God is himself the first, and absolutely the most important gift that God gives to us, which implies a second gift: God gives us our very selves.
One thing that people seem to do in all cultures is to give gifts, and this is always wrapped in all sorts of traditions and expectations. It seems to be a very human activity, one I have pondered for some time, but I have never quite been able to resolve the difference between the way that we give and receive as humans, and the way God gives (and we give to him) yet, I have at least come to some ideas on the subject. To begin on the most fundamental level, we might consider how people give gifts. There is the gift to mark a relationship that doesn’t really exist: a Christmas card to people we can’t remember very well, the aunt who gives her niece and godchild a gift appropriate to a four-year-old even when the girl is 15, the friend who makes fudge for a diabetic, and so on.
We can give a gift as a means of keeping a person in contact with us, out of guilt or gratitude, even though the other person might wish that we would stop. And, we can give gifts because it is customary in our society, or because we are expected to, such as at a retirement party, a distant cousin’s birthday, or a wedding. These can be extremely impersonal and merely keep us in good standing in the community.
Some people, whether they realize it or not, give to control others: a book that will reveal the truth about something, or will change our lives, or a gift card for some store or service that the donor likes, but which the recipient avoids. Some people might think that your apartment or office is too stark and will give a picture or a pillow to make it more comfortable—to their taste, not to yours. Some gifts are simply to create a feeling of debt on the part of the recipient: “I have done all this for you, so now you owe me.” Perhaps, we can all imagine a time we have given a gift out of guilt, a desire to have the other indebted to us, or out of less than charitably noble intentions.
Too often, we can experience all such gifts as annoyances, attempts to interfere with our lives, or a manipulation of our relationships with others. Gifts like that convey no feeling of true gift, no sign of an authentic personal relationship, and they can actually be oppressive.
And there are other ways to respond to gifts. We might resent a gift imposed on us, and this especially happens with children receiving certain gifts from their parents, when they had hoped for something else. We can even—when we are immature (at any age)—measure the gift for its value and size alone. This greed, no matter how we pretty it up. We can enjoy gifts in a simple and straightforward gratitude, but we can also even seek them because we want the gift itself, the approbation, or maybe just to be noticed in a concrete manner.
Or we might appreciate a well-meant gesture, yet prefer a gift of time spent with us, like a meal or a walk, a simple experience that both of us might share, and which could offer the chance for a real conversation. We might even just wish to receive no gifts at all, because of all of the expectations surrounding gift-giving, or because we just like to go unnoticed—take retirement parties, for example, which many people prefer not to have.
That is just a brief outline of the situation of human gift-giving, and I am certain that all of us could add other categories of givers or receivers, or could add personal stories of our own experiences and displeasures. But the fact is that we live in a world in which we are in a constant exchange with others in many ways, and on many levels of personal involvement, much of which we consider to be “gifts” in spite of this wide diversity of possible meanings of the word.
I would say that what my rough description highlights most is a frequent lack of true knowledge, or even caring, between the giver and the receiver in regard to who each is, and what each seeks and needs, and we sometimes even fail to recognize what we ourselves are actually doing in a particular case of giving or receiving. Such exchanges are, consequently, often inappropriate and sometimes hurtful.
Where does God come into all of this? And how is God’s gifting us different from what we do as humans? We might begin by considering the Trinity as a mother holding her little baby close to her heart, looking warmly in love at a child who doesn’t have any deep idea of what is happening. The father embraces both of them, strong, protective, and loving, and the child is there, between their hearts.
That is where the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are drawing us, their beloved children: to the heart of their conversation of love, which is both the origin and the goal of our existence. The Holy Trinity yearns for their little ones’ growth, our gradually becoming the type of person who can respond to their love, and to whom they can speak from their hearts. That is what God has destined us for in himself.
God is Love. He is thunderous, generous, creative, and unceasing Love. All other attributes, like his power, wisdom, and knowledge, must be seen in this perfect light of Love. For this is a love that calls each of us to this life of eternal joy by name, and has given each of us a unique identity. Every aspect of that identity is a gift, and I am not at all speaking just about our talents. God has given each of us so many gifts that we simply cannot count or name them, cannot even begin to do that in this life, and of course, that means that we will always be remiss in thanking and praising God adequately. Not even eternity will be sufficient for the recognition, gratitude, praise, and child-like love that we will be offering God with every fiber of our being!
The one gift that God has most notably left out of the mix is enough time for us in this life to use and develop each of his gifts as we would like to. The consequence is that we must choose, among his gifts, the ones which we most wish to define us. God respects our choices, whether they are good or less good: the Trinity is more than willing to help us choose, is eager to work with us in that vast parental wisdom they possess, but we have to be willing to listen, and then to respond, in trust and generosity. Our choices will determine how well we will achieve our imitation of Christ, and our coming to maturity in the image of the Firstborn. Like the perfect father, God allows us to take a hand in our formation—what theologians refer to as our role as “God’s co-creators.”
God is himself the first, and absolutely the most important gift that God gives to us, which implies a second gift: God gives us our very selves. Father, Son, and Spirit each give themselves to us in a different manner, and so, call us to life in a different way. As a matter of fact, because each of us is unique, we each see the members of the Trinity in a slightly different fashion. The conversation I hold with God—one that he and I both speak more in act than in words—has an intimacy all its own.
God’s love, in such a description, has virtually nothing to do with what we actually practice as giving in human life, barely even in our ideal of what we would like our giving to be: he is, at every moment, and literally in every way, completely generous, constant, attentive, and wise—but words are notoriously incapable of accurately describing anything about God. On the other hand, we as humans remain human (of course) in our receiving of gifts, in our use of them, and in what we offer God in return.
