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Givers or Receivers?

It was exactly twelve days before Christmas and we were finishing our

secret last minute preparations. Stuffing the special Christmas stocking

with the secret message and ornament, we were ready to go. I loaded the

kids into the van as they vainly struggled to suppress excited giggles. As

we neared the home we were targeting, I stopped, turned off the lights from

our van, and gave our three young children their final instructions in

whispered conspiratorial tones.

“OK, Christi is the oldest, so she gets to put the stocking on the

door tonight.” Andrew moaned. “Tomorrow night it will be Andrew’s turn.”

Andrew grinned. “And the next night Katie’s. You can all go with Christi.

But—and this is very important--you have to be quiet, and very sneaky.”

There are very few children in this world who don’t get excited when

they hear their parents tell them something like this. General Christi

turned to her excited troops before the mission and whispered some

encouragement to her younger sister, Katie.

“Katie, don’t talk!”

“I won’t talk!” Katie replied.

“You ALWAYS talk!” Christi retorted.

“Yeah, Katie, so be quiet,” warned Andrew.

Katie nodded solemnly, biding her time until she would be the general.

Stealthily they all jumped from our van into the darkness. I can still

see them crouching and sneaking along. Then, Christi hung the stocking,

rang the doorbell and they all raced back. They leaped into our van and we

were off before the front door was opened. Back inside the van the kids

were laughing and telling about their exciting adventure. Only eleven more

nights to go. Each night the routine was the same, dash in, leave the gift

in the stocking hung on the door, and dash away. On Christmas morning we

would return with a dozen doughnuts and sing “We wish you a Merry

Christmas,” revealing ourselves as their Secret Santa’s.

We were reenacting a wonderful Christmas tradition in our family.

Years earlier we had been the recipients of this activity called TheTwelve

Days of Christmas from a wonderful family in our church. One night the

doorbell rings and you discover no one there, but a stocking has been left

with a message telling you in poetic form that each night you will receive

another special gift from your “secret Christmas friend,” each

corresponding to the Twelve Days of Christmas. It is one of our children’s

fondest Christmas memories. Every year since we have done the Twelve Days

of Christmas to a different family. It is a simple act of kindness, as fun

for us as those we target.


It is only one of many Christmas giving activities we have been

involved with over the years. We have helped provide a tree and presents

for needy families in our community, bought presents for the children of

prisoners, paid for a well for a small village in Asia with proceeds of a

garage sale, made up shoe boxes filled with Christmas goodies for children

all over the world, and many other Christmas opportunities. And we loved

every minute of it.

It made Annette and I feel good. It made the kids feel good. It made

the people we were targeting with our Christmas project feel good. I’m

sure you’ve felt very similar feelings, as you’ve been involved in some act

of charity or kindness during the Christmas season. Surely this is the

true spirit of Christmas...or is it?

At Christmas, more opportunities to do good are made available to us

than at any other time of the year. So each year charities vie for ways to

help you become a true Christmas giver. The charities know the generous

feelings don’t always last much beyond Christmas Day, so they hit us early

and often. For eleven months out of the year we may be fairly apathetic to

needy peoples sad plight, but at Christmas we go out of our way to be

generous. Have you ever wondered why?

I believe that one of the reasons is because our modern culture has

drilled into us the message that the true spirit of Christmas is in giving

to others. It is not only commercially successful, but seems to work on an

emotional level as well. It is personified in the spirit of Ebenezer

Scrooge who awakened to his miserly nature just in the nick of time in

Charles Dickens famous story, A Christmas Carol.

Although A Christmas Carol is one of my favorite Christmas stories (I

always get goose bumps when Ebenezer Scrooge sends the turkey and gifts to

the Cratchett home), the underlying theme is that the true spirit of

Christmas is found in kindness and generosity. Ebenezer Scrooge is

transformed when he ends his miserly ways and embraces the true spirit of

Christmas by becoming generous, and thus a better person.

Has the real Christmas story, the entrance of God into our world,

prompted this spirit of giving? In many cases yes. But in some cases, no.

