Free of Charge (Part One): Volf on Giving

Today I want to give a short review of Miroslav Volf’s Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace, this will be a two part post that I will hope to conclude by Friday or Saturday. For today, we will look at the idea of giving and its sociological, theological, and ecclesiological implications. (Note: I had planned on reading Samuel Wells’ Power and Passion for Lent, and instead I chose to read Volf’s book because personally I felt as if it would be more fruitful for me at this point in life. Volf’s FofC was The Archbishop of Canterbury’s official Lenten book of 2006, Wells’ book is for 2007. So maybe I’ll just continue to be a year behind the bishop!)

Ok here we go…

“For the heart to see rightly, the hand needs to give generously.” And so for Volf, for us as individuals and as communities, the best way to live is to be generous in giving. However, in order for us to live generously, we must first see what it means to give, and the ultimate example that Volf has to offer is God. But for us to see God for who he truly is, we must first let go of our preconceived notions of how God in fact relates and gives to us. Our images of God and the reality of God never quite match up, but we can get a closer glimpse of who God is by evaluating what God is not, and Volf brings to the table two prime examples of what God is not: God is not a negotiator and God is not Santa Claus. “God’s goods are not for sale; you can’t buy them with money or good deeds. God doesn’t make deals. God gives” (pg. 27). We cannot barter with God to get what we want, he simply will not consent to our appeals to negotiate and instead he gives to us without our ability to give back, because in fact we cannot in reality give anything back to God. God is also not a Santa Claus archetype, lavishing upon us all sorts of gifts and goodies that are only there for our disposal. Instead, God calls us to be joyful receivers and givers, obliging us to channel what we have been given and imitate his giving.

But if God gift’s do oblige us to act, how is that not a negotiation? First, God does not give according to how the receiver will act, and in fact people can deny what God has given them or spoil it by refusing to participate in God’s plans. But how are we to act in accordance with God’s gifts? Volf argues that there are at least four ways to appropriately respond to God the giver: in faith, realizing that we are dependent upon God for all that we have and so we open ourselves up with empty hands. Secondly,  we live our lives in gratitude, realizing that this is not a return gift but is instead owed in addition to the gift. Where faith is  the affirmation of God’s giving, gratitude is the honoring of that giving. Thirdly, we become available to God, and we do this by becoming instruments of God, and this is a gift that God gives to us and to the world. Finally, we participate in the flow of God’s giving, realizing that we are not the final destination of God’s gifts and that they need to flow from us to others.

So how should we give then? Volf breaks down human interactions into taking (coercion), getting (exchange), and giving (generosity). Most of the time, we either take illicitly from others or we simple make negotiations with others in legitimate ways. We fail to give generously on a usual basis. Yet we are called by God to imitate his generosity, and here Volf makes a critical distinction, for we cannot identify with God’s giving but can be similar to it (pg.62). It is a tall order to give like God, and we will fail even with our best intentions, however we can attempt to give in a way that is similar to God’s and the best way we know how. Another important note that Volf makes is linking the perichoresis with giving. The perichoresis is the dance between the three persons of the Trinity and it out of this eternal giving and receiving that gifts flow outward and spill over to us. God does not need us, but in his love and holiness gives to his creation. It is this outbound movement that should inspire us to give.

Now that we’ve seen the ultimate Giver and how we should as humans give, the fundamental question goes as such: How canwe give? Humans are by nature broken and selfish creatures, so how can we be expected to give generously? “We are getters, possibly even shameless takers, who pride ourselves in being generous givers” (pg.91). Even when we seek to give, we often do so out of selfish ambition, for chance returns, and out of guilt. If we are selfish we fear we may lose something, if we are prideful we may be too pleased with our ability to give, and if we are lazy then we will be indifferent. So what is the answer? Simply, it is the presence and activity of Christ in our lives. “By the power of the Spirit, we make ourselves open for Christ to be born in us and to set us on an unsettling and yet deeply fulfilling journey of faith” (pg. 116). This linking of the Spirit to us is intimate, and the fruit produced is ours only because the Spirit indwells us. Instead of seeing the results of our giving, Volf states that we participate in the death and resurrection of Christ constantly, dying to our selves and to our assumptions, and being raised by the Spirit to new realities and new ways to offer life to those around us. And for us to be good givers, we must cultivate our lives in community in Christ’s body, which helps craft us into being better givers, the Spirit molds us, but it is the community that values and fosters virtue (pg. 119).  Communities do not make givers, they are born of the Spirit through the good practices of communities (120).  And this ecclesial focus helps us to give to the communities around us, as the church offers itself as a channel of God’s giving.



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