithing is a form of worship. Everything we have is given to us by God (John 1:16). When we tithe, we give back a portion of what God has given to us. We should want to do this. It should be done with a glad heart and not begrudgingly. This is what 2 Corinthians 9:7 is telling us and this is what is meant by the word ἱλαρὸν. That is how the original hearers would have understood it.
Something different is meant by the word hilarious. Hilarious describes something that is extremely funny. Those pastors I've heard use this point try to suggest we should be happy to the point of laughter. It's as though we should be rolling on the floor laughing when the offering plate goes around. Do you really think that is what Paul meant? Tithing is joyous but it's not a joke.
I believe there is great value in studying the original meaning of words. Word Studies are fantastic tools that can give us new insights into familiar passages. However, we need to be careful as we consider these words. Remember that when the Bible was being written, English didn't exist. It's a powerful temptation to project our understanding of a word onto its original meaning. We need to resist that temptation. Do not consider what the word means now; instead, ask yourself what the word meant then.