Dealing with Excess-A Dissenting Opinion
I wrote about some ideas on gift-giving for the Holiday season in A Few Thoughts on Gift-Giving This Christmas Season. It has some great ideas I compiled (aka hijacked) from people I like to read on the internet. I should probably just stop there and leave you with three ideas of things you can implement into your holiday season. However, there is one other theme that I just can’t get away from. It’s the idea of excess. EVERY blog I have read, every comment, every concern that I read from conscientious Christians who are committed to keeping Christ central to their Christmas centers around guarding against excesses. And I agree that commercialism has pretty well hi-jacked Christmas. I agree that it is SO easy to focus on the gifts and forget the reason we give at all.
HOWEVER. I would like to throw out a slightly dissenting opinion. It’s not that I don’t agree whole-heartedly with all the concerns I read. It’s not that I don’t think a lot of the measures families take to fight against the culture and the temptations of the season aren’t FANTASTIC ideas. And it’s not that I don’t agree that it is shameful that we in America are so glutted with our stuff and excesses while those around the world are literally starving to death… it’s not that. It’s not any of it.
The reason I want to offer up the dissenting opinion is that I feel there is an element which has been possibly left behind in this discussion – and I think it’s something which matters and shouldn’t be neglected. So, really, this isn’t a dissenting opinion so much as trying to offer up another piece of the puzzle which probably needs to be included if we, as Christians, are to display the fullness of the character of God in our lives. Maybe we should call this a contributing opinion.
Here is my concern. In our eagerness to guard against the commercialism that surrounds this season, have we gone to the opposite extreme? I guess you might ask, “Why would it matter if we have?” I would respond that the issue is what that implies about the nature of God. If we become Spartan in our gift-giving, do we communicate to our children and to those watching that God is reluctant to give?
I may be sensitive to this because of my own tendency to see God more as a great drill sergeant than a loving father. I kind of default to thinking that following God is a lot like joining some elite military force. I fully expect that the training will be hard and not a lot of fun, (although someday in the far distant future I’ll see that it was worth it). It’s like I expect my life to be full of “bitter pills”—medicine for my good, but it’s not going to taste good going down. This isn’t a bad thing to accept and embrace altogether. But it’s only part of the puzzle. My failing is that this can be the only part of the puzzle I focus on, the only part I expect to encounter in my life (the harsh part)—whether as a knee-jerk reaction to the prosperity gospel or because it’s just the proclivity of my personality, I’m not really sure.
No matter why I tend towards this expectation in life, I realize it’s a jaded perspective and it says something about my theology…my REAL theology. Not the theology I say I believe, but the theology I actually believe. And it’s false, or at least incomplete.
God isn’t the bitter pill giver. He’s not a harsh drill sergeant.
I was an athlete. Practices for any sport were hard. I didn’t love running suicides (and I’m being nice here). But, I did LOVE playing sports, and I did LOVE being good at them, and I did LOVE winning games. And as a result, I loved the coaches that got the most out of me as an athlete, the ones who made me the best. Ultimately, it made game-time so much easier and so much more fun, and the best coaches made the training fun, even though it was hard. If God ordains a tough practice for us, he has in mind a great victory in the game. If he has some medicine for us, he also provides a spoonful of sugar.
Here is what I know about God, even though I don’t always feel it. Here are some things that show me that my Spartan view of God is a little off.
- “If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” Matthew 7:11
- “For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Matthew 11:30
- “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.” James 1:5
- “Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” James 1:16-17
- “Take delight in the LORD, / and he will give you the desires of your heart.” Psalm 37:4
- God “gives life to everything.” I Timothy 6:13
- Jehovah Jireh, one of the names of God means The Lord Will Provide—he gives provision
- He gives sacrificially (even his own son/his own life). John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son…” (emphasis added).
- He gives forgiveness and freedom.
- “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Jeremiah 29:11
- “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.” Ephesians 1:3
- Psalm 103: 1-5 (emphasis added). Notice all that he does for us! WOW!
1 Praise the LORD, my soul;
all my inmost being, praise his holy name.
2 Praise the LORD, my soul,
and forget not all his benefits—
3 who forgives all your sins
and heals all your diseases,
4 who redeems your life from the pit
and crowns you with love and compassion,
5 who satisfies your desires with good things
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.
We could go on all day. Here is the point. God gives. Generously. Lavishly even. To all.
This is where I realize that my expectations that life will be hard can be a little off. Life CAN be hard. It IS hard, but that’s only part of it. Practices for sports are hard too. But playing in the game and doing well is GREAT and makes it all worthwhile. Undergoing surgery isn’t fun, but being healthy is wonderful. If God ordains a tough practice or a painful surgery, it’s only because he has greater things in store and wants us to be ready for them. When I am in the middle of an operation on my soul, I need to be doing more than simply yielding to the pain, accepting that it’s part of life. I need to be rejoicing, fully expecting that God the Good-Gift-Giver has some great gifts in store for me. I need to be able to trust in (and rejoice in) that part of his character even if it’s not fully apparent in my present circumstances.