Giving is certainly a wonderful way to respond to Christ’s love at

Christmas, but is it the true spirit of Christmas? It is interesting to

consider that Dickens tale of the crusty old Ebenezer Scrooge has probably

done more to form our notions of what the Christmas spirit is than the

account in Luke.

Christmas is the chance for many to rescue their self-esteem—to prove

the goodness of their character to themselves, as well as others. Our

gifts of time and money at Christmas to help those less fortunate than

ourselves help to convince us that we really are good and wonderful people.

After all, just look at how generous we are being.


I want to hasten to add here that these acts of kindness are truly

wonderful and I don’t wish to undermine them in any way. But did you ever

wonder why the sad plight of others receives such special attention from us

during Christmas, and such scant attention the rest of the year? Why don’t

we feel the same about helping others and demonstrating kindness January

through November? Is the real Christmas spirit about giving? Is that the

message of the incarnation?

James reminds us that “Every good and perfect gift is from above,

coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change

like shifting shadows” (James 1:17 NIV). John 3:16, we have already seen,

reminds us that the incarnation was about God’s giving, “For God so loved

the world that He gave His one and only Son...” (John 3:16 NIV). See,

Christmas must be about giving. Yes, but who is doing the giving, and who

is doing the receiving? The Biblical account of Jesus entrance into our

world stresses that we are the incredible recipients of a divine gift of

which we are totally and completely unworthy. The giver in the story is

God, not us. We are the receivers who did nothing to deserve this

tremendous gift. It is easily a more powerful story than that of Ebenezer

Scrooge, but alas, not as flattering.

It doesn’t make us feel better about ourselves in the same way that

helping others at Christmas does. Dickens tale simply makes us feel better

about ourselves. We are encouraged by the message that we, too, can become

better people through generosity and giving. A Christmas Carol reminds us

that even the worst among us, of which Ebenezer Scrooge was the model, can

be made better.

In an article entitled, “The God We Hardly Knew,” William Willimon

suggests that Dickens wonderful story is “more congenial to our favorite

images of ourselves,” than is the story of the incarnation. But he goes on

to suggest that we are better givers than getters not because we are

generous people, but “because we are proud, arrogant people.”

He continues, “The Christmas story—the one according to Luke, not

Dickens—is not about how blessed it is to be givers but about how essential

it is to see ourselves as receivers...It tells us of an unimaginable gift

from a stranger, a God whom we hardly even knew. This strange story tells

us how to be receivers. The first word of the church, a people born out of

so odd a nativity, is that we are receivers before we are givers...It’s

tough to be on the receiving end of love, God’s or anybody else’s. It

requires that we see our lives not as our possessions, but as gifts.

‘Nothing is more repugnant to capable, reasonable people than grace,’ wrote

John Wesley a long time ago...This is often the way God loves us: with

gifts we thought we didn’t need, which transform us into people we don’t

necessarily want to be.”1

I still feel that Christmas is an appropriate time to express the love

of Christ through special giving and acts of compassion. It is not the act

which we must scrutinize, but the motivation and the goal behind it. Is it

our own self-esteem we want to cultivate this time of year, or gratitude

for the grace we have been shown?


Each year I celebrate with my precious wife, Annette, the anniversary

of our marriage over twenty years ago. I always give her some special

gift. Sometimes it is a quiet dinner at a nice restaurant, sometimes it is

something I have written for her, while sometimes it is going away for a

special vacation at a favorite place. I never fail to spend money or

sacrifice in some tangible way to express my deep joy in being married to


But, I do not celebrate how good a catch I was, or how lucky Annette

is to have married me. I do not recount all the wonderful things I have

done for her over the years. There would be little joy in that for either

of us. What I celebrate is a gift, pure and simple, one I received from

the loving heart of my God and heavenly Father. I remind myself that of

all the men this amazing woman could have been given to; He gave her to me.

I am merely a humble and grateful receiver.

And of all the men my wife could have chosen to be her husband, and

there were others around far more attractive in every way than myself, she

chose me. And again, I am humble and grateful. I am a receiver. There is

no pride in my celebration, only lasting and sincere gratitude and joy.

