THE GIVER AND HIS GIFTS
Written by Doug Ponder on December 23, 2016
Christmas Time Is Here
For the past several years, our blog has featured a Christmastime reflection on the nature of the holiday, the birth of God’s Son, the gifts, the singing, and all the other ways we celebrate Christmas.
First it was the ever-cliché-but-still-true Reason for the Season. Because while everyone knows that Jesus is the occasion for the celebration, not everyone celebrates with joy over what Jesus has done.
Next we wrote about the dangers of Robbing God’s Love, which is probably the least Christmassy title ever (but at least the graphic makes up for it). Since Christmas is about the gift of Jesus given in love, we must be careful of two tendencies in our hearts that threaten to rob God’s gift of its power in our lives.
After that came Merry Xmas on the true “war on Christmas,” which is quite different and much more dangerous than many suppose it be.
Then last December we published How the Grinch Stole Steals Christmas (preset tense). For grinchy spirits still tug at us on both sides, dragging us into one ditch or the other.
This year’s reflection is a follow-up to the Grinch post. Here’s a relevant snippet to refresh your memory:
Certainly know how to sin with ‘stuff.’ We overindulge. We run up our credit cards. We buy things hoping they’ll bring lasting happiness, only to feel emptier than boxes the day after Christmas…
[But] we are just capable of sinning without stuff, too. We sin by shunning the “stuff” of God’s world, degrading the existence that he gave us. We act as if the physical is bad or at least unnecessary, and the “true spirit of Christmas” is some ethereal, intangible thing. But the resurrected body of Jesus begs to differ. The whole world is being redeemed, the physical along with the spiritual. Jesus is Lord of both.
The Problem of Idolatry
Every sin at its core is an act of idolatry. Idolatry literally means “idol worship,” an devotion to some created thing. In gift terminology, idolatry is loving the gift more than the giver. It is a way of saying, “I love this or that more than I love the God who gave it to me.”
Suppose on Christmas morning this year you rise to meet the same annual traditions. The sausage casserole, the pull-apart “monkey bread,” the champagne and orange juice, the freshly ground coffee—all present and accounted for. As you dig into these dishes, you never think to thank whoever made them. It does not occur you—as silly as it seems—that these items did not “magically appear.” (Or, if you are the one making the delciousness, perhaps you forget that the ingredients you used were all things you did not sow, or tend, or harvest, or transport.)
Now suppose you get down to business with the presents under the tree. You open one without reading the “to / from” tag. Who cares where it comes from; it’s all about the gift! Or worse: suppose you know exactly who it’s from, and you say to them, “I love this gift! I love it more than you, in fact.”
It is absurd to imagine someone saying anything like that. But this is what every sin actually is. Sin is a way of saying to God, “I like what you give me more than I like you.” It is a way of wanting stuff from God without wanting him, the love of creation over the Creator (Rom 1:25).
The Problem of Religion
The way to fight idolatry is not, as some have suggested, to dispense with gifts altogether. That simply creates a different problem. The world is filled to the brim with the grace of God. It flows down like so much gravy on mashed potatoes already loaded with butter and cream cheese—grace upon grace. God delights in giving his varied grace to us, and we do not honor the Giver by rejecting his gifts or acting like we have no place for them in our lives.
I’ve read a few blog articles this year defending the practice of not giving gifts to your family. Most of them take the angle of “we already have more than we need,” which is for most of us absolutely true. But it also misses the point of gifts altogether. Gifts are about grace. The whole point is to give (and receive) from the overflow, the excess, the just-because-I-love-you type of presents. For Jesus doesn’t just barely meet our needs and then move on; he continues to give for all eternity. Every day another gift and another and another. Blessings of grace, with ten thousand beside!
So we do ourselves no favors by snubbing gifts or gift-giving. Instead we diminish our grasp of grace, replacing it with a bare-bones asceticism that has only the appearance of wisdom, but is actually a self-imposed religious restriction (Col 2:21-23).
The Giver and His Gifts
So we can’t get rid of gifts and gift-giving without losing our grasp of grace. But we can’t give and receive gifts without the danger of idolatry always lurking in our hearts. What is the way forward, then?
The only solution, again and again, is to connect the gifts to the Giver and to realize the Giver is always better than the gifts. We must first say, “God, I thank you for ____,” as we learn to see that all good gifts come from his hand (James 1:17). But then we must press on to recognize that God is the ultimate Gift himself, the promised “reward” for all those who seek him (Hebrews 11:6). The Giver is always greater than this gifts, and his gifts are pretty darn amazing. So what does that tell us about him, then?
Thanking “Santa Claus”
I can do no better than concluding with G. K. Chesterton, so I’ll leave you with his words:
Instead of dwindling to a point, ‘Santa Claus’ has grown larger and larger in my life until he fills almost the whole of it. It happened in this way.
As a child I was faced with a phenomenon requiring explanation. I hung up at the end of my bed an empty stocking, which in the morning became a full stocking. I had done nothing to produce the things that filled it. I had not worked for them, or made them or helped to make them. I had not even been good—far from it. And the explanation was that a certain being whom people called Santa Claus was benevolently disposed toward me. . . .
What we believed was that a certain benevolent agency did give us those toys for nothing. And, as I say, I believe it still. I have merely extended the idea. Then I only wondered who put the toys in the stocking; now I wonder who put the stocking by the bed, and the bed in the room, and the room in the house, and the house on the planet, and the great planet in the void.
Once I only thanked ‘Santa Claus’ for a few dollars and crackers. Now, I thank him for stars and street faces, and wine and the great sea. Once I thought it delightful and astonishing to find a present so big that it only went halfway into the stocking. Now I am delighted and astonished every morning to find a present so big that it takes two stockings to hold it, and then leaves a great deal outside; it is the large and preposterous present of myself, as to the origin of which I can offer no suggestion except that ‘Santa Claus’ gave it to me in a fit of peculiarly fantastic goodwill.
Merry Christmas, friends.
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is a regular contributor to RE|SOURCE. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.