We’re just days away from Christmas, and no doubt last-minute presents are being purchased, shipped, and wrapped. Perhaps you’re multitasking gifts as you listen. Of course, this is the biggest holiday in the States, at least for giving and receiving gifts. I just read that the average American shopper will drop $1,000 on gifts this Christmas season. Wow. And of course you can send your gifts to Pastor John and me at 2112 Broadway Street . . . I’m joking. Don’t send us gifts. Your audience is our gift.
But seriously, this leads to a question especially valuable during this season. It’s from a podcast listener named James. “Pastor John, hello, and thank you for the podcast. Often I hear that we are to love God for who he is, not for what he does for us — to love the giver more than the gifts. How can we know that we are doing this, especially during Advent and the Christmas season? When I examine my own heart, so much of what I know about God seems to be in relation to what he has done for me, like the sending of his Son in the incarnation. How do I interact with him on the basis of him, and not simply on the basis of the gifts he has given me?”
Well first, I think it is absolutely crucial in pursuing that interaction with God to get really clear in our mind and in our heart that there is a huge and important difference between enjoying a person who gives gifts and enjoying the gifts instead of the person (or more than the person). And I think we need to clarify this and get it fixed in our minds, both from experience and from Scripture.
An Engagement Ring
Let me give an example of what I mean from experience. What if you give an engagement ring? So you’ve been in love for two years maybe, and now you’re going to move this thing decisively forward.
“There is a huge difference between enjoying a person who gives gifts and enjoying the gifts instead of the person.”
You give a ring. I’m assuming you’re a man, but ladies, you apply it in the appropriate way. So you give your fiancé a beautiful diamond ring, and she spends the rest of the night and the following weeks bragging about this gift. She takes it and shows it to everybody. But she never calls you. She never looks at you. She never takes you by the hand and looks you in the eye. She’s just thrilled with this diamond, but your intent in giving her that ring was totally missed. How would you feel about that?
You wanted her to look at it. Oh yes, you wanted her to love it. You wanted her to be thankful for it. You wanted her to enjoy it, and then you wanted her to put it on her hand, take your hand across the table, and look you in the eye and say, “I would love to spend the rest of my life with you. You are ten thousand times more precious to me than this beautiful ring.”
Treasure, Father, Friend, Savior
We understand from our own experience what it means when gifts are loved more than the giver. We get that. There’s no excuse for not getting that. We get it in our experience. Then we get it from the Bible when it comes to God because it’s all over the place.
So 1 Peter 3:18 says, “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God.” That’s why he died — to bring us to God.
In Romans 5:11, after saying that we rejoice in the hope and the glory of God, and we rejoice in tribulation, then he adds in Romans 5:11, “More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.”
Psalm 16:11 says, “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” Or Psalm 73:25–26: “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”
“God does everything for us to be with us as our all-satisfying Treasure and Father and Friend and Savior.”
Or the story of the ten lepers healed by Jesus in Luke 17:11–19. Remember, all ten end up with no leprosy. Awesome. Healed! They all run away, but one of them — a Samaritan — comes back praising God and falling down at Jesus’s feet. What’s the point? The point is, the other people missed it. They just missed it. This is about Jesus. This is about God. Deliverance was a means to that end.
So we know from experience and we know from the Scriptures that there’s a difference between enjoying a giver through his gifts and enjoying gifts instead of the giver. We know that. We get that.
We know that the goal of all God does for us is designed to make it possible for us to be with him and him to be with us. God does everything for us to be with us as our all-satisfying Treasure and Father and Friend and Savior. Getting that clear is the key, I think, to experiencing God in and through all his gifts.
The Gift Is the Giver
And here’s one more key to help us experience God this way during the Christmas season. We should realize that every gift — every good thing of any kind that comes into our lives as a token of God’s everlasting kindness — all of it was bought by the sacrifice of Jesus, the blood of Jesus.
Here’s the logic of Romans 8:32: “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” So all things are coming to us as believers because he didn’t spare his Son.
Here’s the effect this has. All giving and getting, especially at Christmastime, becomes a reminder of the death of Jesus. Now, what effect does that have? What effect does God intend for his Son’s death to have on us when we think this way?
On the one hand, Christ is the Father’s indescribable gift (Romans 8:32; 2 Corinthians 9:15). And Christ is his own gift. Over and over, the New Testament says Christ gave himself (Mark 10:45; Ephesians 5:2; 5:25; Galatians 1:4; 2:20; 1 Timothy 2:6; Titus 2:14). Christ gave himself.
Think of it. If God gives his Son, and the Son gives himself for you and to you, then it doesn’t even make sense to say we love the gift more than the giver. The gift is the giver; the giver is the gift.
Key to Giving
So, since every gift shared at Christmastime is possible only because of the death of Christ for us and thus directs our attention to the death of Christ, therefore, every gift takes us through the cross to the gift who is the giver.
“All giving and getting, especially at Christmastime, becomes a reminder of the death of Jesus.”
Or here’s the other way of seeing it. In Romans 5:8, Paul says, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” So behind every gift that we get or give at Christmastime is the death of Christ, and that means that every gift is the overflow of the gift of God’s love, because that’s what he shows when Christ dies. When you think of God’s love, it is inseparable from himself, isn’t it?
When John Piper talks about enjoying God, I don’t mean, “Oh, but you can’t enjoy his love.” His love is not a gift — it is what he is, right? When real love binds two persons together, they don’t say, “Hey, where’s the gift?” They say, “You’re the gift. You are my love. Your love is yourself given to me.”
So it seems to me that Romans 8:32 is the key to God-centeredness in giving and getting gifts at Christmas. Every good in our life as Christians is owing to the death of Jesus, according to the logic of Romans 8:32. And that death is the gift of God himself for our everlasting joy and the gift of God’s love, which is also the giving of himself to us.