Have you ever stopped to seriously consider the question: "What is a gift?" The New Oxford American Dictionary defines "gift" this way: a thing given willingly to someone without payment. I think that's a pretty good definition, but probably not for the reasons employed by the editors of the The New Oxford American Dictionary.
How should gifts be viewed by Christians? Have you ever thought much about that? I think we need to reform our understanding of what a gift is, because our culture's definition of "gift" is, in actuality, nothing like the dictionary definition and undermines the very thing Christmas is about - the stunning incarnational wonder of the gospel.
In our society, gift giving at Christmas is generally viewed through the lens of social obligation. We each have a carefully crafted list of recipients. Then we create sublists of gift ideas for each recipient. These sublists contain things we hope our recipients will enjoy. Alongside each entry on the sublist, in invisible ink, is our anxiety estimate. We rate each idea not only in terms of how much we think the recipient will enjoy the gift, but we also take note of how much anxiety each idea gives us, should that particular gift idea be received poorly by the recipient. Ultimately, what we choose as a gift for a particular recipient will hopefully maximize the enjoyment of the recipient, while minimizing our perceived anxiety should the gift, for whatever reason, be rejected.
We are, of course, able to judge whether a gift recipient has enjoyed our selection almost instantly based on verbal and nonverbal cues which are, frankly, impossible to conceal. How we formulate our gracious, socially acceptable gift rejection cues will have to wait for another blog post.
In my view, we have largely lost the meaning of the word "gift" in our culture. We actually kill off the wonder of giving gifts because we have become a people consumed with meeting all of the social norms and requirements for a proper "gift exchange." Note that "gift exchange" is a contradiction in terms, at least if you accept the dictionary definition of gift that I cited earlier.
As a result, Christmas can become an insufferable pot of anxiety. We spend weeks worrying about making others happy (which are really worries about making ourselves happy). In fact, gift giving has become, as everything has in contemporary culture, ultimately about “me.” The exchange of gifts has taken on attributes of the contract - both parties must benefit. And that's the opposite of what it means to actually give a gift, because a gift is given without regard to mutual beneficence.
This point was made apparent to me in a recent Wall Street Journal article "The Science Behind Gifting." That word "science" in the headline is a giveaway. The premise of the article is that gift giving can be reduced into measurable categories regarding our perception of the recipient's satisfaction with our gift, as well as our own feelings of warmth and closeness with the recipient. In short, "gifting" as science makes it about the giver rather than the receiver!
This explains why we are always at a loss, and feel guilty, whenever we receive an actual gift. Real gifts give us the heebie jeebies because we are stuck in the only model too many people know - the gift exchange. When we receive an actual gift, what is our response? Part of it is usually spot on: Heck, I didn't deserve this! You shouldn't have! Amen! That's why it's a gift! But then what happens right after that? Guilt drives us back to the model we know ("But, I didn't get you anything"), which gets us plotting a quick response that will somehow get us square with the one who so audaciously broke the social conventions of the gift exchange.
Isn't this an exhausting way to live? How can we ever recover the wonder and joy associated with gifts that are given the way the dictionary, and the Bible, describes?
There is only one way to reclaim our understanding of a gift, and it is cruciform. Christian, you have received the perfect gift (the Father), by the perfect purchaser (the crucifixion of the Son), by means of the perfect giver (the Holy Spirit). We are the utterly undeserving recipients who can in no way reciprocate. The wonder of the incarnational gift of God is that we are cornered and left with only one possible response - joyous praise and worship.
Gospel means good news, and here it is: The utterly unworthy and undeserving have received the perfect gift, God, from God, for the glory of God. Once you understand and believe that, then your own giving will be freed from slavery to social duty and pride, and your receiving will be freed from guilt and inadequacy. Doesn't that sound like more fun than the treadmill of the exchange?
For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. (Romans 3:23-25 ESV)