Gift Giving and the Gift that Matters Most

by The Rev. Dr. R. Leigh Spruill

As I type these words now within the ten-day window to Christmas, a gathering feeling of urgency begins to invade my spirit. I have not finished my Christmas shopping. Indeed, I have still not even figured out what Christmas presents to get for my loved ones. If history is a judge, I am prone to choose poorly in these last frantic days of gift buying before Christmas Day. There is a good chance family members will wish they had picked the gifts they will receive from me themselves! I suppose that is why gift cards were invented, even if I still refuse to go there.

What, if anything, should thoughtful Christians make of the fact that plastic and online gift cards are now Americans’ most popular Christmas present? According to some consumer surveys, holiday gift cards are more desired than clothing, jewelry, and electronic devices.

Michael J. Sandel examines the rise of gift cards among other economic trends in his provocative book from 2013, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. He points out that gift giving makes little sense from a purely economic perspective. It is not a rational social practice. “If you assume that people generally know their own preferences best, and that the point of a giving a gift is to make your friend or loved one happy, then it’s hard to beat a monetary payment.” As we all have experienced, there is often a gap between the value we assign to the $150 Christmas sweater a family member gave us and what we might have done with $150 in cash. Why not give a gift that lets the recipient purchase what he or she really wants? This is the logic behind monetary gift cards.

Yet Sandel rightly bemoans how gift cards represent a cultural distortion of what a gift actually is. Christians shouldn’t require an economist to remind us that real gifts are not primarily measured in their utilitarian value or as means to satisfy personal preferences. A true gift is an expression of a valued relationship, of love and friendship and shared identity. At its essence a gift is unearned and undeserved. Monetizing a gift to satisfy a personal preference, therefore, is to corrupt it.

I have always wondered what precisely those early Christians in Laodicea were doing that warranted the harshest rebuke of all the churches mentioned in the Book of Revelation. Neither hot nor cold, believers in Laodicea seem to have lapsed into a lukewarm, utilitarian experience of life: “For you say I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind and naked” (3.17). How do such people monetize the gift of salvation?

It could it be that then – as now – God’s people can overlook the perilousness of Christmas, failing to perceive the spiritual danger being more interested in receiving the right gifts than receiving the One gift in the right way: as an unearned and undeserved expression of how preciously God regards his relationship with us.

To the extent that they see us, many people of this city are likely to view St. John the Divine as a church of considerable resources and prosperity. I notice the facial reactions to some I meet when I share that I am pastor at SJD on the corner of River Oaks Boulevard and Westheimer Road: a wry smile accompanied by a raised eyebrow. I am quick to note what a warm, welcoming, and faithful people we are. We are also more diverse than people often assume. And I realize in such encounters, just as I pray every day, our parish community can only be “a light to the city” insofar as we know our true prosperity is simply the gift of grace in Jesus Christ. It is in receiving him as the greatest of all gifts that we are then motivated to put our other resources into circulation in the commerce of God’s economy here in Houston.

Our life in Christ has nothing to do with our riches and prosperity. It has everything to do with accepting we are as nothing save the grace and mercy of God in Jesus. He is not a Christmas present we would have thought to purchase for ourselves in a million years. Beyond all utilitarian value and yet the only gift we all truly need, the coming of Jesus is an extravagant expression of incalculable love. The Word made flesh demonstrates God’s regard for us and our world is anything but lukewarm, and it is hard to fathom how a faithful reception of him could ever be lukewarm either.

Weekly Wisdom

"So, if anybody were to ask me how to find God, I should say at once, hunt out the deepest need you can find and forget all about your own comfort while you try to meet that need. Talk to God about it – He will be there. You will know it."

— Frank Laubach, Letters by a Modern Mystic

One Good Recommendation

Traveling Light: Galatians and the Free Life in Christ by Eugene Peterson (IVP, 2023 edition)

I have mentioned before my great regard for the writings of the late Eugene Peterson. He is one of my favorite Christian authors. I have just read this new edition of one of his early books, a meditation on the Letter of Paul to the Galatians. This volume is less a commentary than a reflection on the nature of grace in Christ, as well as how easily we misunderstand and misuse the gift of our freedom wrought by his cross. Peterson’s inspirational book is a highly accessible introduction to this foundational New Testament letter.

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