I’m pretty neurotic about some things as a dad. For the most part, I try to be the cool, laid-back dad who lets stuff just roll off him. No big deal; it’s going to be alright. And yet, when it comes to my kids saying “Please” and “Thank You,” I’m like an apoplectic drill Sargent who won’t let the recruits get away with anything. You see, there’s a cosmic ledger, somewhere out there, that tallies up the number of good things we receive, and if we don’t request those things appropriately and then thank someone effectively, then the ledger will be thrown off, causing a rip in the space-time continuum. Oh wait—that’s Back to the Future. Whoops.
Neuroses aside, don’t we need to pay back the giver, somehow? Peter Leithart in his book Gratitude: An Intellectual History, notes that some ancient societies saw gratitude functioning “circularly”: if A gives thing X to B, then A expects B to give Y in return. This is what we call “reciprocity.” For other societies, it functioned “linearly”: A gives X to B, but expects nothing in return. This is what we call “nice.” For Christians, there is both a linear—“I give to you and shouldn’t expect you to give me anything in return”—and circular component—“I expect to be compensated by God, ultimately.”
Jesus taught this to his followers in fairly concrete terms. He said if you’re going to invite someone to your fancy soiree, invite the poor and those who can’t pay you back with a return invite (See Luke 14:7-14). And, in a very famous passage in Mark, he says that all “payments” made for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven will be repaid by God in the end—and then some (See Mark 10:17-31). In the reality of Christ’s kingdom, we are free to be generous and free to receive generosity because we all know where the gift comes from.
A client taught me this too. This client had a consistently runny nose and eventually found out that she was, literally, leaking brain fluid from her nostrils. She couldn’t afford health insurance, so she was left with over $100,000 in medical bills because of emergency brain surgery. I assisted her with her bankruptcy and, after it was over, she elatedly basked in her newfound sense of freedom. Suddenly, she turned to me, gripped my shoulders, and looked very intently into my eyes. As she blinked away tears of joy she said, “Thank GOD for you! Thank GOD for you, Chris!” At that moment, we both understood better who the giver of all good gifts really is: the Lord. And we were both captivated by gratitude to him—me for the opportunity to serve, her for the opportunity to receive.
As we enter this season of Thanksgiving, may you give with generous abandon, knowing that you will be generously repaid by God. And may you receive without shame, knowing that all good gifts come, ultimately, from God, and you can never pay him back anyway. And may we all delight in the God who gave his Son for us and bask in gratitude for that ultimate grace.
Until justice and peace embrace,