God gives us his gifts, but we are so used to them that we rarely even advert to the fact that they are, in fact, gifts: neither something “natural,” nor something we deserve. We might even consider them, whatever they are, as accidental. In all these cases, we offer little or no thanks to God; even at our best, we are quite weak on recognition and gratitude.
God’s gifts are in our hands, but they remain his gifts: I hold them and use them as tools or means for my loving others, for healing his world, not for me to hoard or be proud about. This is why he gave them to me, for my self-formation as I choose how to use them, but also as I turn that use primarily to the love and service of others. Look at Exodus 16:17-21, the gathering and sharing of manna, in which the Jews must not hoard Yahweh’s gift; and compare it with the multiplication of the loaves in the hands of the disciples (Lk 9:12-17). Consider also the rich man who plans to gather all his possessions into barns (Lk 12:16-21). As we use the Father’s gifts, as we let Jesus become the model and basis of our trust and loving, and as we seek to yield to the Spirit in our stewardship of God’s gifts, the life and love of God for his world flows through us, and washes/nourishes us, just as the blood does in our veins.
We open our hands in what we think is generosity, taking what we have (God’s gifts) and being free with them, but it is only to let God bless us more. Consider the toddler who holds tight to a few Cheerios, or a bit of lint-covered cheese, and won’t let go to receive a greater gift. Until the child does let go of the little treasure he or she clutches, Mommy or Daddy cannot give her or him something better. Too often, we deal in the same way with God’s attempts to gift us. We are limited in benefitting from God’s love only by the fact that we do not use his gifts, that we do not do so properly, or that we cling to them inappropriately.
There is, of course, the problem of what I refer to as “difficult gifts.” Our parents will ask us to go to bed at a time we do not like, or will insist that we do our homework early. And we offer some resistance, sometimes a great deal of it, because we simply focus on ourselves, and do not want to do whatever it is because we do not understand, or because, at root, we do not trust their wisdom and their love for us. As we mature and grow in wisdom ourselves, we learn to see that these seeming impositions, and apparently senseless demands and expectations, came from their love, and from their desire to form us to be strong people, and to grow in all of the gifts we had. At that point, we begin to appreciate their efforts on our behalf, and to try to cooperate better with them, and with all that happens in our lives.
Maybe we will even learn to apply that to our exchanges with God. As my novice master once put it, “The proper place of man is at the end of the open hand of God.” And if we believe, firmly and deeply believe, that God is indeed love, and acts in perfect wisdom, and in the power to do whatever he wishes, then everything in our lives is there for a reason, “difficult gift” or not.
The world sees coincidence, but for those who believe in the constant and creative interactive presence of God, there is no such thing. There is not even Divine Providence, as if God were aware of a future problem, and was offering a patch for it: no, he is constantly and lovingly offering us just exactly what we need at every moment —nothing more, and nothing less. It is an invitation to live with that gift, to use it appropriately in faith, and to give thanks. To put it another way: where I am, in whatever circumstances, and with whichever people, is exactly where God thinks that it is best for me to be, no matter what I might think about it, or how I might feel about it.
Taking all of this together, how can we learn to be better receivers and users of God’s gifts? “What return can I make to Yahweh for all his goodness to me?” (Ps 116:12). I think that it is clear that the first, fundamental, and almost exclusive, response is for us to turn to God in prayer. First, we must show our gratitude to God, and that is something that most of us are far from doing enough; we need to not only offer words, but to ask for a change of heart, which will reflect our thanks. I would also suggest that we ask for the innocence and humility that Christ suggests is necessary for those who seek God (Mt 18:1-4), an eager desire to change and grow in his image. We ought to ask for an attitude of discernment about what our next step should be, not only in the great plan of our lives, but in all that we do each day; this should not be obsessive, but an attempt to simply live in a joyful, grateful, and constant awareness of the Spirit. I would seek an attitude of open hands, both to be generous with what I have received, as well as to be open to welcome God’s next gift to me, whatever it might be. I would ask that I might live in a spirit of hope, growing in the present moment in conversation with God, and in self-forgetting, loving service of his other children.
This seems to concentrate on what God is giving to us and, in fact, when we open our door, when we open our minds, or our hearts, or our hands to God, he considers that act a gift to him, and rushes to fill us even more where we have left him room. All we can really offer God is like that: the time that we set aside to spend with God in prayer, a stance of constant gratitude and praise, a willing heart, a readiness to change and to grow under the direction of the Spirit, an attention to what each gift is, and is for, an appropriate care for, and cultivation of, the gifts God has given us (e.g., the maintenance of our health through diet and exercise), and a generous and self-forgetful service to our brothers and sisters.
I have (or should have) a hunger that is divine because God is the object, and that hunger is for me to be able to place all that is me into God’s loving and powerful hands, for him to transform me into someone as completely identified as his as possible. That hunger is a craving to trade my little hungers and passions for his consuming love, to abandon my merely human principles and values, my very body and selfhood, and to let him recreate me as more closely and identifiably his.
The Suscipe of St. Ignatius sums up this attitude:
Receive, O Lord, all my liberty. Take my memory, my understanding, and my entire will. Whatsoever I have or possess you have given me; I give it all back to you and surrender it wholly to be governed by your will. Give me only your love and your grace, and I am rich enough and ask for nothing more.
Ignatius enumerates what we wish to offer God in response to his love, but that is in terms of what is basically an Aristotelian profile of who we are. As a more modern person, I might pray more in terms of myself, my identity, my future, and my past, my successes, and my desires, my wounds and my grudges. I need to turn over all that I am, have, and desire, to God in hope.
Who knows where all this will lead? I don’t—not in the details and the dangers—but I trust the Giver of all good gifts, and I look forward to the adventure with him.