09 January 2012

Theology of Christmas Gifts

Our goal: To glorify God and enjoy Him forever.

Problem: Christmas gifts.

As my wife and I experienced our first Christmas as a family, we realized the traditions that each of us was accustomed to weren't the same. By necessity then, we thought about what Christmas will mean for us. What traditions will we establish, if any? We will give each other presents? Should we encourage our children to create wish lists? Will we open presents the night of Christmas Eve or Christmas morning? What about Santa?

Coming from the perspective that "all theology is practical and all practice is theological," we weren't about to just do whatever pleased us most. In everything, we have a great opportunity and privilege: to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. There is much at stake here. So what do we do with our culture's Christmas?

Let's start with our goal, to glorify God and enjoy Him forever, and see if we can derive anything about Christmas gifts.

We have a saying in our home that God is glorified "when people know how great He is" (it has nice meter). And that goes without saying that when people know His greatness we will find Him to be supremely valuable and our source of deepest pleasure. So to seek to glorify God is to seek to know Him ourselves and make Him known to others. One thing we know about God and want to make known to others is that He is a giver: He gave Jesus to us, His "only begotten." That tells us His gift was extremely valuable, yet He gave anyway because of His great love (Jn. 3:16). And not only did He give lovingly and generously, He gave directly to our root need. He knows us so well that He knew exactly what we needed. I'll call this aspect of His giving character "compassionately."

We glorify God when we act like He does. So we should parallel His giving character. The direct parallel of how God gives to how we should give is not that we should give some wrapped, bow-topped box of earthly treasure. It is certainly not that. The direct parallel to God giving people Jesus is us giving people Jesus. That is primary. If we are to truly give lovingly, generously, and compassionately, we will tell people about God's holiness, their sin, and Jesus' cross. That is how we are to glorify God in making His character known to others.

But God gives more than Jesus. While it is true in one sense that Jesus is everything, and the gift we are to forever enjoy is God Himself, there are in this life lesser gifts that I believe God wants us to enjoy. God gave me a wife. She is a gift. Yet God created marriage (and sex) as a good thing, knowing full well that our selfish depraved hearts would make an idol out of it. Even after the fall, He gave me a wife knowing full well that I could make an idol of her, that she could take over the supreme place in my desires where He alone should be. A reason why he yet gives the gift in sight of this danger I will save for another day. For our purpose here, we can say that he not only gives to our root need, but he also gives to our "wants." And the danger involved is OK. The giver does no wrong, and the gift is not bad. Giving a gift to someone's lesser wants, in sight of the danger of idolatry, I will call giving "lavishly."

If we are to glorify God by making His character known to others, we can do this by giving people lesser gifts: wrapped, bow-topped boxes of earthly treasure. We should do it lovingly, generously, compassionately, and lavishly. But giving lavishly must be tempered for a couple reasons: God gives out of His unlimited resources, while we can give out of only limited resources; and, if something becomes an idol to His children God will discipline us until He regains supremacy in our hearts, and so as we give to others we must be watchful of idolatry.

God's resources are unlimited. He "lavishes" grace upon us, because He has so much of it (Eph. 1:7-8). We seek to emulate that characteristic of God in our giving. But my bank account is finite. My hours-per-day isn't getting any bigger. So my resources are limited. This shakes down into meaning I need to budget what I spend on gifts, both my time and money. There are always a hundred things vying for my attention, and it may be that some other activity to put my time and money towards brings greater glory to God. That must all be weighed in a budget, and we can't go into that now. Suffice it to say here, it is required of us to seek to glorify God optimally with our resources, and only some can go towards giving gifts.

The second reason to temper our giving lavishly is that although God gives us gifts that are less than Himself, such as a spouse or children or apple pie, despite His knowing we will make an idol of the gift, He doesn't let the idolatry go on. He protects us as a good Father. He knows we are straying into lesser joys. He loves us so much that He insists we have the most pleasure possible, and that is only found when He is our deepest desire (Heb. 12:5-11). So when we prop up a gift as an idol He will discipline us. So in my fatherhood I can glorify God when I emulate His Fatherhood in protecting my children from idolatry. When I give a child a gift of earthly treasure I must be watchful of selfishness and possessiveness in his heart towards that thing. (It may be better to make this analysis prior to giving the gift.) Is the child willing to share it with others? Is the child thankful for other blessings like family or food, especially in the thing's absence? Or has it possessed the child? If so, I must consider how to wean the child of the idol. All this opens another big can of worms that I can't go into now, the issue of Christian parenting. In summary, when we give to our children we must be watchful and prayerful for their hearts. (We should be praying for them continually anyway.) But ultimately I do think giving lavishly to children is OK because we entrust their hearts to God. No matter how good of a father I could be, I cannot save anyone. And should my children be saved, God will deal decisively with their idols.

So if all this is true, we conclude that it serves our goal of glorifying God if we give gifts, and if we do it lovingly, generously, compassionately and lavishly. And, of course, we know that "God loves a cheerful giver," (2 Cor. 9:7) so we should add to the list giving "cheerfully."

But what does all this have to do with Christmas? I'll start there next time.

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