Posted on February 20, 2009
Giving and Forgiving
See the continuation of this review here.
Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace is a book about God as Giver and God as Forgiver. Yet it is also a book about you, and me, and others. Like God we are called to give and forgive and this book spells out in detail precisely how we might be better givers and forgivers. From it you will come away with a keen sense of God’s grace that is far larger, wider, deeper, and grander than you ever imagined. Volf’s towering intellect speaks gently and practically to your soul in ways only a few can. Without question this read is worth every minute of your reflective time.
Listed below are just a few quotations that really grabbed me so far. When I finish, I’ll offer quotations from the remainder of the book. I do hope that you will move beyond these passages, however, and behold the carefully nuanced sense of giving and forgiving by reading this fine offering from Volf.
From the first half of the book: God as Giver
God’s gifts aim at making us into generous givers, not just fortunate receivers. God gives so that we, in human measure, can be givers too….We are not simply the final destinations in the flow of God’s gifts. Rather, we find ourselves midstream, so to speak. The gifts flow into us, each one of us; from us, they flow to those in need.
God never works in us without us.
The creator gives because without that giving we would not even be, let alone flourish. We don’t exist out of our own resources but are essentially dependent upon God. We are what a philosopher might call ontologically needy: our very being is in need of the power to be. The redeemer gives, because without God’s giving we could not mend our lives ruined by sin. And that’s what a theologian might call soteriologically needy: Our salvation and our welfare is our need. The consummator gives, because without God’s giving we would return to dust and reap eternal ruin. Again in theological terms, we are eschatologically needy: Eternal life is our need. The creator gives existence and grounded trust. The redeemer gives salvation and active love. The consummator gives eternal life and living hope. We need these things. God gives them.
Take reciprocity out of gift giving, and community disintegrates into discrete individuals….Take gift giving out of reciprocity, and community degenerates into individuals who’ll cooperate and split apart when it suits their interests….The best gift we can give to each other may be neither a thing (like a diamond ring) nor an act (like an embrace), but our own generosity. With that “indescribable gift” called Christ, God gave us a generous self and a community founded on generosity…At the most basic level, generosity itself is exchanged in all our gift exchanges: My generosity is reciprocated by your generosity, and the circle of mutual love keeps turning.
We may take Jesus’ warning [Matthew 6:2] and do our giving in secret, but still give mainly to get something out of it. Our conscience may be burdened by a transgression, we may have a vague sense of not being morally good enough, or we may feel uneasy about our wealth, power, and privilege, so we give in order to silence our self-doubt. By giving secretly as Jesus urged, we pay off a debt to our bad conscience or stockpile moral capital that we intend to spend later as we see fit. The coin of our generosity may be real, but it is minted out of impure metal.
It will not help much if we simply remind ourselves: God gives to the ungrateful, and so should we. But it will help if we remember that it’s God who gives when we give. For then we need to deflect gratitude that comes to us anyway. We are not its proper addressees. God is. And if we are convinced that gratitude doesn’t properly belong to us, then ingratitude doesn’t even touch us…And so we too continue to give, even to the ungrateful.
Miraslov Volf is Henry B. Wright Professor of Systematic Theology at Yale Divinity School and Director of Yale Center for Faith and Culture.