Christmas: How The Gift of God Makes Us Givers
Over the past months, I have noticed a pervasive theme in many of the movies I have watched, whether British, American, Nigerian, or Spanish. In these movies, there is either a single man/woman who falls in ‘love’ with a married man/woman or a married man/woman who falls in love with another married man/woman.
Of course, this is not a new theme in movies. But I have noticed the tendency to normalise such relationships on the basis that the parties find ‘happiness’ and ‘self-fulfilment’ in such relationships. In most cases, the outsider might feel bad about disrupting another person’s marriage, but his or her need for ‘happiness’ and ‘self-fulfilment’ (which he or she thinks can be found in such illicit relationships) trumps the pain or loss of the other woman/man and the children involved.
In essence, while older movies might include a moral repugnancy and “judgment” against this sort of selfishness and self-centeredness, these new ones are moot about any moral scruples. There should be no judgment, only affirmation or indifference. Happiness is the only moral law that matters and why should someone sacrifice his or her ‘happiness’ for another’s?
But this theme is only a picture of everything that has gone wrong with us. Even in the business world, the desire for profit and self-fulfilment must trump all concerns about the environment, workers’ welfare, and the good of the community. We are quick to remind everyone that we are self-made and we have a right to use our resources to indulge ourselves without giving a damn about anyone else.
Moreover, all aspects of life can be commodified and commercialised as long as the transaction takes place between consenting adults. Sex, marriage, love, and even religion, are now commodities subject to the same market dynamics as, say, the real estate market. We damn the common good and focus on the aggrandisement of the individual; as they say, “if it’s not making money, it’s not making sense.”
We might still throw some money here and there towards charity as long as the underlying issues of injustice and oppression that lock people into poverty are not discussed. If giving some millions here and there will give us prestige, respect, and honour, while keeping up the systems that profit us, we consider it a small sacrifice to make.
The message of Christmas is radically different from the one we have imbibed, the one by which we shape our cultures. Christmas tells us about the Father giving us his Son as a gift of love and the Son humbling himself, clothing his divine glory with human nature, so he can be our Saviour and high priest. And this gift of God shatters every selfishness and self-centeredness in us so we can imitate the triune God and become givers, those who humble and deny themselves, for the good of others.
The gift of God
Even before he gave us his Son, the Father has always been a giver. Though he was in need of nothing, he created heaven and earth (out of the fullness and perfection of his being) and gave being to everything.
And he is the one who also keeps everything in existence. “He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy” (Acts 14:17). As the Psalmist said, “The LORD is good to all; he has compassion on all he has made,” “the eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food at their proper time. You open your hand and satisfy the desires of every living thing” (Psalms 145:9, 15-16).
In essence, God, by creation and sustenance, is a giver.
However, when God out of his love gave his Son (John 3:16), that was the greatest gift of all. Every other gift God gives in creation and sustenance is subordinate to the gift of his eternal Son: “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all – how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32).
Though the triune God has existed for all eternity in the union of Father, Son, and Spirit, sharing one essence and will, the Father sent the Son to clothe his divinity with humanity so he can redeem us. It was “to us” that the child is born and the son is given (Isaiah 9:6).
The Son came in obedience to the Father, humbly taking our human flesh: “who, being in the very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:6-8).
When the Son of God became man, he came to be a servant. His birth in a manger (Luke 2:7) to a family that could not afford a lamb for Mary’s purification rite (Luke 2:22-24) was representative of this condescending humility. And in this humble state, all of his life was one of denying himself to serve others. As he said, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).
But Jesus did not wait until the cross to serve. Giving his life as a ransom was only the culmination of a life of self-denial and love. Peter summarised his ministry thus: “he went around doing good” (Acts 10:38). He preached, taught, and healed. Indeed, he proclaimed the good news to the poor, freedom for the prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, and he set the oppressed free (Luke 4:18). He wasn’t ashamed to identify with the oppressed and marginalised of society; his service of love extended to Jews and Gentiles, religious conservatives and publicans, young and old, rich and poor, the socially acceptable, and the outcasts.
And this life of service and giving ended when he paid the ultimate price for our sins. He took on himself our sins and gave us the righteousness that his perfect life had earned (2 Corinthians 5:21). He took our pain and bore our suffering; he was pierced for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities (Isaiah 53:5, 6). The cross was the ultimate act of self-denial, love, service, and self-giving. And because of that ultimate sacrifice, we can be reconciled to God as his redeemed sons and daughters. Though we are sinners – powerless and ungodly, neither righteous nor good – Christ died for us (Romans 5:6-8). And having reconciled us to the Father, he gave us the gift of the Holy Spirit to indwell and transform us from within (Romans 5:5).
The ultimate gift produces givers
If the Father is a giver and the Son came to be a servant who exemplified a life of self-denial, love, service, and self-giving (culminating in his sacrifice for our sin), we who are sons and daughters of the triune God can be nothing less.
