During this holiday season, one cannot help but observe an emphasis on giving.
Integrated into many of the cultural observances that occur at this time of year is the practice of bestowing gifts of varying nature and significance upon those around us.
One might ordinarily assume that this would be a good and admirable thing, to encourage a spirit of generosity amongst the members of humanity.
Many would postulate that in Christian tradition, the exchange of presents as part of the Christmas commemoration is intended to reflect God’s generosity manifested towards us.
God’s provision of salvation is the ultimate gift in the form of Jesus’s sacrifice — not only the giving of his life by crucifixion, but the very Incarnation itself. God becoming a man in order to endure the human experience and participate in our existence, with all of its challenges and burdens, from birth until death, was unequivocally the most selfless venture ever undertaken by any being at any time.
However, many of us find that we are not always entirely receptive to demonstrations of generosity directed towards ourselves. There is a certain aspect of human nature that prefers to emphasize self-reliance rather than dependency. Whether it may be perceived as weakness, negligence, or any other form of character defect, it is not unusual for a person to balk at the thought of such inferred vulnerability.
Although self-sufficiency and self-determination might be considered laudable qualities in various contexts, it can also be true that an indication of personal growth is an ability to accept — or even seek — offers of assistance, exhibiting self-awareness of one’s own limitations or shortcomings.
In an episode of the “Star Trek: Enterprise” television series, prequel to the original “Star Trek,” Captain Jonathan Archer makes the executive decision to solicit support in the depths of deep space following an incident that results in the Starship Enterprise NX-01 incurring significant damage. Archer announces to the crew: “We’ve answered enough calls for help over the past year. It’s time someone returned the favour.”
On a mundane or material level, many people are averse to admitting they may not be able to do everything for themselves; likewise, spiritually, there are certainly those who remain insistent that their souls have no need or use for salvation from any source beyond their own ability or capacity.
The reality is that we are all in desperate need of redemption, and there is nothing we could ever do ourselves to restore the shattered relationship with God.
The Bible clearly describes the redemptive work of Jesus and its appropriation of restoration and liberation as a gift from God, offered by his own will and goodness, not correlated with or contingent upon any entitlement on our part (John 4:10, Romans 5:15, Romans 6:23, 2 Corinthians 9:15, Ephesians 2:8, Titus 3:5).
It is not something we deserve or have earned; salvation has been delivered as a matter of God’s compassion and lavished as evidence of his love.
Another aspect of our reluctance or refusal to accommodate true generosity derives from a sense of skepticism or suspicion towards others.
For various reasons, we may sometimes find ourselves doubting the sincerity of others or questioning their intentions. In typical human fashion, our response to generosity is often less than admirable, many times manifesting as either envy or mistrust.
In many scenarios, the notion of giving is perceived as a matter of rivalry. The impulse becomes one of asserting dominance in an effort to demonstrate superiority — the desire to flaunt or to outshine someone else. At times, an apparent act of ostensible altruism may turn out to be in reality a symptom of egotism or guilt, neither of which are particularly appealing or impressive to the recipients — or to God for that matter.
Alternatively, we may simply question the motives or effects of an act of generosity, assuming there must be some kind of caveat or catch. People often find it difficult to comprehend the concept of “no strings attached.” Ultimately, it may be summarized as an issue of trust.
In the aforementioned episode of “Star Trek: Enterprise,” Captain Archer and the crew are directed to a mysterious, isolated, and automated space station where they are able to make arrangements for repairs to the ship in exchange for seemingly minimal resources. Archer expresses to his first officer T’Pol his misgivings about the repair station’s supposed benevolence.
T’POL: You seemed troubled.
ARCHER: Guess I need to do a better job at repressing my emotions. These repairs are one hell of a bargain at only two hundred litres of warp plasma, don’t you think?
T’POL: Not every culture is based on the acquisition of wealth. The station’s builders could simply have been interested in helping others.
ARCHER: What happened to them? They could have at least left a message. “Thanks for stopping by.”
T’POL: Perhaps they prefer anonymity.
ARCHER: Don’t you find that a little suspicious? I know you don’t put a lot of faith in your feelings, but I’ve learned to trust mine. Something doesn’t smell right.
It turns out that Archer’s apprehension is in fact justified when they discover the “hidden cost” of accepting the space station’s services: the forced integration of a crew member’s cerebral functions into the station’s computer core. Understandably, the crew members do everything they can to extricate themselves from the sinister situation.
It is probably not difficult to understand some of the cynicism that develops surrounding superficial exhibitions of generosity.
For instance, many are critical of the motives of the retail industry in promoting — often to an excessive degree — the purchasing of gifts during the holiday season. Some perceive the frequent and immense pressures exerted by tremendous merchandising efforts as a kind of commercialization of seasonal celebrations that otherwise exhibit selfless and charitable intentions.
Certainly, the giving of gifts in itself should not be construed in any malicious manner. But when the emphasis becomes the comparison of quantity or quality, especially when perceived as reflecting the status or prestige of the giver, then the essence of generosity becomes rather diluted.
One recalls Jesus’s parable of a widow’s seemingly paltry offering to God, which he described as “more than all others” in value due to her authentic spirit.
The value of God’s gift to us is literally immeasurable. Redemption though Jesus requires only acceptance on our part. The price was paid by Jesus himself; it is a perfect gift in the truest sense, with no provisional clauses or caveats.
We need not debase or demean our own worth, and we need not suspect or dispute God’s motive. The only string attached is the one which we would be compelled to cast ourselves as we, in gratitude, secure ourselves to the hope and magnitude of his grace.
Ideally, God’s generosity towards us inspires our own generosity towards others during any season.