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Giving and Receiving

Giving and Receiving

One of my biggest struggles around the holidays is deciding who I should buy gifts for. Of course I will purchase gifts for my family and close friends, but what about coworkers, neighbors, and friends who are not particularly close? Cynically, I find my gift giving calculus for those individuals on the fringe of my social circle depends on whether or not I expect them to give me something. If I believe they will, then I get them a present to save myself the embarrassment of having nothing to offer in return.

A few years ago, a coworker unexpectedly gave me a gift. In response, I insinuated that I had been planning on giving her a gift at the staff Christmas party the next day. That evening I searched my house for something I could give her and ended up regifting a bag of coffee my wife had received from her workplace. I was struck at how I would rather lie and scrabble to put together a lame, last minute gift than receive a gift with nothing to offer in return. In the end, although I had given a gift, I was anything but generous.

Have you had a similar experience? Do you ever struggle to simply receive from another person without the need to immediately reciprocate? This struggle seems to reveal a lack of trust in the other person or a sense of pride in myself. I either don’t believe that the gift is truly without strings attached, or I want to have earned the approval of the other person to be worthy of the gift. Giving to manipulate someone else or as a means to curry favor is not genuine generosity. This negative view of giving and receiving can restrict experiencing authentic relationships with others and even with God. I find that I can only give what I have received. As much as I might want to be a truly generous person, if I interpret others’ gifts through a grid of mistrust or pride and not let myself experience the generosity of another, I won’t be able to be authentically generous with those around me.

One story that always convicts me of my challenge to receive well is the story of Naaman’s healing from leprosy (2 Kings 5:1-19). In it, Naaman wants to give Elisha lavish riches in response to his healing, but Elisha would not accept a thing from him. As the commander of the army of Aram, Naaman must surely have known how reciprocity for political favors worked and so did not want to remain in Elisha’s debt. Moreover, as one of the richest and most important men in the kingdom, to receive a gift like this must have broken down his pride. The entire narrative seems to emphasize the humbling journey Naaman embarked on by listening to his servants, being healed in a simple manner (merely washing in the Jordan river), and then being unable to use his immense personal wealth to pay for the healing. This finally breaks through to Naaman when his final request to Elisha is granted. He receives a bag of dirt from Israel so that he might pray to the God of Israel while still kneeling on Israeli soil upon his return to Aram. The only acceptable response to this lavish gift of healing is worship and an ongoing relationship, not actions growing out of mistrust or pride.

This kind of grace that breaks down our pride and builds trust can be seen even more clearly through God’s gift of Jesus for our salvation. I like how starkly the New Living Translation puts it in Ephesians 2:8-10 “God saved you by His grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things He planned for us long ago.” 

God’s acceptance of us because of Jesus is not a gift we can earn and take credit for, nor one that manipulates or coerces us. Recognizing this free gift for what it is fosters worship and an authentic relationship with God. Of course, as with any good friend, we will naturally want to give gifts back to God.

Experiencing this genuine generosity from God, that expects nothing in return, will naturally lead us to be the kind of people who give without such expectations. However, this must not be from a posture of pride or mistrust, but from intimacy and thankfulness. 

As we continue through another holiday season of presents and gifts, let us focus and reflect on the true gift of Jesus that we receive without needing to pay Him back. Let’s be comfortable with receiving gifts, even when we have nothing to offer in return. Allowing ourselves to be a recipient of authentic generosity may empower our own authentic generosity toward others.

Demystifying the Holy Spirit

Demystifying the Holy Spirit

In a Bible study discussing our sermon series on the Holy Spirit, the facilitator asked the group if anyone had ever experienced the Spirit. After a long silence, a few people confessed that they never had any “crazy” encounters with the Spirit. This was met with murmurs of agreement from the rest of the group. This struck me because many of these people faithfully follow Jesus and are indwelt by the Holy Spirit. As a result, they are experiencing Him daily, whether they can identify it or not.

I don’t blame them for having nothing to say, because so often in Christian culture we assume encountering the Spirit must look a certain way. We intuitively think it must be dramatic and extreme, like tongues of fire, miraculous healings, or the audible voice of God.

Many followers of Jesus, myself included, know that the Holy Spirit lives within us and yet struggle to concretely identify what that looks like and miss out on the formation that occurs when we cooperate with Him. There is a need for Christians to demystify the Holy Spirit.

You may recoil at that statement. Shouldn’t we recognize God as mysterious and admit we will never fully understand him? Yes, of course. And yet, ironically, the impulse to view the Spirit’s work as ethereal and mysterious leads us to put His work in a box, missing out on what He is doing in our lives on a regular basis. We become like Elijah on Mount Horeb, expecting God’s presence to be something sensational, like a great wind, earthquake, or fire, when it is really a gentle voice (1 Kings 19:11-13). This is what I appreciated about our sermon series. It is important to expand our categories for what the Spirit does in our lives, and give concrete examples of them, so we can recognize what He is doing in us.

