You Are Not Obligated to Give Gifts This Year

Christmas gift giving can, and should, be a wonderful experience — but too often it’s full of relational complexities instead of wonder. We all would want love to be the motivation behind our gifts, but if we’re honest, other motivations often muddy the waters.

Like other people’s expectations, for example. We often give gifts because we fear disappointing or offending others. We can feel obligated to give certain people a certain number of gifts at or above a certain financial threshold. Motivations like these distort Christmas gifts into appeasement offerings.

And then, of course, we have our own expectations. The kind and quantity of gifts we give others and expect from others can have more to do with us than them. Maybe we use gifts to recapture nostalgic Christmas experiences of our past, or to pursue ideal experiences we feel we’ve missed out on. Or maybe our gift exchanges have more to do with generational traditions than the real people we’re giving to. Or maybe we errantly believe our value and others’ value correspond to the expense or quantity of gifts we give and receive.

These motivational currents make for muddy Christmas waters, and they are strong in our culture. The powerful American Christmas economy is, I suspect, driven more by fear, obligation, manipulation, and personal preference than good will toward men.

To whatever degree this is true for us, it need not remain true for us. Change is possible, even this year. Gifts can once again become wonderful. For God has shown us a more excellent way.

God Shows Us How to Give Gifts

That more excellent way is found in the most famous verse in the Bible: “God so loved the world, that he gave . . . ” (John 3:16). Stop there and linger for a moment. God so loved that he gave. God is revealing something profound here. What’s the connection between love and giving? It is the very nature of love to give. And since God is love, it is the very nature of God to give (1 John 4:8). Love expressed is love given. Love given is true gift.

Now let’s complete that most famous verse: “ . . . that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). If love expressed is love given, supreme love expressed is supreme love given. If love given is true gift, supreme love given is the greatest of all true gifts.

This is the glory of John 3:16: supreme love giving the greatest possible gift. God can give no greater gift than himself. And there is no greater love than someone giving away his life, his most precious earthly possession, to those he loves (John 15:13). So, when God gave his eternal Son, Jesus, to become sin for us lost sinners (2 Corinthians 5:21) and pay our debt in full (Colossians 2:14) so that we might have God eternally (John 3:16; 1 Peter 3:18), supreme love was expressed in the greatest gift ever given.

This is almost unbelievably glorious. But God wants you to hear just how personal this gift is. When God loves “the world,” he’s not loving an abstraction. He loves individual persons. He loves you. He wants you to know he loves you. God so loved you that he gave his Son for you so that he could give his Son, and the Holy Spirit, and himself to you forever, along with all his overflowing love gifts of the new creation.

Why It Is More Blessed to Give

With this in mind, we can better understand what Jesus meant when he said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). This was no altruistic platitude or “prosperity seed” promising a future material harvest for the giver. Jesus was clueing us into the secret of volcanic divine joy.

Love is the greatest affection in the heart of God and the greatest affection we can ever experience (1 Corinthians 13:13). To truly love is to experience what God enjoys most and what actually brings us most joy.

And here’s the secret: love can’t help but overflow in giving because love expressed is love given; love given is true gift. Giving is love consummated. Love unable to give is love stifled. Just like enjoyment isn’t complete until it is expressed in praise, love isn’t complete until it is expressed in giving joy to the beloved.

That’s why “it is more blessed to give than to receive.” Giving is the consummation of love. But the receiver is not at a blessing-disadvantage, for he can reciprocate by giving love in return and so also be “more blessed.” Love given and received, given back and received, on and on, results in greater, amplified joy in the mutual giving and receiving.

What Love Wants to Give

This makes a gift given out of love a different species than a gift given out of fear, obligation, selfish expectation, or manipulation — even if the gift item itself isn’t different. Love wants to give the receiver joy. Love experiences joy in meeting the receiver’s need or fulfilling the receiver’s desire.

Other motivations want to give gifts in order to appease or impress or assuage guilt or maintain equitable reciprocity with the receiver. But love is motivated by the receiver’s enjoyment and so gives without expecting in return.

And love gives far more than thoughtful, beautifully wrapped gifts. Love gives the gift of patience when Christmas celebrations don’t go as planned. Love gives the gift of kindness when holiday tempers flare, insensitive comments are spoken, and expectations are disappointed. Love gives the gift of not envying those whose Christmases seem happier, not boasting over social media with a picture-perfect (and misleading) holiday moment, not seeking its own way in a group decision over a holiday leisure activity, not being irritable with adrenalized children or crabby relatives, and not carrying resentment over past or present relational offenses (1 Corinthians 13:4–5).

Make Love Your Christmas Aim

God so loved us that he gave his only Son. He has shown us how to give. He expressed his supreme love through the greatest gift possible. And he did it because it gave him infinite, omnipotent joy to pursue our joy, even to death on a cross.

“Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4:11). Love expressed is love given. Love given is true gift. True gift is love completed. This is the more excellent way to give gifts.

It doesn’t matter what our past motivations have been, or what our motivations have been so far this year. It’s not too late to lay aside the motivations of fear, obligation, and selfish expectations, and to make love our aim in all our gifts. It is not too late to view each person as a priceless soul God has made, and to pursue the pleasure love experiences in pursuing their joy.