I know, it appears I have derailed a little from our discussion about Christmas, but really I haven’t forgotten what we are talking about. Here is where I am headed with all of this. I question if maybe this lavishness and excess of Christmas that we are so tempted to war against is actually something to embrace. I’m not saying we should embrace it in a commercial, worldly way. In fact, I’m not sure at all how it should be embraced, and certainly, I think that varies by family, but I do think that this is a season to demonstrate that part of God’s nature to each other and to our children. There are times when we need to learn sacrifice and discipline, and frankly, every gift given is a sacrifice of sorts, so sacrifice and giving are nearly inseparable. But at this time of year, only because it was God’s example to us that HE gave lavishly, excessively, abundantly beyond all we could hope or imagine, not withholding his very son , maybe we ought to question how we can mirror that kind of giving, even as we question how to do so in a way that doesn’t embrace American consumerism.
While I recognize the very real concern that we raise ungrateful, entitled children, I also recognize the other very real concern that we might make God out to be stingy, harsh or austere. God is not a minimalist or a utilitarian. He doesn’t just give socks and underwear for Christmas. He gives more than just what you desperately need (though he does do that); he also gives things you want. That’s why I loved the concept in this article about 5 kinds of gifts: Something you want, something you need, something to wear, something to read, and something to give. I think God gives to us in much the same fashion. He gives us what we need, but also the things we desire (when we are able to receive them)…and it’s so true that he also gives us things to give. He wants us to mimic his nature in our giving, and he gives us the resources to do it!
I wish I had some clear principles to give you, some black and white rules to follow. I wish I could say this is it: this is how you do Christmas in a way that reveals the exceedingly generous nature of God without engendering consumerism or entitlement or selfishness in others, but I can’t. All I can hope to do is to present a few thoughts on the other side of the argument, in hopes that in seeing two extremes, you might find the balance for yourself, by the help of the Holy Spirit.
I can’t help but include the first chapter of Ephesians for you to read as I close these thoughts. I’ve never thought much of this passage as a “Christmas” passage before, but in light of the discussion of gifts, it seems very Christmas-y to me. As you read, just take note of every gift Paul says we have been given of God.
1 Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God,
To God’s holy people in Ephesus,[a] the faithful in Christ Jesus:
2 Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Praise for Spiritual Blessings in Christ
3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. 4 For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love 5 he[b] predestined us for adoption to sonship[c] through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— 6 to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. 7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace 8 that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and understanding, 9 he[d] made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, 10 to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.
11 In him we were also chosen,[e] having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, 12 in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory. 13 And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory.
Thanksgiving and Prayer
15 For this reason, ever since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all God’s people, 16 I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers. 17 I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit[f] of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. 18 I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, 19 and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength 20 he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, 21 far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. 22 And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.
I know that some of us may need to repent of our greed and our focus on the gifts rather than the Giver. I’d even be willing to bet there’s not a single one of us (at least here in America) who couldn’t do some repenting on that front. However, as I read this passage, I realize that I need to repent of my rather bleak outlook on the character of God. He has made me his daughter. His incomparably great power is given to me. He chose me and blessed me with every spiritual blessing, and when I delight myself in Him, He promises to give me the desires of my heart. I don’t actually live in the face of that every day. I get overwhelmed by circumstances. I feel alone. I have this almost Eeyore-like response to hard times, yielding to them because they are fully expected. I need to let the lavishness and excess of this Christmas season soak into my soul. I need to see it all as a reminder that THAT is God’s character towards me.
Can you imagine? What if we were so aware of God’s generosity towards us that we lived every day in that same sort of excited fever pitch that precedes Christmas? You know how little kids are just so filled with that blessed anticipation that comes in the holiday season? They cannot wait for Christmas day because they know that there will be unbelievable, wonderful gifts under the tree…for THEM. They are confident of that. I was. I never doubted for an instant that my precious parents would withhold good things from me on Christmas day. Ought I to expect any less from my Lord and Savior, God my Provider, the Lover of my soul? Shouldn’t I live every day of my life with that same sort of expectation? And how different would my life be if I did? It would be a glorious thing to find out.
May your Christmas be full of meaning, full of giving, and full of the recognition (and expectation) of the lavish excesses of God towards you.
 If you haven’t seen Greater Tuna or Tuna Christmas and heard about the “Bitter Pill” – that reference won’t be nearly as funny to you.