Tuesday, December 23, 2008

"No gift is free"

My friend wrote: "Nothing good comes easy or free. No gift is free. Does even agape carry obligations?"

I'd like to address this statement with two separate entries. This one will consider the idea, "No gift is free." Doesn't it depend on what you mean by "free?" If it means "no attachment," then it is impossible for any gift to be free, because gift-giving presumes some sort of relationship, no matter how tenuous. There must be a giver, a gift, and a receiver.

But if "free" describes an action performed by an agent who could have chosen to do otherwise, then a gift can be free, because the giver could have chosen not to give it, and the recipient could have chosen not to receive it.

If we were all discrete, independent atomic units, determined by laws of cause and effect, then gift-giving would be impossible, because there would not be any real relationships within which to give and receive; such transactions would be inevitable. If the fitting response for receiving a gift is gratitude, it seems strange to speak of thanksgiving being inevitable.

If we were all discrete independent atomic units, randomly banging into each other across time and space, gift-giving would be impossible, because there would not be any real relationships that lasted long enough for there to be a "giver" and a "receiver." We would not be able to identify the giver, or even the gift, and again, the experience of thanksgiving would be incoherent.

But if we are beings that can choose to enter into real relationships with one another, and choose to begin them or continue them or seal them with gifts, then we can speak of gifts as being free or not.

It is possible to speak of gifting in terms of obligation, if the relationship exists in order to promote/perpetuate the power or position of the giver over receiver. That is, by accepting the gift, the recipient is in some way bound by the giver so that the recipient cannot (or should not) act against the giver. But this is a tragic understanding of gifting. Some people think that all relationships must be construed in terms of oppressors and victims, and indeed, in this fallen world, almost all relationships exhibit this twisting at some point or other. But is it the only way ?

As Christians, we believe that that is not the way God acts, because God is love. We believe that He gave us the greatest gift of all--Himself, in Jesus Christ; not to promote His own power or position, but to lift us from sin into His own life. We believe that the more we catch His vision (that is, catch the Vision of Him) the less we will operate out of obligation or power and the more we will operate out of His truth, beauty and goodness.

We believe that some people (who could have done otherwise) choose to reject that gift. There are consequences either way, (cf. Luke 14) but consequences and obligations are two different things.

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