Receiving gifts. We all like it. Well, that’s a generalization. But I can’t say that I’ve ever met a person that doesn’t like receiving gifts. Whether it’s Christmas morning, a birthday, Valentine’s Day, or just because, giving and receiving gifts is a huge part of our culture. Entire businesses and markets thrive off of our habit of (and oftentimes felt obligation to) give and receive gifts. For me, this is one of the ways that I feel the most loved. It doesn’t have to be anything crazy or extravagant — even the smallest gift can cause my uttered “thank you” to reach obnoxious decibels. Because of this, this is also one of the primary ways that I tend to show others that I love them. It is a large part of my life and my relationships — it has been for most of what I can remember.
Our culture does a pretty good job at defining how we see gift giving, too. Like I mentioned earlier, too often giving a gift feels like an obligation. We aren’t able to attend a wedding, birthday party, going away shindig, retirement soirée, or even celebrate new life without feeling the pressure from our culture to hand over a perfect, straight-from-Pinterest, beautifully wrapped package. And, I will be the first to admit that I have too often given into this pressure. I have given gifts as an empty gesture with no intention of love towards the receiver. I have seen giving a gift as an opportunity to make myself look more selfless than I actually am.
This is terrible. Not good at all. But, do you know what’s worse?
I have to say that, for too long, I allowed this perspective of gift-giving to skew my view of the gifts God gives. It wasn’t anything that I did intentionally, or even knowingly for a long time. But, it was no less harmful. You see, when I used to think about the things that God had to give me, or gifts, I thought of things like jobs, places to live, good grades, provision for physical needs, relationships, etc. Now, I am not saying that these things are not given by God — quite opposite, I fully believe that he gives these things for our enjoyment. After all, at his right hand are infinite pleasures (Ps. 16:11). What I am saying is that, too often, I only look for what God has to give me in the form of things like this — things for my use and enjoyment. Sound familiar to an immature view of Christmas morning?
It sure sounds like my immaturity shining through. But, praise God, my perspective has since been changed. And, I want to share what I have learned so that more of the good and perfect things that the Lord gives to us every day do not continue to go unnoticed and thanksgiving neglected — like the socks you unwrapped as a 6-year-old on Christmas morning.
Recently, I learned that in the Greek used to write the New Testament, there are actually several different words that are translated into the English word “gift.”* Thankfully, in the year 2017, there are many resources available to help even the most unsophisticated student of Greek, like myself, come to a better understanding of the Word. So, please, follow me on this journey of learning more about these words, their meanings, and how knowing more about them can allow us to know our God and his generosity more deeply.
To start, one of the most popular and quoted verses concerning gifts is James 1:17 —
“Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.”
The word “gift” in this verse is translated from the greek word δώρημα (dóréma), pronounced do’-ray-mah.* This word is used just one other time in the New Testament, in Romans 5:16 to describe the bounty of grace given in Christ’s death to not just one, but many:
“And the free gift is not like the result of that of one man’s sin. For the judgement following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification.”
In short, dóréma is used to describe a free gift of grace that brings us out of condemnation as well as all things that are perfect.
Another one of the most used Greek words that is translated as “gift” is δωρεά (dórea), pronounced do-reh-ah’.* This one is used 11 times throughout the New Testament. It is first seen in the story of the Samaritan woman in John 4 to describe the gift of satisfaction in Christ when Jesus speaks in verse 10:
“If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”
It’s used again in Acts 2:38 in the description of the day of Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit:
“Peter said to them, ‘Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’”
And again in Romans 5:17 to describe righteousness in Christ:
“…Much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in the life through the one man Jesus Christ”
Do you see a pattern yet?
Not even once in these verses do the gifts described refer to things that give us, in our flesh, pleasure. The gifts described are those of salvation, pure satisfaction, the Spirit himself, and righteousness.
The final word that I’ll highlight is χάρισμα (charisma), pronounced like the English word spelled the same way.* This word most accurately means “gift of grace” or “undeserved favor.” It is only used by Paul in the New Testament and is sprinkled throughout his letters 17 times. We find it first in Romans and again in almost every other letter written by Paul. In Romans 6:23, he writes:
“For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
He begins 1 Corinthians by writing:
“I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus, that in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge — even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you — so that you are not lacking in any gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ…” (1 Cor. 1: 4–7)
And he continues to use this word as he prefaces the famous “love chapter,” 1 Corinthians 13:
“Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone.” (1 Cor. 12:4–6)
Finally, Paul uses this word in 1 Peter 4:10:
“As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace…”
And the pattern continues. Each time “gift” (charisma) is mentioned, it refers to things like eternal life, the characteristics of the Spirit, talents to serve, and grace.
I want to dwell on this last word for a little while longer because after learning its meaning, something really clicked for me. Let’s see how the dictionary defines the word “charisma” (our English word directly taken from the Greek language).
1 compelling attractiveness or charm that can inspire devotion in others;
2 a divinely conferred power or talent
Let’s look at that second definition first. Seems pretty similar to our idea of a gift. Some power or talent that is given to us by a divine being. While this is not how I would have defined the word “charisma,” it makes sense in light of the Greek we just learned.
Okay, let’s talk about that first part now. That first part is pretty close to how I would have defined charisma; however, it is certainly not how I would ever define the word gift. This definition speaks nothing to our own wellbeing, power, or gain. This definition indicates that charisma (insert “gifts of grace”) is an ability to show off the beauty of our Creator so that others will see and become devoted to him.
But, wait for it.
The scripture we have just read also says that this charisma is the Spirit himself (Acts 2:38). As Christians, we are given the very attractiveness, sweetness, creativity, and grace of the Creator. Not for our own benefit at all-not so that we may be seen, but that the quintessence (God) of those virtues would be made known more widely and deeply in our lives and others’.
So, you mean to tell me that the gifts mentioned in the Bible have nothing to do with me and what is going to please me? You mean to tell me that what God has for me is really not for my own gain at all? You mean to tell me that everything I have is not for me, but to show others the beauty of God?
Well, yes. (I suppose I’m talking to myself here.)
Friends, this is what I have learned. I have spent who knows how much time in prayer asking for things from God — internships, good grades, favor with friends, physical provision, etc. I have spent even more time not-so-patiently anticipating the arrival of those things. While I have given praise for those things, I have completely neglected to praise God for the gifts that have come in between and along with all of those things. While waiting to see what he has to give me, I have completely missed what he is already giving me — redemption, eternal life, his own Spirit, undeserved righteousness, grace, himself.
While I have completely missed the gifts that most explicitly show our God’s generosity, this is not where his gift-giving ends.
Not only is our God so generous that he gives us his own character, but in his sovereignty he chooses to give us small things like jobs to enjoy, homes to find rest in, life giving relationships, gorgeous mountain sunsets, and food that tastes good as it nourishes, too.
So, next time you notice the goodness of the view out your window, find yourself enjoying your work, or feel deeply loved by a friend, take some time to give thanks for the giver first, then the gift. To say that it transformed my prayer life is fair, but to me more accurate-it’s life changing. My prayer is that yours will be changed as well.
O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water. So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory. (Ps. 63:1–2)