It Is Better to Receive than to Give

On Christmas parents everywhere try to persuade their children that giving away a valued toy is somehow better than getting one. We extol the virtue of generosity, castigate the vice of selfish hoarding, and hope that they’ll eventually see the light. It’s a difficult task since kids intuitively believe that “a toy in my hand is worth two in yours.” But, we face the challenge anyway because we want our kids to understand that it really is better to give than receive.

The problem is that it’s not true. At least, it’s not as true as we think it is. Sometimes it’s more important to learn how to receive. More important, and harder.

Giving a gift feels good. You’ve done something nice for the other person, improved their life in some way. You’re a giver. And, we like being givers because it makes us feel meaningful, like we’re contributing.

Receiving a gift, on the other hand, can be painful. Sure, getting stuff is nice. But, it can also be uncomfortable, making us feel needy, dependent, and obligated. When someone buys us a gift, we think we have to return the favor. So, they immediately go on our gift list. And, until we’ve reciprocated, the scales remain unbalanced. We stay needy receivers obligated to some giver, and we don’t like that. Because we all know that an important part of “success” is to arrive at that point in your life where you are no longer dependent upon others. We call that “maturity.”

And we’re wrong.

Well, we’re not completely wrong. There is an unhealthy dependency, the kind that prevents people from growing into maturity and locks them into the kind of relationship in which one person is viewed solely as the giver and the other solely as the receiver. This creates a patronizing form of dependence caused largely by the giver failing to recognize their need to receive as well.

Receiving lies at the heart of what it means to be human. Fundamentally, we are needy beings: dependent on God for our existence and all the good gifts of creation, and dependent on one another for community, relationship, sustenance, and so much more. We’re needy. God created us that way.

“It is better to give than to receive.”

That’s not quite right. It is better to receive, and then to give. Only by remaining receivers can we remember who we are and what this story is all about. When we try to become givers, we twist God’s good creation into something it was never intended to be.

And, I think that was part of the mistake Adam and Eve made. There wasn’t anything wrong with the things they wanted in the Garden; food, beauty, and wisdom are tremendous gifts. The problem was that they no longer wanted to receive these from God as gifts, expressions of his grace and glory. Instead, of being receivers, they wanted to be givers, giving themselves what they wanted. Instead of embracing their neediness and vulnerability, standing with hands outstretched and receiving all that God had in store for them, they reached out and took.

In essence, they wanted to put themselves in God’s place. Rejecting dependence, they tried to take control and make the story about them and their glory.

So, they took, and they ate, and they fell.

How many times do I do the same every day?

[You can read the rest of the posts in this series on the Gospel book page.]

About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on August 16, 2011, in Anthropology, Gospel. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. so hard and so true…i want so i go out and get… back off i can do it… oh wait no i can’t i need help and am feeble on my own… such a tug of war that goes on…

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