Tuesday, July 13, 2021

The Grace of Receiving

It is undoubtedly more blessed to give than to receive — I know, I didn’t exactly come to that conclusion on my own — but I suspect it may also be easier, at least for Christians.

When we become children of God, we receive a new nature like that of God himself. Paul urges the Ephesian believers to “put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness”.

The Factory Resets

This new nature comes with a bunch of default settings — love, joy, peace and so on. It is not up to me to seek out and discover for myself this new nature, or to reinvent myself as a better version of what I once was. In the natural world, young people try out various lifestyles to “find themselves”. In the spiritual world there is no need for such self-exploration. Instead, we have been gifted with a nature that comes with well-defined factory resets. The Holy Spirit produces exactly the same godly character qualities in all believers when we allow him to do so. All that is required is that we obey the promptings of this new nature and, as Paul says, “put it on”.

So then, when Paul tells the Ephesian elders, “I showed you that by working hard in this manner you must help the weak,” he is not asking them to do something outrageous or unexpected. He is simply encouraging them to actualize impulses God has already given them. Generosity and self-sacrifice are integral parts of the new nature, reflecting the character of a Father who is the giver of every good and perfect gift, and a Son who took upon himself the form of a servant and poured himself out on our behalf.

In short, giving comes naturally with Christian maturity.

Growth and Giving

Now, of course, our old nature remains with us doing its thing — the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit — but we are no longer enslaved to that old nature. When we lapse into it, the Spirit of God in us pushes back. He will not let us get comfortable in our old, selfish ways. So a Christian who does not characteristically share what God has given him with others — time, money, hospitality, labor, assistance as necessary — is immature or stunted in his spiritual growth. He is not responding appropriately to his new nature. He is abnormal.

I don’t know anyone more generous than Christians. I remember when, of all people, my younger brother got turned around during his university years and submitted his will to Christ. I had not yet got there myself, still thrashing around trying to figure out what I wanted out of life and how I might get it, but I noticed the changes in my brother and was suitably impressed; never more so than one night in the early ’80s when I hit him up for a few bucks to help finance an ill-advised trip to England.

“I wouldn’t loan it to you,” he replied, “but I’d give it to you.”

I just about fell off my chair. It’s not like he was loaded at the time. But his new nature was producing changes in his habits and reactions, and sharing what he had came naturally to him in a way it never had before.

Unbelievers can be generous too, but they have different reasons for doing what they are doing. Not all those reasons are bad, of course, but they are not infused with the energy of God.

The Hard Part

But that’s the easy part, isn’t it? God usually teaches us generosity early in our Christian walk, and even young believers find themselves taking unexpected pleasure in being able to meet a need. Not the easing of a guilty impulse or the discharging of a duty, but genuine pleasure. It feels great in a way that you can’t explain unless you’ve experienced it. Allowing God to work through me to accomplish his purposes is one of the finest sensations I’ve ever encountered. It’s an absolute privilege.

But being on the other end? That’s a tougher lesson to learn ... at least it has been for me. And I’ve noticed other reasonably-mature Christians struggling with the grace of receiving as well.

You see, giving can become a source of sublimated pride. We have to watch out for that all the time. It is all too easy to go from “The Lord let me be used in this way, yay!” to “Aren’t I wonderful for thinking of doing that for him?” It takes about sixty seconds to slip from the one to the other. Giving can also be done in an independent spirit if we don’t watch out. We slip from “The Lord shared with me, so I’m sharing with you” to “I earned this, and now I’m giving it away”, forgetting all too easily that the ability to earn is itself a gift from God. (You find that out quickly enough when it’s taken away from you, I can assure you.)

Getting Over Ourselves

On the other hand, there is nothing about being on the receiving end of much-needed care, help or monetary aid that appeals to my pride or independence. In fact, I suspect it’s harder for Christians, who are repeatedly encouraged to love each other with brotherly affection and outdo one another in showing honor, to suddenly find ourselves unable to outdo anyone at anything, to be the lame deer slowing down the herd. It crushes pride, it flies in the face of an independent spirit, and it can even feel humiliating when you’re not used to it.

We really need to get over ourselves. The Lord wasn’t like that at all. Find me one place in the gospels where he turned to someone who was serving him, showing honor to him, or displaying heartfelt love for him, and replied, “Oh, you really shouldn’t have” or “That wasn’t necessary” or “No thanks, I can do that for myself.”

Yes, in fact, we should, and it is, and even if we can do it for ourselves, there are times when we shouldn’t. We need to recognize that the giver is doing something thoroughly appropriate to his new nature. He who has been forgiven little loves little, and the reverse is also true. So when an alabaster flask of expensive ointment is poured on his head, the Lord calls it a “beautiful thing”. He tells those around him the woman’s sacrifice will be commemorated. He holds it up as a thoroughly appropriate response. He receives as graciously as he gives.

We need to do the same. In fact, it should be obvious that the grace of giving cannot be exercised in the body of Christ for the benefit of all without a bunch of willing and cooperative recipients. In graciously and thankfully accepting what God’s people do for us, we are giving them opportunity to accumulate heavenly reward. We are allowing them to be what God has made them to be, and encouraging the ongoing transformation of their nature which the Holy Spirit within them is at pains to produce. Moreover, in receiving graciously what the Head of the Church has provided for the members of his body, we remind ourselves that we are not independent entities but members of one another.

These are good lessons to learn. I’m still working on it.

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