"Great indebtedness does not make men grateful, but vengeful; and if a little charity is not forgotten, it turns into a gnawing worm. " - Friedrich Nietzsche
I am one of the world's worst at giving gifts. I forget birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, special occasions even for those closest to me. Without a calendar keeping up with it, (and the pesky people around me who insist on reminding me I am another year older) I would forget my own birthday.
"A Christmas Story" is one of my favorite Christmas classic movies, and regular around my house between Thanksgiving and New Years. From the flag pole "triple dog dare", to the back alley bully with yellow eyes and the father whose artistic medium is swear words and "fa ra ra ra ra" are classic. The movie is filled with so many classic scenes of childhood trauma that each of us can identify with on some level, yet still find comfort in the knowledge that a now grown-up Ralphie is the narrator, and turned out quite normal. (No mention is made of the need for huge doses of therapy). For those who know (and like) the movie, even mentioning it brings a smile to your face.
One scene stands out as a universal experience to me: Ralphie's aunt sends 10 year old Ralphie a pink bunny suit for Christmas because she thinks he is a 4 year old girl. It is clear both Ralphie and his dad are both perplexed and disturbed with the gift. How should you respond to such a gift? Well, mom, of course, has the answer: the same way you respond to any gift. Ralphie owes it to his aunt to put on the suit out of gratitude for the gift. The sight of a 10 year old boy looking totally embarrassed in a pink bunny suit is classic.
The scene is classic because it touches on an aspect of society that hits us all. All of us have been given gifts at Christmas, or birthdays, or other special occasions that are as useless as pink bunny suit. Sometimes they are from the crazy aunt or neighbor, sometimes our parents or kids, and, worse case, from our in-laws. But polite society demands a gracious acceptance of the gift and a faux display of appreciation. But if the gift is especially nice, something highly useful or thoughtful or expensive, we immediately begin to finds ways to repay the gift, feeling indebted to the gifter as and feeling guilty that our own gift to them does not measure up to what they have given us.
I often have lunches with friends in my profession. It is quite common that, when out at some lunch, one of us will pick up the tab for us both. Mentally, we keep tabs: he bought this time, I'll buy next time. But this is not true gift giving, it is gift trading. Gift giving is a virtue, no doubt, but it is not truly a gift when it becomes the currency of friendship, to be swapped and traded on a like kind basis.
As a Christian, I am often called upon to be motivated in my Christian life out of gratitude for the gift of what Christ has done for me. In a very real sense, I feel guilt that my sin required Christ to die for me so that I could know and live with God. I cannot understand the truth of God's gift to me without the sense of indebtedness to Him for it. But I constantly have to ask myself the question, "Is either guilt or gratitude a basis for living the Christian life?" Should we really live the Christian life from an "attitude of gratitude at the magnitude" of what Christ did for us? (Lest there were any doubts, now you know for sure I am a former Baptist with phrases like that.)
The story of the exile from Egypt gives me pause in reviewing my motivation. It is clearly written with the intent to evoke the drama of the situation. The tribe of Israel, once free, now lives as slaves in Egypt. And God gives them the great gift of liberation.
God raises up a leader from the very household of Pharaoh, to lead the people out of Egypt and into the Promised Land. The ten plagues, the crossing of the Red Sea, manna from heaven, and water from a rock. The foes of bondage, attack, hunger and thirst had been met with the calm hand and displayed power of God. The spies go out into Canaan and find that there are giants living in the land, with swords and armies, and its Moses plan to attack. The people rebel, saying things like "it would have been better to die in Egypt or the desert than to die at the hands of these swords." God has clearly had enough of these people. But he does not indict them for their lack of gratitude or their refusal to repay His deliverance of them from their bondage with their very lives if necessary. Instead, it is their lack of faith, their lack of trust.
The LORD said to Moses, "How long will these people treat me with contempt? How long will they refuse to believe in me, in spite of all the miraculous signs I have performed among them? Num. 14:11.
Suddenly the motivation, the umph, in the Christian life for me begins to make sense: the response to the gift of God in Christ is not indebtedness, it is trust and assurance that if even sin could not separate me from the love of God in Christ Jesus, then neither can any battle I might face, including death. God does the deliverance of his people so that they may trust He will do the same deliverance in the future. He does them not to be repaid, a debt we couldn't repay anyway, but to call us to trust in His care for us despite the circumstances.
Please, don't get me wrong, gratitude is an appropriate response to any undeserved gift. But I am learning that a gift is not really a gift if something is expected in return, be it a thank you, a return gift, a free lunch, or a life of dedication. Such quid pro quo robs both the giver and the gift of its true grace. Perhaps Nietzsche is correct when he says that a great indebtedness makes us vengeful, makes us feel enslaved to our creditor. And though we often sing that message in song, and hear it preached, that is clearly not the message of the Gospel.
Perhaps gifts should be given just to let us know we are friends and the giver will be there with us until the end. Perhaps the gift is evidence of the relationship we have, and its value is in the relationship it represents. And when given freely, it conveys the message that the future is will hold the same relationship.
Thanks for the maroon on green sweater, mom. I'm sure it goes with something I own. Even more, thanks for telling me you will be there with me through the years.
Where did I put that bunny suit?