Before Paul summarised his theology of the incarnation (in Philippians 2), he prefaced it with a moral call: “in your relationship with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5).
When he sought to use the example of the Macedonians to motivate the Corinthians to complete their generous donation to the saints in Jerusalem, he also reminded them about the grace of Jesus who “though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9).
The ethics of the new covenant is summarised in the command to love God and our neighbors (Mathew 22:34-40). In explaining this love, John puts the ultimate sacrifice of Christ as the model: “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters” (1 John 3:16). He also points to the love that led the Father to send the Son as the motivation to love one another (1 John 4:10-11).
For John, the love that imitates Jesus will also go about doing good: it goes beyond words and speech and manifests itself in acts of generosity towards those in need (1 John 3:17-18). James agrees, pointing out that true religion ministers to the widows and orphans (James 1:27) and those who don’t have clothes or daily food (James 2:14-17).
But living this life of service, self-giving, and love requires the same humility and self-denial that characterised Christ. We can only bear the fruit of such a life of love if we die to ourselves like the corn of wheat (John 12:23-26). It requires a life of denying ourselves, taking up our cross, and following him (Mathew 16:24).
Greatness is not about self-affirming, building our empires, and taking every opportunity to remind people of how self-made we are; rather, “whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave” (Mathew 20:25, 26). In fact, Jesus taught in a parable that when we go to banquets we should be humble enough to take the lower seats and then wait for the host to take us to the higher seat (Luke 14:10). Instead of uplifting ourselves, we should humble ourselves and allow people to honour us. For Paul, living such a life requires that we deny ourselves and “honour one another above yourselves” (Romans 12:10), in other words, valuing others above ourselves (Philippians 2:3). We don’t destroy other people’s marriages to pursue our ‘happiness’ or destroy the community for personal gain; instead, we give ourselves for the good of others.
In another parable, Jesus encouraged us that instead of only giving as a way to acquire some favours going forward (buying a car for someone who can give us connections that will prosper our business and other such gifts), we should give to those who are really needy and incapable of repaying us – the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind (Luke 14:12-14). In essence, we should identify with the real poor, oppressed, and marginalised of society instead of seeing giving as a way to advance ourselves.
For James, such a life requires paying workers their due, refusing to hoard wealth that could be valuable to the needy, and living a humble and self-denying life instead of living in “luxury and self-indulgence” (James 5:1-6).
Christmas reminds us that our God is a giver and we who have received his gifts and the ultimate gift of salvation, must walk in the path of humble, self-denying, and selfless love and service to our neighbours. The gift of God makes us givers; the giving God creates givers.
Partaking of the ultimate gift
As we serve others in humility, we must remind ourselves that our ultimate service is to bring others to be sharers in the ultimate gift. We are Christ’s ambassadors and we must call everyone to be reconciled to God (2 Corinthians 5:16-21) – the ultimate giver. Our giving must point beyond ourselves to the ultimate gift and giver (Mathew 5:16).
Jesus has prepared a huge banquet and he has called us to give the invitation to all and sundry (Luke 14:15-24). Everything is ready; there is no more price to be paid; Jesus has paid it all; salvation is the free gift of God. Now, God calls us to give the invitation to all, telling them that there is still room. And because God has chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith (James 2:5), we must go to the streets and alleys and call the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame to the feast of salvation.
This is our ultimate service and gift and as we live a life of service, giving, and self-denial, we must not forget it.
Christmas thus reminds us of what is most important – God has given the ultimate gift, his Son and it is only in him that there is salvation. Whatever gifts we receive or give, we are lost eternally without this ultimate gift.
If you do not have a saving faith in Christ, I invite you to repent of your sin and put your faith in him, the Father’s ultimate gift, so you can be reconciled to the Father and receive all the gifts of grace that are in Christ. Let Christmas be the occasion where you partake of God’s ultimate gift.
If you are a believer, let Christmas remind you that the Christian life is not a life of self-affirmation, selfishness, self-centeredness, and a psychological crave for “happiness” that transcends all morality and concern for the common good. Let Christmas remind you that this Christian life is one of self-denial, humility, and selfless love for God and neighbours that imitate the triune God, the ultimate giver.
And yet it is a life of so much joy and peace since it is as we become more like Christ that we become more human (who were designed to be). As we continue to image him in this life, we’ll one day see him as he is and become like him (1 John 3:1-3). The story of Christmas will one day be consummated when the triune God will dwell with us in the New Jerusalem and we’ll be clothed in immortal glory, free from sin and all its baneful effects (Revelation 21:1-4).
Angels we have heard on high,
sweetly singing o’er the plains,
and the mountains in reply
echoing their joyous strains.
Gloria in excelsis Deo,
gloria in excelsis Deo.
Shepherds, why this jubilee?
Why your joyous strains prolong?
What the gladsome tidings be
which inspire your heav’nly song?
Come to Bethlehem and see
him whose birth the angels sing;
come, adore on bended knee
Christ the Lord, the newborn King.