Posted by: Billy Marsh | March 23, 2009

A Theology of Gift-Giving

giftsAt our past caregroup meeting, Ken Monk led our discussion through chapter 10 of John Piper’s book God is the Gospel. The chapter was called “The Gift of God Himself Over and In all His Pleasant Gifts.” Ken opened the lesson with a very revealing illustration regarding how one of his children responded to opening her presents on Christmas day. On one Christmas his daughter rushed to tear open her gift with the usual childlike excitement that only a child understands when ripping to shreds holiday wrapping paper that stands in the way of attaining the object of his or her desire. However, upon seeing what the gift was, she responded with the words, “This isn’t what I wanted!” In one of the following years, Ken told the story of the same child hurrying with great anticipation to open one of her gifts, but this time, the response was much different. Instead of being consumed by the gift itself, she walked over to her parents and embraced them, telling them that she loved them and was thankful for what they had given her.

So what’s the difference in these two accounts? In the first instance, his daughter’s only concern was the gift. In the second, the daughter was directed by the gift to love the giver. This is the point of Piper’s chapter, and in all honesty, it is the point of the entire book. Christ has purchased enumerable gifts for us on the cross, but we become idolaters when we love them and treasure them above God himself, who is the true and ultimate gift of the Gospel.

So how shall we then give gifts? This is a topic that Kim and I have discussed for several years now. In light of Ken’s oustanding personal illustration, I’d like to submit a few ideas for beginning to build a healthy theology of gift-giving. If I was working for Piper I’d definitely title this post “Don’t Waste Your Gift-Giving” (**What I hope to practice and demonstrate in this series of posts is the directive theory of doctrine I presented in a previous post based off of Kevin J. Vanhoozer’s work, The Drama of Doctrine; I will say more about this later).

First, giving gifts is not sinful. Kim and I celebrate all of the major gift-giving holidays such as birthdays, Valentine’s Day, and Christmas. Neither one of us have ever felt compelled in any way to withhold from buying each other gifts on these holidays and others even though we live in a materialistic culture. I will admit, however, that I have known and have been around people who abuse these opportunities to make the most of giving gifts by not only buying gifts for the sake of buying gifts, but also by being horrible stewards of their finances. I’ve observed that when this sort of behavior happens people are acting out of tradition, routine, and obligation and often the kind of gifts these people give are immediately either returned, boxed-up, or thrown away. With that said, we must not react by swinging the pendulum to the other extreme by viewing gift-giving as equivalent to materialism, whether the gift is given on a traditional holiday or not.  If gift-giving were inherently evil, then I doubt that Scripture would have stated that is better to give than to receive (Acts 20:35).

Second, giving gifts allows you to be a minister of grace and mercy.If there’s one thing I’ve learned from being a recipient of the spiritual blessings of Jesus Christ is that I’m unworthy. When I reflect upon the gifts of the gospel that have been lavished upon me in Christ, I become more and more aware of how undeserving I am of such divine generosity as a sinner against God . Whether that gift from the Lord is something as redeeming as Christ’s atonement or something as life-changing as the birth of my firstborn son Wyatt, I know that both of them come with the words “grace” and “mercy” written on their tags. Every gift we receive from the Lord, and I’d say from anyone else for that matter, is a demonstration of God’s grace. How many times have you opened a gift and sat there with the object still in the box, looking up at the giver with eyes of wonder and asking yourself what did you do to receive such a blessing? That question should be rhetorical. The answer is “Nothing.” Unwasted gift-giving provides an opportunity for you to be a minister of God’s grace and mercy to undeserving sinners. Remember, it was while we were still sinners that Christ died for us (Rom 5:8). Oh what mercy and grace!

This is the problem I have with spoiling children. Let me be forward. There’s nothing cute about it, and when I see it happening, it makes my stomach turn. Two things occur when parents abuse gift-giving in general, not only on special holidays. First, children learn to love the gift more than the giver. Spoiling children produces attitudes where their happiness is contingent only upon the fact whether or not they get what they want. They have no regard for how much money you spent, how much thought or creativity you put into the gift, or how much time and effort you gave in retrieving it. This is the case because getting the gift has nothing to do with their relationship to the giver. They only want the gift. Second, children develop a dangerous sense of entitlement. They lose the idea that any kind of blessed gift is actually a sign of God’s grace and mercy where the only response should be gratitude, and instead, they gain a feeling of self-worth that tells them they are entitled to get whatever they want whenever they ask for it. Thus, whenever you dofinally give in and decide to end the embarrassing scene in Wal-Mart or Toys-R-Us by buying them what they want, they aren’t even thankful. Rather, they see their actions as justified. It’s because you have cultivated within them a sinful mindset of self-worth and entitlement that goes against the grain of the heart of the gospel. Please remember that spoiling your children prepares them in no way whatsoever for receiving the gift of the gospel where they will be told that they are sinners and are entitled to nothing, worthy only of hell and that they must utterly and completely deny themselves and follow Christ.

Third, gift-giving should be seen as an opportunity to express the love of God to one another. I’m just going to be honest here. I can’t stand getting gifts for the sake of getting gifts. When I tell Kim on any holiday that she doesn’t have to buy me anything, I really mean it. Most of the time, if I really want something in particular, I’ll eventually get it myself whether she buys it or not. Neither one of us are fond of making out “gift-lists” when the time comes to buy presents. Thankfully the Lord has brought both of our hearts into unison on this matter. If the other person doesn’t know and love the other person enough to know what to buy him or her without having to be told by a cold list of specifics, then we are just buying gifts for the sake of satisfying the materialistic appetite of the other.

I like getting and giving special gifts, especially unexpected ones. There’s a particular reason for this, but I’ll get into that later. Nevertheless, when a person opens a gift from you, they should be immediately reminded of the love of God in your heart for him or her. I can say from personal testimony, both from my parents and my wife, that I have opened numerous gifts where I said automatically either in my head or out loud, “My family loves me” or “My wife loves me.” Sometimes, as the giver, my favorite part of giving a special gift is telling the back story of how I tracked it down after it is opened and the “wow” moment subsides. This feature only adds to the unwasted nature of gift-giving as it draws the recipient closer to you (the giver) rather than becoming more enthralled with the gift as causing you to fade into the background.

I have a friend who called me back during Christmas and asked me what I was doing. I told him I was shopping online for Christmas gifts for Kim. He responded, “Yall do that?!” I said in return, “Yeah.” Then he asked “Why?” So I answered instinctively, “Because I love my wife and I want to do something special for her.” This friend may be reading this, and if so, know that I’m not using the example to speak negatively of you, but rather as a personal story in support of this particular point. Gift-giving should be an act done out of the overflow of love of God for another person, not a traditional act done under compulsion. Now granted, days such as Christmas and birthdays have a special place of family tradition in both mine and Kim’s backgrounds, nonetheless, I believe that you can redeem them in terms of gift-giving without falling prey to commercialism which Charlie Brown exposed back in the mid 20th century. Either way, there are few moments more special than when you are about to give a gift to someone, who, after opening it, will know clearly just how much you love them. It’s a wonderful chance to express Christian love and generosity to both believers and non-believers alike.

I have more to say on this subject, so I’ll follow this post up with a Part II soon.


  1. GREAT thinking – You and Don Coley need to hook up – see ASAP – He as developed some great resources that match your thinking.


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