Christmas is synonymous with giving. Some people estimate that the average American will spend around $800 in 2020 on Christmas gifts. That’s somewhere north of 465 billion dollars for the nation. That’s a lot of money. Where does it all go? Well, one study found that 16 billion dollars are wasted each year on unwanted gifts. So, a big chunk of it probably goes into garbage cans. The gifts, in other words, find no recipient.
Gifts function in a sort of circle. I call it the giving circle. Gifts are obtained from a source, given by a giver, and then received. At least, that’s the hope.
Source to giver to recipient. That’s the happy circle. Or, unhappy circle, in the case of those 16 billion dollars of unwanted gifts. Of, course, we know it’s not a perfect circle, since we’re fallen and broken creatures. People give out of a sense of guilt, of jealously, and out of compelled reciprocation (i.e., you gave a gift to me, so I have to give one to you). Most people at Christmas just give out of a sense of tradition and, yes, social conditioning. We’ve always done it, so we always do it.
Giving Starts with God
As socially conditioned as gift-giving is, that’s not where this movement of giving comes from. The giving circle wasn’t introduced by us. It’s deeper than that. In fact, it’s woven into our soul-fabric. And that’s because it’s part of who God is, the one after whom we’ve been fashioned. God is a giver.
There’s a traditional teaching on the Trinity from Saint Augustine that depicts the Father as giver, the Spirit as gift, and the Son as recipient.1 The Holy Spirit is a person and a gift. And yet there’s also a sense in which the Father gives himself to the Son, showing him all that he does (John 5:20), and a sense in which the Son gives himself to the Spirit. He did, after all, wander into the desert in the power of the Spirit (Matt. 4). Does that strike you as strange, that a person can give himself to another person? If it does, it’s probably because we overlook the profound truth that giving oneself in love is the greatest gift—the handing over of all, in fullness, to another. Keeping nothing protected. Leaving nothing behind. Offering all in sweet and blind abandon. This is so rare in the world that it sounds like holy fiction, an ideal no one can really practice.
But not so with God. God is a Giver. He gives himself to himself, which would be strange if there weren’t three persons in the Godhead. Thank goodness there are: Father, Son, and Spirit. Each gives to each and each to all.
Abraham Kuyper wrote beautifully of this love and mutual self-giving. He called it God’s “love-life.”
The Love-life whereby these three mutually love each other is the eternal being Himself. This alone is the true and real life of love. The entire Scripture teaches that nothing is more precious and glorious than the Love of the Father for the Son, and of the Son for the Father, and of the Holy Spirit for both.2
Abraham Kuyper, The Work of the Holy Spirit, 542.
He says that this truth is a deep and ancient song. “We listen to its music and adore it.”3
Love is the greatest act of giving. It holds nothing back. All other gifts let the giver retain something. Love requires open-armed abandon, complete vulnerability. For us, that’s terrifying at times, but not so with God. Within that timeless community of love, there is unbroken and unhindered acceptance. This is only possible because God has one will. The Father, Son, and Spirit all want the same thing. They want each other, with love fiercer than fire, greater than any lover’s gaze. I have not even the words to reach that place.
But I can tell you that it burns bright and glorious, like a great star set amidst a navy night sky. Jesus tells us this. “Father, glorify me with the glory I had with you before the world began” (John 17:5). Before the world began, in the stillness and the silence, there was the burning and beautiful glory of love, the illuminating hearth of self-giving. Jesus seems to allude to this when he says, “For he whom God has sent utters the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure. The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand” (John 3:34–35). God gives the Spirit to the Son without measure, and because of the Father’s great love, he even gives “all things” to him. He puts them into his hand. What a portrait of reception: the Father giving all to the Son in the Spirit.
And because elsewhere in Scripture we see that the love among the persons of the Trinity is reciprocal (John 14:31; Rom. 5:5; 1 John 4:8), we can say that the persons of the Trinity are always giving themselves to each other in love.4 In fact, Jesus says that it is because of his self-giving that the Father loves him: “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again” (John 10:17). In the giving, the Father loves the Son, for giving is simply who God is.
Radiant, the glory of giving, Father, Son, and Spirit each to each. A love unuttered by the living, A giving God would bend and teach.