So on my anniversary I celebrate a gift, not a personal

accomplishment. This is the way we are to celebrate Christmas, as

receivers. It is the Christmas contradiction. On the day famous for

giving to others, we are to celebrate being helpless but terribly grateful

receivers. And nothing is more ultimately fulfilling than being able to

express true gratitude in a tangible way. Gratitude born of a love so deep

that it must be expressed.


As we remember the Christmas story, was Bethlehem chosen to be the

birthplace of our Lord because it was such a large, successful, and

significant city? We are told just the opposite. “But you, Bethlehem

Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will

come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of

old, from ancient times” (Micah 5:2 NIV). Bethlehem was honored in spite

of its insignificant size and importance. Were the shepherds chosen to

receive the angelic announcement because they were better and more

spiritual than others were? We’ve already learned that just the opposite

was the case.

What of Mary and Joseph? Were they chosen to be the human parents of

Jesus because of their great achievements and spirituality? As we’ve seen,

Mary, though certainly a godly young woman, had not had time to achieve

great things in life, and Joseph was a simple, though godly, carpenter.

They did not earn the right to become the parents of Christ by virtue of

their character or accomplishments; they too were receivers. Mary exalts

not in what she has done, but that “the Mighty One has done great things

for me” (Luke 1:49 NIV). The obvious spirit of that first Christmas was an

unmistakable feeling of being blessed, of having received mercy and grace

from God.

It is tempting to focus on my kindness, thoughtfulness, and goodness

as I scurry about trying hard to make everyone’s Christmas special.

Perhaps at times this is why the true spirit of Christmas remains elusive

at times. Gratitude seeks to respond to the one who has given to you. But

when you begin to focus on your own giving, you seek a reaction from the

one you have given to. This does not always breed contentment, since not

everyone will be as grateful as we might hope. Nor will our gifts always

be completely appreciated.

Can you celebrate receiving from God His indescribable gift and still

do acts of kindness and charity at Christmas? Certainly! It would be

strange if we didn’t. But what motivates our acts of kindness will make

all the difference. Ironically, the act of kindness or gift giving itself

will look identical to onlookers regardless of our motivations. Only we

will know the difference.

In our attempt to find the true spirit of Christmas we need to be able

to identify its counterfeit. A variety of things can make us feel good

during the holidays—and not all of them derived from the announcement given

to the shepherds.

The cultural message that the real spirit of Christmas is giving is

only partly correct. The true message of Christmas humbles us. We are

shown to be merely receivers; poor, blind, deaf, and dumb receivers.

So, this season, when you are preparing your gift giving, and your

charitable Christmas projects, focus not on what you are able to give,

whether great or small, but on what you have received. Let the grace and

mercy you have experienced at His hands first fill your heart, and then

flow through you to others. In so doing, you are inviting others to join

in your grateful celebration. Allow yourself to experience the wonder and

joy of gratitude in this holy season. Feel what Mary, Joseph, the

Shepherds, the Magi, Simeon and Anna must have felt.

We are both receivers and givers at Christmas, let’s just remember

which comes first.


In Frank Capra’s beloved holiday classic, It’s A Wonderful Life,

George Bailey is given the opportunity to experience what life would have

been like if he had never been born. Revisiting his past, and his past

family members and acquaintances, he is shocked to learn how he made a

difference in so many people’s lives. It is a shocking revelation to him,

reminding him that even though his own life didn’t seem worth living

anymore, his life had been very blessed.

If you’ve never seen the movie, buy it or rent it, and enjoy this

wonderful touching classic. If you’ve seen it before, take it out, dust it

off, and watch it one more time. Only this time, when the movie is over,

take a few moments and try to imagine how many ways your life would be

different if Jesus had never been born. It is a good exercise to remind us

of how much we have received because a Savior was born to us.

And the next Christmas compassion project you are involved

with—remember—that you can give because you first received. Your gift of

time or treasure is merely an extension of His gift of love and grace to

you. Christmas is first about receiving God’s great love, and then about


1 William Willimon, Copyright 1988, “The God We Hardly Knew.” December 21-

28, 1988 issue of Christian Century, The Christian Century Foundation.

Book cover of In Search of the Real Spirit of Christmas by Dan Schaeffer


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