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Artwork by Jessica Hiatt

In a previous post, I talked about the circular nature of giving, about how all of our gifts end up being given back to God. This needs repeating and application for us daily, since we seem bent on following what I call a transactional approach to giving.

Before I get to that, let me review the model of giving we’ve been discussing because it’s so counter-cultural. Giving is not simply an activity, something we do. Rather, it’s something God does (even something God is), and we get the joy of modeling our lives after his. I can’t stress this enough, because we’re so fixated on giving as transactional rather than giving as circular. Let me set out the difference.

Transactional vs. Circular Giving

Transactional giving is linear. It moves from a source, then to a giver, and then to a recipient.

There’s nothing particularly wrong with this diagram. It touches on what John Barclay called the principle of noncircularity, the idea that gifts are not reciprocated by the receiver; they simply end there, which highlights the generosity of the one who gave.[1] But this is only one facet of giving, and our modern era focuses too much on this. The effect is that we end up with an incomplete picture of giving. Transactional giving acts as if giving stops with the recipient. But we’ve already seen that the gifts we receive are meant to be given back to others for the purposes of God. That’s the giving circle. This is bound with the bedrock truth that “that gifts are a means of creating or sustaining relationships.”[2] The giving circle is primarily about relationships—God’s relationship with us and our relationships with each other.

The giving circle is also rooted in God’s trinitarian character. The self-giving God has no end to giving. The circle is eternally unbroken.

Why It Matters

Now, why does it matter whether we have a transactional or circular approach to giving? Here’s the major difference: The ultimate purpose of our giving shapes both the gift and the act of giving. In other words, when we’re unaware of the purpose for our giving (i.e., to give back to others in praise of the glorious, self-giving God), we may end up giving the wrong gifts for the wrong reasons. This is precisely because we don’t have God built into our model of giving.

The ultimate purpose of our giving shapes both the gift and the act of giving.

Let me offer an example. Suppose I want to express love for my wife by making her breakfast. The gift is breakfast. I’m the giver. My wife is the recipient. So, I make her breakfast, she thanks me for it, eats it, and we move on. But what’s going on inside me, the giver? Why did I make her breakfast? There are a few ways in which our sinfulness can breed problems at this point. Here are some of them.

1. I act as if I’m giving out of my own means. In truth, the ultimate giver is God himself. God provided the skills and knowledge I’ve acquired over the years, which I’ve used to get a job (which he also provided), which produced money to buy the food. He also gave me a body that’s able to make the food and offer it to her. I can’t take all the credit for this act of giving because, from the very outset, I’m relying on another: the God who gives. Ignoring the ultimate giver leads to pride and self-absorption. I walk away from the act of giving thinking I’m pretty great rather than worshiping God for being a grand giver.

2. My act of giving can contaminate the love-gift I offer. This follows naturally from the previous point. If I think that I’m pretty great as a giver, then I start wanting and expecting acknowledgment. I want credit for the gift I gave. I want my wife, perhaps, to do something to express my greatness. Perhaps I even start expecting her to reciprocate this gift somehow. Do you see how this spoils the gift of love that I tried to give? It makes that love-gift ultimately about me. And then I start growing impatient. I start carrying a chip on my shoulder. I start to grow envious of the gift (e.g., “I wish someone would make me breakfast!”). I also boast to others about the gift I gave (even if that boasting is to myself). I become arrogant and rude, insisting that my own righteousness is above reproach, that I’m really a saint in sinner’s garb. And then the arrogance bleeds into irritation and resentment. And yet, “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful” (1 Cor. 13:4–5). The love-gift I tried to offer is now utterly contaminated. It no longer even resembles love.

3. My experience may make me less likely to give again. All of this makes it far less likely that I’ll take the initiative to give again. This is the death of the giving circle. I start focusing on taking rather than giving. Selfishness replaces selflessness; expectation replaces gratitude. And this grieves the heart of God.

If I ignore the ultimate giver from the outset, everything can easily fall apart. The transactional approach to giving can only ever lead to selfishness. There is no other destination.

Giving within the Giving Circle

Now, let’s look at the same act when I use the giving circle. To start, I know that God has lavishly poured out himself for me. He’s giving me life and experience and knowledge and relationships. He’s given me a wife who loves me deeply and children who find joy in my smile. He’s given me everything because he’s given me himself. In Christ, I possess all (2 Cor. 6:10). What more could I ask for?

If God has already given me innumerable gifts, then my act of breakfast making can be pure, by the power of his own Spirit. It can be truly selfless, because I’m not only giving to someone else what God has given to me (moving things along in the giving circle); I’m also not expecting something in return. My hope is only to see my wife’s joy. This makes the gift a true act of love.

And people in our world can usually tell the difference between transactional and circular giving. They can sense when giving is done out of a pure heart and when giving is done out of an expectation for reciprocation or praise. It matters. Starting with God in our giving matters.

God’s not packing a storehouse full of our gifts. He’s not hoarding them. He’s always giving. Always.

This trinitarian shape of giving—rooted in the Father giving the Son his Spirit without measure (John 3:34)—colors all of our little acts of giving. It takes what seems to be transactional and shows us that the ultimate purpose, for living and for every act we carry out, is God himself. And God’s not packing a storehouse full of our gifts. He’s not hoarding them. He’s always giving. Always.


God, you give your Spirit

To the Son without measure.

You’re always giving.

And I’m so often taking.

I receive and hoard.

I grasp and guard.

Soften my heart.

Open my hands.

Help me this day

To offer

What belongs to you anyway.

Reflection Questions

  1. How does this trinitarian shape of giving compare with your previous understanding of giving?
  2. What are some of the dangers of a transactional approach to giving?
  3. What are some of the benefits of a circular approach to giving?
  4. What is something that you can receive and then give to someone else this week? Be concrete.
  5. What is something you tend to receive but not give?

[1] John Barclay, Paul and the Power of Grace (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2020), 32, Kindle edition.

[2] Barclay, Paul and the Power of Grace, 18, Kindle edition.

Like this article? Then you’ll love The Book of Giving, which comes out soon! Similar themes can also be found in the book below.

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