This feels so far from us, doesn’t it? In order to even glimpse it, we have to hear a perfect high note on a violin or a holy pause between piano keys—and then we can follow that beauty like a tightrope. If we balance long enough, then maybe we see a glow on the dark horizon. Maybe. But it’s there. It must be. As the Romanian theologian Dumitru Stăniloae once wrote, “The Holy Trinity is the supreme mystery of existence. It explains everything, and nothing can be explained without it.”5 Only the holy and eternal giving of God could explain the great power of giving—the way something inside us releases when we give to others, the way clouds clear in the sky of the soul when we see that it’s not about us. It’s never been. Givers at heart are never concerned for themselves. They trust the great power of God to care for them, to receive them, and to carry them home.
The Gifts We Receive
This is all well and good, but how do we fit into it? We’re the ones who waste 16 billion dollars a year, remember? Part of the reason for this waste is, I think, related to our understanding of giving. If we start by staring at God, we already have a very different sense of what giving is like. But lets keep walking down this path and see where it leads us. We can start with the myriad gifts we receive.
Ours is a world of radishes and rainbows, wood grains and water bugs, leaky buckets and burning trees. Ours is a world of smoke and ice, rose petals and self-portraits. Here, we get splinters and sweat, mosquito bites and muscle tears. Snow has a soft sting and rain a piercing prick.
This is a place of effort. Fifty leaves churn out energy to make a single apple. Flowers spend hours holding up their heads in hope of rain. Fathers say a hundred don’ts before a son nods in assent. Weeds are drawn in masses so that basil can thrive; we pull water from the ground for our greenery when the windows of heaven are closed.
And we are small and fragile here, against the rolling mountains in the sea and the rocky cliffs that nudge the sky, beneath the stars that burn from a billion miles and the planets strolling in circles.
Into this place, this place, the Giver came. He was always here, of course (Ps. 139:7–12), hovering over and sustaining all with his quiet speech (Heb. 1:3). He’s ever present. And yet we could never put bone and flesh to him, not until an infant’s breath parted the air on a starry night two thousand years ago. That was when the Giver gave what even our dreams couldn’t reach.
The first great gift we received was the breath-gift from God’s own Spirit (Gen. 2:8). The second was a shape we knew—someone we could touch and see and smell. Someone we could hear.
It’s hard to grasp how a person can be a gift. But from God’s perspective, this must have seemed beautifully obvious. He has been giving the gift of persons since eternity, Father to Son and Son to Father; Spirit to Son and Son to Spirit; Spirit to Father and so on—the wondrous open-palmed life of the Godhead.
The gift of Christ could not have been dreamed by us, but it was a gift flowing from the very nature of God, the master of whole, unreserved person-giving.
So the Son entered our world of beetles and breaths, stones and silence, voices and vision. He entered. And he stayed.
Every second of his waking day, every exhalation of midnight air, every finger movement and vocal cord vibration was a gift, for this was truly Immanuel, the with-us God. Every glorious day in his earthly life was packed and wrapped and ribboned for us. People unwrapped him moment by moment, wholly unaware of what they were receiving at first—that this was God given for them. Christ was the walking God-gift, coming to us, meeting us, seeking us out. Yes, Christ is the gift who seeks out his recipients.
This giving went on for some thirty-three years. And then, when the time had ripened like a rose bud, he prepared himself to be consumed, a gift fully taken and not given back.
Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.
He tore the bread, as his body would be torn. And, as his whole life was a gift all along, he gave it away. They ate tiny pieces of him in a room filled with firelight. He went down to their insides, into their stomachs, and then the nutrients went into their blood. And that’s where he wanted to live: on the inside, deep in the recesses of their being, beckoning from their blood with the song of self-giving. They took in the Giver in order to become givers (though, they may not have known the latter part).
Then came the wine. His body he had already given. He lived in their blood. But now—Gift of gifts!—his insides would greet their insides; his blood would mingle with theirs. The holy Gift of God himself poured out in the open air of every human soul.
Do you smell it? It has the scent of forgiveness, the soul-spice calling wrongs to be righted, broken thoughts to be straightened, false hopes to be let go, and fingers to unfurl. It is the gift of the Giver that makes us givers. Or, as M. Douglas Meeks once wrote, “God owns by giving.”6 Who could have imagined this blood-gift, the rawness and the red, the mockery of God for the marrow of men?
