Have you ever received a Christmas gift from someone that you didn’t have a gift for in return. Do you remember how it felt? Did you feel the sudden urge to lie to them and tell them that you left their gift at home. Or to quickly repackage the gift card that you still had in your pocket from your last gift exchange and give it to them, saying “sorry, I didn’t have time to wrap it….”
One evening, back in college, my roommate Paul and I were in our dorm packing suitcases and boxes. We were both leaving the next day for Christmas break and since exams were over and the stress had subsided, we were feeling quite relaxed and carefree again… for a moment. Then the phone rang. It was our friends Becky and Stacy and they said that they were about to swing by and bring us our Christmas gifts. GIFTS! Who knew we were giving gifts! We were struck with panic. Imagining the awkwardness of receiving thoughtful Christmas gifts from our friends and then just staring back into their broken and sorrowful eyes as they realized that we didn’t care enough to get them gifts for Christmas. So, there we stood, in the breezeway waiting for them. Trying to think of a clever excuse for why we didn’t have any gifts, and then we saw it. A small, defunked Christmas tree that had recently (well, probably recently) been set on the trash can in our dorm. We quickly spruced it up (pun intended) and got it ready, just as the girls showed up at the door. We shouted “Merry Christmas” and held out our little arborial offering. To our surprise they actually seemed to like it. Then they gave us our gifts – throw pillows with our names on them that they had actually sewn themselves. Hand-made gifts… are you kidding me? It was so thoughtful that it just increased the guilty feelings that we already had for pulling their gift from the garbage just moments before.
After returning from Christmas break we were told that our little gift had apparently rotted in their room and also brought along many little bugs with it that they then had to deal with. Overwhelmed by the shame (and humor) of the story, we eventually told them what happenned. Luckily they are forgiving people and remained our friends, although they seemed to be suspicious about our gifts from that point forward.
There is something about receiving something when you have nothing to offer in return that is terribly unsettling. It is disarming. It strips you of control. It leaves you feeling vulnerable. I think this is why we struggle so much to believe in grace. The idea that everything we receive from God is a gift they we cannot repay or earn. There is something inside each of us that believes that our performance determines our acceptance and we can’t wrap our minds around a relationship where that is not, and could not ever be, the case.
“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Eph. 2:8-9)
I need to remind my self daily that the gospel is not about what I can do for God but what He has done for me. If I don’t, then I naturally lean towards trying to gauge my acceptance by my performance. I start to believe that who I am in Christ is not enough and that I have to bring something to the table. Which makes the things I’m doing for Him not really about Him at all. They are really about me. About my inability to stay on the receiving end of this relationship. About my need for control. About my need to prove myself.
When driven out of this mindset, my worship to God is a lot like the bug-infested trash tree that I gave to my gift-bearing friends. But when I am able to see the truth that all I will ever need to be accepted by God is already mine in Christ. And when I am able to rest in that truth and die to self-justifying effort. Then, and only then, am I truly free to worship in a way that glorifies Him.