If I were a gambling girl, I’d bet money that each and every one of us has at some time received a gift that totally blew us away. Something that shocked not only because it delighted, but because it demonstrated just how deeply the giver had thought about us.
The best example of this I’ve seen is on a youtube video. It’s Christmas and an Argentinian boy is sitting at the kitchen table with his parents. They are clearly poor, he has just received his Christmas gift – a cutting board – and he expresses genuine gratitude to his parents for giving him what he needs to eat his BBQ with ease.
But there’s also a second gift — a nicely wrapped shoebox which his parents tell him is new sneakers, and he will no longer have to glue his shoes together. As he opens further, though, he sees what’s really in there, and stops mid-sentence. His eyes grow wide as he looks at mom and dad, and he is overcome with emotion. He doesn’t even pull the iPad out of its box until after he sobs with joy and embrace his parents in tears.
Oh that we would receive the gift of Christ with the same trembling and sobbing gratitude.
In his book, Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace, Miroslav Volf says human gift giving should take its cues from God, who gives to us so that we can flourish.
And it extends even further – those gifts we receive from God are meant to radiate outward, and to be given on to others for their good as well. A kind of divine pay it forward.
In other words, we love because He first loved us, and we give because He first gave, because “every good and perfect gift is from above” James (1:17).
Some gifts, however, don’t appear to pay it forward, as much as they are to be delighted in for their own sake. Like the woman who anointed Jesus with costly nard mingled with her tears. When the disciples complain that the money could have been given to the poor, Jesus rebukes them, saying she has done a “beautiful thing.” She has given him a beautiful gift with no immediate practical reason except to prepare his body for burial.
Sadly, giving has become highly competitive — you gave me a gift worth x$ so I must give to you the same value. How many times have you received a gift from someone you hadn’t bought anything for, only to scramble around looking for something to give them in return, even if you had to raid the re-gifting drawer to do it? That kind of gift, though, falls into the miserly category – better to give nothing at all than to give an object that has little or no relevance for the receiver.
Volf says that when you give without thinking about getting something back, giving radiates outward to the benefit of all. But if you give without thinking about the recipient, then the gift is impotent because there is no relationship there.
When my son was nine, we gave him a huge assortment of books for Christmas, all ones he’d wanted. He smiled and thanked us but his eyes kept drifting back to the tree to see if there was anything else under there. We’d been so intent on giving what was good, we’d forgotten to give also what delighted.
After reading Volf’s book and thinking about gift giving in general, I am now carefully considering the way I give to and receive gifts from friends and family, as well as with those in the broader community of charity and church. But it’s also prompted me to look more carefully at the way I give and receive from God, particularly at this time of year to celebrate Immanuel, God with Us.
There’s a line in Volf’s book that seems to capture the essence of this kind of gift giving: “love exercised for the sake of the other.”