“The world is fairly studded and strewn with pennies cast broadside from a generous hand.”
As I spoke recently with The Laymen’s Lounge about The Book of Giving, one point that kept coming up in our conversation was God’s prodigality (his being excessively lavish) in the good things he gives us. And what blows my mind is that the vast majority of God’s gifts go unnoticed. It’s one thing to be prodigal; it’s another to be prodigal anonymously; and it’s still another to be prodigal anonymously towards people who will miss most of your gifts. That seems like such a waste to us, doesn’t it? But there’s something deeper being revealed here.
Yesterday, the sunset that burned the underbellies of our gray-purple clouds with pink and gold, igniting them like clothes cast off from the ancient bodies of giants, drifting toward the orange horizon—how many people in our town never picked their head up to look at it? Some thousands. And yet the gift was still given. Or those two red-tailed hawks that circled just above our house, dancing with each other as if connected by a long, invisible rope—why was I the only one to see it? Or that fleeting sense of warm sunshine on my skin as I started my car—I barely paused to notice it. Why such excess, which appears to be wasted? Annie Dillard once wrote, “Beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there” (Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, p. 10). But most of the time we aren’t there, or can’t be. Why does God still run the world this way?
I had to laugh when I read Dillard’s description of nature and the insects she finds in the wild.
Nature is, above all, profligate. Don’t believe them when they tell you how economical and thrifty nature is, whose leaves return to the soil. Wouldn’t it be cheaper to leave them on the tree in the first place? This deciduous business alone is a radical scheme, the brainchild of a deranged manic-depressive with limitless capital. Extravagance! Nature will try anything once. This is what the sign of the insects says. No form is too gruesome, no behavior too grotesque. If you’re dealing with organic compounds, then let them combine. If it works, if it quickens, set it clacking in the grass; there’s always room for one more; you ain’t so handsome yourself. This is a spendthrift economy; though nothing is lost, all is spent.
Why the extravagance? Why does God give us billions of gifts every second (even the chance to marvel at a myriad of strange insects) when most of us won’t end up seeing the majority of them? Why is God so spendthrift?
Prodigality and the Heart of God
We have to start answering all of our questions about God with the Creator-creature distinction. Our understanding of gifts isn’t his understanding. There’s analogy, not identity. As limited human creatures, we have this idea that gifts must be noticed in order to hold value, that acknowledgment is necessary. Perhaps that reveals more of the shallowness of our own hearts. In The Book of Giving, I talk about how God is essentially a giver. He gives within himself (Father to Son and Spirit), he gives himself to us, and he gives all of creation to us—all of those burning sunsets and red-tailed hawk waltzes. He’s always giving, and he gave well before we had any capacity to notice, since we were created “good” as limited creatures. We could never perceive all of his gifts. His giving has always exceeded our ability to notice. Maybe that tells you something about God’s heart.
For God, giving is always attached to love. “For God so loved the world, that he gave . . .” (John 3:16). Gifts are expressions of love. The abundance of gifts is an expression of the abundance of love. Consider this as a parent. Could you ever give your children too many gifts? Sure, you could spoil them or give them an unwarranted sense of privilege. But you know what I mean. Do you put limits on your love for them? Do you say, “I’ll show them X amount of love, but ONLY if they notice it. If they stop noticing, then I’ll stop loving”? I certainly hope you wouldn’t say that! It would suggest that your love is conditional. And love, by nature, can’t be conditional. Love is offering yourself to another with an acknowledgement that you may get nothing back.
This means there’s a relationship between love and prodigality. The more prodigal the giver, even if billions of gifts per second go unnoticed, the more he loves the recipient. And the gift of the gospel was the ultimate act of prodigality. God so loved us that he gave us . . . himself. Is that not ridiculous? How could the God of stars and hawks and sunsets love us that much? And how can we say anything more than what Paul said in Romans 11:33 in response? “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” Rich and unsearchable. That’s my God. He pours out treasures on creatures who struggle even to notice him. He does this out of profound, unexplainable love. He gives billions of unnoticed gifts because he loves billions of unnoticing people.
Excessive giving reveals the unsearchable depths of God’s love, the bottomless well of his heart. Nothing is wasted simply because it isn’t noticed by us. Every gift is of value because every gift is an expression of eternal love. For you. For me. The extravagance Dillard speaks of, the extravagance that surrounds us, is the unceasing, unparalleled expression of God’s love. God is spendthrift because his love is eternal.
Chasing after God’s Prodigal Heart
What does this mean for us? As we mature in Christ, our goal is not merely to become more grateful receivers; it’s to become more prodigal givers. If we are to be creatures who strive after God’s own heart (1 Sam. 13:14), then we should be striving after prodigal love. Prodigal giving is the call of the Christian life. It comes from the mysterious nature of God himself, since the Father gives the Son his Spirit without measure (John 3:34). God is the measureless giver. But we are made in God’s image, fully restored in glory because of the gift of the Son, set in our hearts by the gift of the Spirit. We were made to chase after the prodigal heart of God, to have his heart become ours, leaving our gifts at the doorsteps of those who may never even notice them. Such is the wild love of God.
Prodigality reveals passion; it reveals a love that cannot be measured. It reveals a love that is free and excessive and extravagant. We chase after God’s prodigal heart even as he holds us up with the same. To grow in godliness is to grow as a prodigal giver, to develop a habit of spending what the world says is “too much.” In gospel terms, “too much” is always the perfect amount. May we develop into people who give too much, as we possess the God who has already given us all things (2 Cor. 6:10).
Like this post? Then you’ll love The Book of Giving.
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