thoughts on giving and receiving

I recently finished the book “Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace” by Miroslav Volf. Volf explored how we can be givers and forgivers in our current culture that is largely lacking grace. His thesis was that since God is a giver and a forgiver, Christians should be, too, and we can give and forgive by passing on the gifts and forgiveness first given to us.

Overall, I was not too impressed by the book. I found it to be pretty simplistic (God gives, so we should, too) and expected more from a theologian as noted as Volf. Yet it was the first in-depth book I have read that explores giving and forgiving so throughly. One thing that I did enjoy was his discussion on Christmas gift giving, and how it relates to our triune God.

Last year Mike and I tried something new. We told our families that we did not want any Christmas gifts. Working hard to curb the Christmas consumerism in our own lives, we instead asked for groceries from my parents and donations from Mike’s parents. Instead of making a Christmas list, I spent time looking through the World Vision and Heifer International catalogs for my “wish list” of donations. For Christmas we received donations of 2 goats, 3 flocks of chicks, and “one Merry Christmas to the poor”, as our card said. Christmas morning we watched all my husband’s siblings open their gifts one by one, long after we were done opening our card. I have to confess it was a difficult experience, despite knowing our gift was “worth” a lot more than all the others; our gift was actually a small piece of the kingdom of God.

In his book, Volf explores how our triune God is in his very nature a giver, as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit all give and receive from one another. The our triune God delights in the exchange of gifts within himself. God’s giving to us is simply an outflow of that giving. God is fundamentally a giver, and that giving flows out of the Trinity and to us.

Christmas, Volf says, is “… a feast of mutual delight in exchange of gifts within the circle of family or friends.” This echoes the giving and receiving within the Trinity, but Volf also says:

… there is something very one-sided about celebrating Christmas only by ritually enacting a community of joyous giving and receiving. Though such a loving community is an earthly good on par with any other, in a world of massive and unrelenting need, it’s positively sinful for such communities to remain turned inward. The gifts should not just circulate within the community to delight its members. They should also flow to outsiders to alleviate their needs.

Just as God’s giving and receiving flows out of him onto us, so should our giving and receiving flow outside of our common exchange of gifts on Christmas. We are enacting a beautiful image of God when we exchange gifts and love in the holiday season, but it is incomplete without those gifts flowing outside of our mutual exchanges.

On Christmas we celebrate the most important outflowing of God’s gifts to us, the sending of himself in the birth of Jesus. In celebrating God’s outflowing gifts, it is only appropriate to give an outflowing of gifts ourselves. This means giving gifts outside of our mutual exchanges of gifts that often happen with friends and family. In a world of incredible need, we need to echo God’s giving in our own giving to the poor and needy. I leave you with worlds from Miroslav Volf:

At Christmas we should celebrate two kinds of gift giving, not just one. Christmas should be a feast of reciprocal giving in a circle of intimates, a provisional enactment of the advent of God’s future world. But it should also be a feast of giving to those outside the circle, a small contribution helping to align the world of sin and need with the coming world of love. The advent of the light into the darkness of the world is not the goal; it is part of the movement toward the goal. At Christmas we celebrate this movement. Gifts should therefore chiefly flow to the needy; they shouldn’t largely circulate among friends.

May we enact enact God’s outflow to the needy this Christmas as we remember God’s gift of outflow onto us.

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