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Gift giving and receiving

September 18, 2022

These days I feel like religion is too hard and complex and fraught. If I want to talk about “God’s unconditional love” (mainly because I feel like Latter-day Saints, in their efforts to differentiate themselves from what they believe is the rest of Christianity, seem to be doubling down on conditional love in a way I don’t think makes sense) or “grace” and “works” then things get so caught up with so much baggage and the conversation goes nowhere.

So, instead, I want to simplify things down to terms I can grasp and discuss in a completely secular way.

What are the implications of a gift?

As I see it, a gift is freely given. You can’t “earn” a gift. You can’t “deserve” a gift. It’s freely given, without preconditions. This highlights the graciousness of the gift giver.

Now, given all of that, it may also seem like the gift comes with no conditions, And yet…it feels like the gift prompts a particular response. Like, even if there is nothing a recipient might do to “earn” a gift, we can acknowledge that there are grateful and ungrateful ways to receive a gift. If someone received a gift and then complained, “This isn’t what I wanted,” we might acknowledge that as some sort of faux pas. Or if someone received a gift and ignored it, that would register for many of us as a similar kind of “missing the mark”. Certainly, on the extremes, throwing a gift back into the gift giver’s face is something many of us would agree is…not…the best response.

At the same time, can’t everyone resonate with the experience of receiving a gift that they really didn’t want or need??? Can some ingratitude be excused???

I suggest this complicates things — it suggests that even gift givers might need to have something in order to know what gifts are best for the recipient?

(That being said, there’s a difference between what people might want and what people might need, and all of this conversation doesn’t change the fact that gifts are not “earned” or “deserved”, but are freely given.)

Can we acknowledge that even thought a gift may be freely given, it may in some cases not be free to receive? For example — and some of you may already know where this analogy goes, but I’m still trying to keep this purely secular — if someone gives me free piano lessons, then for me to receive that, I have to actually commit to practicing the piano. And that may be difficult and time-consuming, even if the financial price is already paid for. They can’t just “gift” me piano virtuosity (which might be the ultimate goal and desire). There is still work and effort required.

And yet, the gift was given freely. The work that signals that I have accepted the gift in good graciousness cannot be and should not be confused with me having earned the gift, or me “deserving” what I was given.

These are the things I keep thinking about. Much more important to me these days than what is the correct ordering of commandments or what is a mortal sin or how many angels can dance on a pin, I wonder about how much work I need to be a better gift recipient and a more thoughtful gift giver.


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  1. I agree with everything you say, so far as I think I understand it. Grace and forgiveness are absolutely unconditional, when initially given. They’re not unconditional once received. In other words you can’t keep possession of them if, first, you don’t put them to use (like free piano lessons), and second, if you throw them on the ground and spit on them.

    And to me it’s a key point that, if you do put them to use, that doesn’t mean you earned them in the first place.

    The idea behind mortal sin, by the way, is that some sins are so bad that they amount to throwing God’s gift on the ground and spitting on it.

    Anyway it’s good to hear from you again, I hope you’re well.

  2. Nice to hear(read?) from you again, Agellius. I am doing well.

    Glad to see what I wrote is not super off track here, haha.

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