Whenever I find myself stuck in an implicit view of God, I find it helpful to listen to believers from a different time and place to see what my cultural blinders are concealing from me. The great reformer Martin Luther, though best known for expounding justification by grace alone, had a robust theology of the Spirit with applications that are surprisingly concrete for contemporary Christians.

Two helpful contributions Luther makes are designating the Spirit a special role in sanctification (the process of becoming holy) and illuminating how this primarily happens through Christian community.

First, Luther’s shorthand for explaining the Holy Spirit is “the spirit who makes us holy.” The Spirit takes the objective work of salvation that Christ accomplished for us on the cross in dying for our sins, and makes it a subjectively real experience for us. He does this by killing the flesh over time, that is, our corrupt human nature, and instilling a proper love for God in us. Luther says the flesh wants what benefits itself and avoids what is harmful. It enjoys and uses other people, things, and even God for its own benefit and the Spirit wants God for His own sake, which is the proper response. Luther adds that the Spirit works to reassure us we belong to God because of His grace, not our performance, so that we are not striving toward holiness out of fear. Any desire you have to do what is right, live the way God designed you to live, work for the best of another person without thinking about what you will get in return, is evidence of the Spirit working inside you, since these are not natural responses of human nature.

Second, for Luther this sanctification of the Spirit occurs in a caring community; the local church. So often contemporary Christians instinctually view their sanctification as a primarily personal journey. However, God does not make us holy in isolation but rather uses other Spirit-filled believers to produce Christlikeness in us. As someone who grew up in church, I have often heard Christian leaders quip, “it’s the Spirit’s job to convict, not mine,” while referencing John 16:8. However, Luther sees this verse referring not only to an internal guilt conscience, but also to Christians who, by the power of the Spirit, help other believers recognize where they might be going astray. Of course this must be done in a posture of grace and gentleness, with love and tact.

The internal holiness and the virtues the Spirit produces in us have a multiplying effect on other believers. For Luther, the fruits of the Spirit are not only vertical, but also horizontal by spurring other believers to do the same. Just like fruit contains seeds to produce other fruit-bearing trees, Luther views the Spirit’s work of renewing one believer as a tool used to develop holiness in another. Encountering Spirit-inspired gentleness in another person can lead us to grow similarly.

Luther picks up on how, in the structure of the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, the doctrines of the Church directly follow the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, meaning they are closely related. For Luther, the Church is the place and means of a believer’s sanctification because of the activity of the Spirit. He bemoans the enthusiasts of his day who became fanatical about the Spirit but left the church. They cut themselves off from the “bridge, the path, the way, the ladder” and all the other normal means He uses to affect the inner renewal of a believer. In looking for the spectacular and transcendent, many ignore the routine activities of the Spirit. Over time, these seemingly mundane practices of worship, preaching, prayers, communion, and Christian fellowship become supernatural catalysts for growth in holiness through the Spirit’s working.

If you are a follower of Jesus, you have this Spirit living inside you. Each day, whether you explicitly identify it or not, you are experiencing His work of making you holy. Each time you desire to act out of genuine love for another, this is God’s Spirit working inside you. Every time a still, small voice reminds you of God’s love for you when you might feel like a failure, you are hearing the Spirit’s voice. Whenever another believer encourages you to display Jesus better, you are experiencing the Spirit indwelling them. Every Sunday when you are comforted and challenged by God’s Word preached, it is the Spirit enabling that to occur for you. Even as we leave this sermon series behind, let us look for the concrete ways the Spirit shows up in our lives and cooperate with how He is working.

 

Additional Reading:

Luther, Martin. A Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians : Based on Lectures Delivered at the University of Wittenberg, in the Year 1531. Translated by Philip Watson. Westwood, NJ: F.H. Revell, 1953.

Lectures on Romans. Translated by Wilhelm Pauck. The Library of Christian Classics. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1961.

“On the Councils and the Church.” In The Annotated Luther: Church and Sacrament, edited by Hans J. Hillerbrand, Kirsi I. Stjerna, and Timothy J. Wengert, translated by Paul W. Robinson, Vol. 3. Minneapolis : Fortress Press, 2015.

“The Larger Catechism of Dr. Martin Luther.” In The Annotated Luther: Word and Faith, edited by Hans J. Hillerbrand, Kirsi I. Stjerna, and Timothy J. Wengert, Vol. 2. Minneapolis : Fortress Press, 2015.

Malcolm, Lois. “The Holy Spirit.” In Oxford Encyclopedia of Martin Luther, edited by Derek R. Nelson and Paul R. Hinlicky, Vol. 1. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.