Posted by: Billy Marsh | May 10, 2009

A Theology of Gift-Giving (Part II)

Building a theology of gift-giving almost sounds pagan. I’m sure some of you who noticed my first post in this series were immediately suspect of my chosen topic of study. I admit that it’s hard not to feel that way towards something like this subject since we have so much cultural baggage that we bring to the table in this discussion. The reign of materialism in our nation creates a difficult atmosphere for serious Christians to take gift-giving seriously. But, if you desire to equip yourself with a Christian worldview that encompasses all of life (or reality), then nothing goes untouched. This, once again, is the value I see in what Kevin Vanhoozer has tried to demonstrate in his work on theological method, The Drama of Doctrine, where he presents his case for a directive theory of doctrine. I introduced this idea to you in an earlier post called “Theology and Worship: A Qualitative Relationship,” and in my first installment of this series, I found myself applying it’s principles. So my intent in writing this post is not only to commend to you a proposed theology of gift-giving, but also to demonstrate how to do theology in a directive manner. With that in mind, you will not find me proof-texting from isolated parts of Scripture to support my theories. In fact, there will probably be minimal scriptural quotations. Rather, we want to see how we should develop theology for areas that are not so explicitly referenced in the Bible based upon other ruling doctrines. Here we will see that doctrines are meant for so much more than to communicate truth or to give theological definitions for systematic categories. Their knowledge is meant to tell you how to live in light of the revelation and reality of God.

In the previous post in this series I submitted three basic features of gift-giving. Now I want to pick up on a fourth and build the discussion from there.

Gift-giving is relational. The nature of giving someone something relates wholly to our personal nature of which God’s divine nature is responsible. God is a person, and he is personable; he has created persons in his image, thus, being relational is part of our God-given orientation. The idea that gift-giving is only about adding to someone’s stock pile of unnecessary “stuff” misses the great opportunity we have in utilizing one of the fundamentals of what makes us who we are. The ability to give someone something out of a spirit of generosity for the purpose of blessing the receiver in some way is a visible demonstration of one aspect of the gospel, namely, that of putting others before ourselves. 

An example of how the flesh rebels against this action so deceptively can be revealed by asking yourself this question: Do you ever feel compelled to give people gifts that you would like to be given, or do you shop with your own preferences out of sight and out of mind? This goes especially for buying things to give to members of your immediate family. Do you find yourself purchasing items to give to your children or even to your spouse because you know that you will be able to benefit from it or because you know that they will soon lose interest in it and you would be happy to take it off their hands? On the other end of the spectrum, if we truly desire to place others before ourselves in gift-giving, then we should be committed to giving them gifts that ultimately have nothing to do with us. Let’s just think about it. Have you ever opened something and then stared at it trying to figure out why in the world that person was thinking that you’d want such a thing? Then, as they watch you ponder over it, you hear them justify their selection as they say, “When I saw that I knew you’d love it because I know how much I could use one just like it. I mean honestly, who wouldn’t be excited about getting that? And I got a great deal on it!

All in all, we must have some kind of a theology for gift-giving since it is a purely relational activity, and therefore, Scripture has much to say (an understatement) regarding how we are to relate to others, both to Christians and non-Christians. As we seek to build a theology of giving gifts, there are many Scripture passages that come to mind, but let’s look at just a few.

First, we see in the Sermon on the Mount that Jesus compares the manner in which human fathers know how to give “good” gifts to their children to the way in which the Heavenly Father gives “good things” to his sons and daughters. In his illustration, Jesus makes it clear that in giving gifts, it would be absurd for a father to give his son a stone when he has clearly requested bread, or likewise, a serpent for a desired fish (Matt 7:9-10). By bringing the obviousness of this point into view, Jesus asks why would we expect anything less from our Father who is in heaven, when we are evil and he is perfect? Without pushing this passage any further, thereby abusing its context and full meaning, we can see at a very basic level that the manner in which we approach gift-giving ultimately ought to reflect the way in which God himself expresses his fatherly love towards his children in bestowing upon them the inexpressible blessings found in Christ.

The doctrine of God as Giver informs us as to how we should view our own gift-giving. We should give graciously with a heart of generosity (Jam 1:17). In addition, the very fact that Scripture calls salvation a “gift” as well as other aspects of redemption such as justification (“the free gift”) provides for us a paradigm of what gift-giving ought to look like and even how we should act as receivers, not only as givers (Rom 5:15). For us to allow our materialistic culture to snuff out this great opportunity to imitate the mercy of our Heavenly Father is to be near-sighted and dominated by the times. If we truly want to be counter-cultural, then we would be more effective by redeeming activities such as this one and giving visible examples of how they can be done with integrity in a godly manner. For instance, giving gifts can be used in a number of ways: (1) for no other reason than to be a blessing to others; (2)to encourage reconciliation or forgiveness; (3) as a means of Christian inspiration; (4) for pastoral means; and/or (5) for  meeting real physical needs.

Ultimately, our gift-giving should be done so in a way that gift itself becomes an instrument in causing the receiver to love the giver more than what he or she has been given. This point goes all the way back to Ken’s illustration I retold in the first post. This is the ground of giving because gift-giving is relational and personal, and as Christians we should be practicing this activity in the likeness of how our Father who is in heaven gives gifts. God gives all of his gifts for the purpose of causing his children to love and to treasure him above and beyond all else. In other words, once the gift has been given, though it has real value because of the gospel, it should be quickly forgotten because of how it has enabled us to delight in God.  Do your gifts to your wife serve to increase her love for you or just to satisfy her holiday demands? Do your gifts to your children serve as tangible objects of how much you love them or does their love for you fluctuate upon whether or not you get them candy at the checkout line in every store you leave? John Piper says it this way in God is the Gospel, “Sometimes the heart sees the surpassing worth of God in such stark contrast to all that he has made, the best way to say it is that God is all and the rest is as nothing (175).” Love the gifts, but be ready to drop them and lovingly embrace the Father. Learn to give gifts this way.

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