God is a Giver

We all know how the world should be run. It’s simply obvious to us: the best people should run things, and everyone should get what they deserve. If you put that to 100 people, I suspect you would find the vast majority would agree that this an innately good idea.

They call it a meritocracy—a country ruled by those who merit the positions. Beyond politics too we would like most things to run this way. It’s attractive to most of us, but of course there is a sticking point we rarely think through: who gets to define the ‘best’?

For lots of things from ruling countries to who should organise the village fete, it is not simple to distil the definition of greatness to such a degree that we could objectively declare that Dave is invariably the best possible person to do this activity—if Dave fails then it simply couldn’t be done, no recriminations required.

To peel our hearts back another layer, it’s difficult for a deeper reason: we all inherently think we’re the best. Or, because it’s hard to sustain the cognitive dissonance required to assert that you’re the best at something without material evidence, we assume we’re distinctly above average. Of course, some of us are right—that’s how averages work—and some of us are not. Most of us are above average at some skill or ability we possess. There are a lot of people in the world so that isn’t necessarily saying a lot. We assume, without voicing it loud enough that we can hear ourselves in the quiet of our minds, that the world would be better if they let us run it.

This is what we really mean when we think the world should be run by the ‘best.’ This is why we think that meritocracies would be better: we, or someone even better than us who shares our opinions, could fix it.

Here’s the thing, friends—whether you happen to indulge in the same disgusting level of pride as I clearly do, or not—it is very good news that the world is not set up this way.

As Andrew Wilson points out in his book God of All Things: the world is not a meritocracy. The best do not get the best. The most beautiful places are not inhabited by the most morally pure or more capable people. Good food does not only get served to the pure. The rain does not only fall on those who do good.

Which is good news. As Jesus put it:

For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.

Matthew 5.45b

We get the gift of rain and the gift of sunshine however righteous or unrighteous we are. Which, since without the gift of righteousness from the hand of Christ none of us would get a passing grade, is phenomenally good news.

The world does not run on a principle of merit. I’m glad, because I would never have seen a sunrise, enjoyed a rainstorm, tasted bread fresh from the oven, or smelled sweet peas in bloom, if it did.

The World is a Gift

The principle at work here is an important one for Christian life in the world: the world as we find it is a gift. A gift marred by our propensity to take rather than receive, but a gift to be received nevertheless. Despite the world’s goodness being shattered by our ancestors’ actions and our decisions to walk in their primordial footsteps, each broken fragment contains a seed of joy—it is, as Schmemann says, shot through with the glory of God.

Gifts have to be received. To see the world as marvellous and as a gift to us we need to choose to stop ‘taking’ it—which amounts to assuming it exists for our pleasure or not giving it a thought at all—and receive it from the hand of the Lord as a gift (paradoxically, a gift for our pleasure) to be enjoyed and a gift that speaks of the giver.

If we do so we will start to see that every natural thing, from the sunshine to the rain—via a glass of Malbec—is a sign that God is a giver. That’s his disposition, that’s who he is. Everything we have we have at the hand of God, he has given it to us. Salvation is a gift, we did not earn it. If the kingdom of heaven was a meritocracy, we would not be there. It would be staffed entirely by angels—who it seems we will rule over (1 Corinthians 6). We certainly do not deserve the status as princes and princesses of the household of God that we are given by adoption, but we do receive it as a gift.

Good gifts are supposed to remind us of this: God is a giver.

When the Giver Withholds

Of course, if right now all you’ve got to pool in your hands is so much ash, and you’re holding your tongue from cursing God for giving nothing good to you, then to be told that God is a giver feels like a slap in the face. Every person will at some point have to face this question: why did God not give me that thing that was righteous and good to want? Why did he take away them? To shy away from the question and simply declare God a giver is cowardice.

It comes to us all—it’s a vital part of the Christian life, and I pity those whose lives are so perfect they never know it, if such people exist—and it has to. It is suffering that forms character (Romans 5), and it is our character that God got into this business for in the first place. There’s a lesson, a treasure, for each of us to find. And here’s the secret that they rarely tell you in church: it can only be found at the bottom of the pit.

What’s the secret? There’s a better gift than the one you lost. And it’s God himself, given to us in Christ.

Not such a big secret, but the bit we sometimes miss is that we only grasp this in the muck at the bottom of the pit. We only grasp this when sat moaning in a grave. To speak it before we’ve done so is to be glib and speak of what we do not know—this leads to people suggesting, for example, that the gift takes away the pain.

It does not, that is not true joy. True joy in Christ exists alongside heart-rending pain at the mysterious ways our life has turned. And as we sit in the dust, we choose to say that God is good, and a good giver. That he has the best for us, and that the best is himself.

I hesitate to write this because I have learned this the hard way—the only way—and I have yet to learn it at all. On my better days this is how I think and feel. Even then, none of us have learned this, we are simply learning the way of Jesus, one tragedy that allows us to shed happiness and pick up joy at a time.

God is a giver. The rain, the sun, a flowing stream, rising bread, well-aged single malt whisky, dark and foaming beer—these are signs for us. They are gifts. They speak a lesson:

God is good.

Not because he gave them to us, that’s the wrong lesson, but because if the things he gives are this good when they exist only to point to the real gift, how good will that gift be? Even in the face of unimaginable pain?

What’s that gift? God in Christ. That’s the gift.

God is good.

Photo by Bon Vivant on Unsplash

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