31 January 2012

Theology of Christmas Gifts Part 2

Last time we began venturing to establish a theology around celebrating Christmas. But all we really established is that giving is good. Before continuing to frame out how traditions and celebrations can glorify God, I'll describe a practical result of our giving theology.

This Christmas, my family did not to make wish lists. Through all that talk about how giving is good, we did not talk much about the receiving end. We know it is better to give than to receive (Acts 20:35). But Christmas seems to cause our hearts to become selfish and focus on what we want, to the neglect of focusing on what others may need or be blessed by. So we resolved to pursue Christmas as giving, not getting. Therefore we avoided wish lists. But without wish lists, how can we know what to get each other? we wondered. We said that God gives compassionately, and part of that description is that He knows us so well that He gives the perfect gift. So instead of being told what to give each other, we tried to simply know each other. I should know my wife and children well enough that I don't need to ask what to give them. Sure, this makes shopping a little more difficult, but it helps focus our hearts on the task and joy of giving, not receiving. This had mixed results, but we'll try it again next year. I think it may help foster selflessness if the whole year long we were considering what gift would bless those around us, looking for clues, as though we were studying each other, instead of always thinking of what I want.

But even if giving is good and glorifies God, why celebrate Christmas?

God has performed miraculous works in history. The greatest of these is Christ's work on the cross, where God's seemingly contradicting attributes of mercy and justice are both, at the very same time, fully on display. God displays His glory in this. And He is glorified in us when people know and perceive and savor His great mercy and His great justice and how He can be both perfect love and perfect justice all at once. He is glorified when we remember His great works, because His works display His greatness.

Traditions serve our cause of glorifying and enjoying God when we realize one thing about ourselves: we are forgetful. We must remember what God has done. If we forget, we lose sight of His greatness and He is no longer glorified. God knew we are forgetful, as we see in Scripture that He instituted festivals for the people of Israel for the sake of remembering His works, such as the passover (Ex. 12:25-27, Deut. 16). The festivals were grace from God to help us forgetful people remember the source of our deepest joy. So when traditions help us remember God's greatness, they are good.

Those Christians who reject Christmas usually arrive there because they hold to the regulative principle. The regulative principle would teach that since God did not establish Christmas in Scripture, or any such festival celebrating Christ's arrival, we should not celebrate it. I will not address that here but only say that I do not hold to the regulative principle. (John Piper's Gravity and Gladness seminar is very helpful in addressing what worship means as new covenant believers; scroll down to the John Calvin quote). Though I agree that Christmas began in paganism and, as Spurgeon said, "the observance of it is purely of Popish origin," I do not believe its origins are the biggest factor to consider.

If Christmas were not celebrated in our culture I probably would not either. I would rather seek to foster a family culture of giving because God is a giver. But since Christmas is celebrated here, and that is not against the law of Christ, we can follow Paul's example and celebrate with the culture in order that we might save some (1 Cor. 9:21). The reason we need to celebrate in order to save some is that to not celebrate is offensive; it makes us a "Scrooge." The only offense we should present is the cross. To offend people for any other reason detracts from our message of the cross (Gal. 5:11; 1 Cor. 1:23, 10:32-33). Granted, there is no denying that God's people are peculiar and set apart, but let's not be weird for the wrong reasons; let's be weird for how lovingly, generously, compassionately and lavishly we give. Let's be weird for our extraordinary love (Jn. 13:35), which is nothing more than a picture of our extraordinary God. And to picture Him well as we love well glorifies Him and brings us joy.

Therefore I believe that our attitude towards Christmas should be informed by the connotations it has in the minds of the people we rub shoulders with, as opposed to how it may have originated. As R.C. Sproul pointed out, "Who associates Christmas today with Mithras? No one calls it 'Mithrasmas.'" We are called to proclaim the message of Christ to our contemporaries, those we work with and walk by in the grocery store. What do they think of Christmas? What can our attitude towards Christmas tell them about the greatness of our God? Instead of seeing our culture's Christmas as a problem we can see it as a great opportunity to glorify God. It is an opportunity to speak openly about Jesus and display God's giving character. It is only natural, if we are a giving people, to be giving at Christmas.

Another aspect of Christmas that protesting Christians have criticized is that of rest. By "rest" I mean spending your time in play or relaxation, as opposed to productive work. For example:

It is our duty to attend faithfully and industriously to that secular business which is incumbent on us, during the six last days of the week, and not to institute or observe sabbaths of human invention; that we may be prepared for the sanctification of the Lord's sabbath. --Ezra Stiles Ely (pastor, Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.), A Synopsis of Didactic Theology (1822).

On the day called Christmas Day, the Governor called them out to work as was used. But the most of this new company excused themselves and said it went against their consciences to work on that day. So the Governor told them that if they made it a matter of conscience, he would spare them till they were better informed; so he led away the rest and left them. But when they came home at noon from their work, he found them in the street at play, openly; some pitching the bar, and some at stool-ball and such like sports. So he went to them and took away their implements and told them that was against his conscience, that they should play and others work. --William Bradford (governor, Plymouth colony), Of Plymouth Plantation (1621).

Contrary to this type of thinking, when God instituted a festival for the purpose of remembering His works, He called for special Sabbaths (in addition to the weekly one) for rest, play, and feasting. The purpose of this was to celebrate and thank God for His blessings upon their work.

Deuteronomy 16:12-15  You shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt; and you shall be careful to observe these statutes.  (13)  "You shall keep the Feast of Booths seven days, when you have gathered in the produce from your threshing floor and your winepress.  (14)  You shall rejoice in your feast, you and your son and your daughter, your male servant and your female servant, the Levite, the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow who are within your towns.  (15)  For seven days you shall keep the feast to the LORD your God at the place that the LORD will choose, because the LORD your God will bless you in all your produce and in all the work of your hands, so that you will be altogether joyful. (Emphasis added.)

This was a celebration seven days long, with a command to be joyful because of God's provision through human labor. Note that it is celebrated after gathering from the threshing floor and winepress, implying the use of the food and wine in the celebration. And it's a celebration that includes everyone. Resting, playing, and eating are good things when done in the proper spirit. For us now, my secular job gives time off at Christmas. So I can use this time as an opportunity to rest from work and thank God for His gracious provision. We can use His blessings from the past year of labor to celebrate and give to others. Rest is good, and it glorifies God when done in a spirit of thankfulness.

And so, our Christmas was marked with plenty of food, plenty of rest, and plenty of people. We kept away from wish lists. We shopped for each other under a budget. We played games. We enjoyed each other. And glorified God in the process.

We don't think the specific day is all that important. Because of timing with extended family on Christmas Eve, we had our gift opening on a completely different day. People are more important than the day. We gave each other pajamas the night before, and opened the rest of the gifts in the morning. And what about Santa? Our position is basically the same as described here.

Has this helped you think more about if and how you celebrate? I'd be glad to hear from you.

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.