When I wrote a few weeks ago about making room for the coming of Christ, I knew even as I was writing that that I didn’t really know what that meant. I didn’t fully know what things inside of me needed to be pushed aside and moved around to make room for Christ to enter in. But I was open to being shown. I prayed, hestitantly, knowing that this could be very uncomfortable, that God would show me what needed to be rearranged in my heart.
Wouldn’t you know it, He did.
In the weeks preceding Christmas it seems that we are all exhorted to give, give, give. Give gifts to your loved ones. Give to the family-in-need that your church adopted. Give to the food bank. Give to the guy with the santa hat ringing the bell in front of the grocery store. I have given to all of these causes, and more, in the past. Because (I told myself) that’s what good Christians do. We give.
Also because Christmas is coming, the blog-realm is replete with stories of reputed generosity that are supposed to warm my heart to the true meaning of Christmas. So-and-so recalls a time when her parents took all of her Christmas presents to the homeless shelter, and wasn’t that a great example of giving generously? Another tells a story of saving money to donate to a “needy family”, only to find out that her family was the needy family, and wasn’t it disappointing to have her money returned to her? And there are countless other similar tales.
As if that wasn’t enough, I get nervous going to church because I know I’ll be asked to give to something or somebody. And I know that I’ll say no. And, even though they might say “Oh that’s okay, I understand,” I know that they don’t. They can’t possibly understand, because I don’t even understand it myself.
At first I thought this struggle was a natural result of our tight financial season. Because this year I identify more with the needy families than with the people delivering the food boxes. And while that may be part of it, I know it runs deeper.
But still I struggle to name what “it” is.
Yesterday, as I was reading, the Holy Spirit gripped my heart with an essay by William Willimon. I think it’s a key–maybe the key–to understanding this whole struggle with giving.
Willimon makes a simple point–we like to think of ourselves as generous and benevolent people, so we like to give.
But was that first Christmas really about what we gave? Or was it about what we received?
Yet I suggest we are better givers than getters, not because we are generous people but because we are proud, arrogant people. The Christmas story–the one according to Luke not Dickens–is not about how blessed it is to be givers but about how essential it is to see ourselves as receivers.
We prefer to think of ourselves as givers–powerful, competent, self-sufficient, capable people whose goodness motivates us to employ some of our power, competence and gifts to benefit the less fortunate. Which is a direct contradiction of the biblical account of the first Christmas. There we are portrayed not as the givers we wish we were but as the receivers we are…God wanted to do something for us so strange, so utterly beyond the bounds of human imagination, so foreign to human projection, that God had to resort to angels, pregnant virgins, and stars in the sky to get it done. We didn’t think of it, understand it or approve it. All we could do, at Bethlehem, was receive it. A gift from a God we hardly even knew.
And so, in one of God’s ironic twists, He shows me that Christmas is not about what I give, it’s about what I’m able to receive. To be sure, the giving has its place. But it doesn’t come first. Because the things I give have to come from the overflow of the things I’ve received. It’s like you’re a kid who’s been given the entire bag of peppermints, and it’s really no problem to pass them around and share the love. Because you have so much that you’re not worried about running out.
And now I realize that I’ve been giving for years, and never receiving. And now I’m bankrupt. My peppermints have run out. So not only do I not have anything to give to you, I don’t even have any left for myself.
This year, I feel God telling me to stop giving, and to just receive. To allow myself to be filled with the things He wants to give to me. This feels selfish. It feels un-Christian. But I know it’s neccessary.
If I want to be able to give good gifts to the people I love, I first have to receive them from Someone who loves me.
This is often the way God loves us: with gifts we thought we didn’t need, which transform us into people we don’t necessarily want to be.
It’s obvious that God is working on something in me. He’s rearranging some of the furniture in my heart. I keep tripping over it because the chairs aren’t where I left them and the table’s in a different place, and sometimes that hurts. But this is where I begin to receive God’s gifts, and to trust that He knows exactly the right thing to give me.