The gift of the Son goes beneath all so that it can claim all. And that gift changed everything. The radishes and the rainbows, the wood grains and the water bugs, the snow and the rain, for creation itself was waiting for this gift—the revealing of the sons of God (Rom. 8:19). And it waits still, to be “set free from its bondage to corruption,” to cling to “the glory of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21). Woven into the fabric of creation is an expectancy—a Christmas-colored anticipation of the gift we would receive. This is because God’s gifts keep giving, just as God himself gives ceaselessly. The giving doesn’t end; it flows forward (this is demonstrated by what I call “the giving circle,” pictured below). Your salvation and mine is lovingly celebrated by the rosebud. As a soul accepts Christ, it says, “Ah . . . soon this will be over: no more corruption.” The leaf bug and the large-mouth bass both offer their amen. “One person closer,” they say. “One person closer.”
The Gifts We Give: 3 Takeaways
Quite a picture, isn’t it? See, it’s not just what God gives that makes him radiant; it’s how God gives. Giving starts with God, but it also ends with him. All things that he gives are meant ultimately to come back and lie at his feet. That would be egotistical for any human. It would seem to invalidate the giving in the first place. How can you give if you’re only doing so to get something back? But this is not a human. This is the three-personed God who is the most glorious, most wise, most loving. If he has gifts coming back to himself, it’s because gifts have their greatest weight in their value by both the giver and the recipient. And God is both. He has the highest value of all gifts because he is ultimately behind the giving and receiving.
What does that mean for our gifts? Here are three takeaways. I think we’d do well to remember these truths this season, and every Christmas season.
- We’re only secondary givers, while God is the primary Giver. It feels as if we’re the ones responsible for the gifts we give. The money is coming out of our bank account; the time is coming out of our day. But God is the primary Giver. Whatever you have and give to someone else is a gift that’s already been given to you. One of my favorite verses of Scripture is very simple: “What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?” (1 Cor. 4:7). Paul was aware of our tendency to claim primacy, to boast in our possessions, and even in the giving away of those possessions. But he calls us back. He reminds us with cutting questions who the real Giver is. Our gifts, at their best, can only be passed on to others, from the Great Giver. He is responsible for the wealth in the world. He should receive the praise for the giving.
- Our gifts pale in comparison to God’s gift, which is what Christmas is all about. I know that sounds trite, even in Christian circles, but it’s so often repeated because it’s so often ignored. Christ is the greatest gift. Christ is the greatest gift. Christ is the greatest gift. We should be chanting this all through December. The greatest gift is a person whom we already have. That’s the focus of Christmas; that’s the glory of the season. It’s not that we get to give gifts; it’s that the Gift has already been given.
- It is more blessed to give than to receive. These are Jesus’s words from Acts 20:35. They are the best words we could utter at Christmas, because they are the words uttered by the Word himself. The blessing of gifts is found in the giving, not in the receiving. Remember that God is a Giver by nature, not a receiver. Giving is greater. And our giving is ultimately meant to lead back to God. Our gifts, in other words, pass through us and the recipients. Will they be used to honor and glorify God, to lift up others to the light of Christ?
I leave you with the completed giving circle. The Trinity gives to us so that we can give to others, who give back to God. It’s a beautiful circle. It’s an ancient circle. It’s the Christmas circle.
 Saint Augustine, De Trinitate 15.33–36.
 Abraham Kuyper, The Work of the Holy Spirit, trans. Henri De Vries (Chattanooga, TN: AMG, 1995),542.
 Ibid., 542.
 Vern S. Poythress, The Mystery of the Trinity: A Trinitarian Approach to the Attributes of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2020), 564–65.
 Dumitru Stăniloae, The Holy Trinity: In the Beginning There Was Love, trans. Roland Clark (Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2012), xi.
 M. Douglas Meeks, God the Economist: The Doctrine of God and Political Economy (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1989), 115, quoted in Kelly M. Kapic, The God Who Gives: How the Trinity Shapes the Christian Story (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2018), 17, Kindle edition. Kapic earlier wrote, “As we learn to dwell in the good news of belonging to God, we will grow in the freedom to give ourselves to God and others in ways that are impossible for those who treasure their lives as their own” (p. 12).
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