For American kids, many times gifts = Christmas. When I was 12 years old, if you had asked me what Christmas is all about the honest answer would have been "Sega Genesis... oh and also it's Jesus' birthday too." In fairness to my prepubescent self, those 16 bit graphics on Sonic the Hedgehog really were groundbreaking. I challenge you to play that game this very day and not be blown away by the inventiveness of the Labyrinth Zone gameplay. But I digress...
For American adults, many times gifts = chores. My favorite example of this is the gift card exchange. I hate gift card exchanges. Hate. Gift Card. Exchanges. To me, the idea essentially boils down to, "Hey, let's all put absolutely no thought or effort into this activity. We'll all put the same amount of money into the pot, and we'll all receive the same level of gifts out of the pot." It's like some sort of bizarre expected gift giving/receiving socialist manifesto: "To each according to his $20 Best Buy card to each according to his willingness to receive a $20 target gift card." And we're all scrambling for the Best Buy card- let's be honest. There are several times in gift card exchanges that I've walked away... HAPPY!... having claimed my own gift card. "At least I got my card back." What type of giving is this activity really?! We could all save time and headaches by sitting in a circle, taking $20 out of our pockets, passing it to the person on our right, and sitting back down.
For the Bible (and the dictionary), gifts = grace. Gifts are expressions of love given without the need or ability to pay back or return the favor.
What does it mean when we say that "Righteousness is a gift from God?" It means that righteousness- being right before God- can only come from God. We can't do it ourselves because we're sinful to our cores. Many of us are familiar with the Total-Depravity-trumpeting verse, "For all have sinned and fall short of the Glory of God," Romans 3:23. I always remember the "partner verse" to that one found just 3 chapters later: "For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:23- emphasis mine).
Wages are things we earn. We actively work towards that goal. When we work at our jobs, we expect the compensation that we're working towards. We deserve it. We've earned it. According to the Bible, we're actively working away from God and towards death.
Gifts, on the other hand, are, by definition, things we can't earn and don't deserve. And what is this gift that God has given us? Righteousness- we are right with God through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on our behalf. Completely unmerited favor. A perfect Gift. Perfect Grace.
So when we have these arranged giving scenarios in modern day American Christmas, the habits of Christmas can rob the idea of gifts that is so central to the holiday. I knew I was getting the Sega Genesis, but I didn't earn it. How many people would be upset if, at a $20 gift card pool, I brought a $5 card (or for that matter, what type of fights would break out if I brought a $200 card?!?!). Both of these scenarios have "gift expectations," which robs the "unmerited grace" concept behind giving a gift.
This Christmas season, my prayer for us is that we will remember anew that gifts aren't mindless, habitual, chores. In fact, the greatest Gift ever was given this season and changed the world. And just like truly undeserved, amazing gifts that we've ever physically received in our lives, the best authentic response to receiving something so amazing that we don't deserve is joy, thanksgiving, and sharing. May we all treat our true Gift that way this Christmas season! Be joyful. Be thankful. And don't keep it to yourself. Tell the story behind that amazing Gift you received that you didn't deserve!