I grew up with a mother who never took a gift… just half of an exchange. I remember watching, with horrified amusement, a lady try to give my mom a bag of mangoes. My mom chased her down and literally threw the bag into the open window of the car as it drove away. My dad is sometimes guilty of the same thing, fighting for the dinner check and the honor to be “gracious”.
But is it really grace? Is the “politeness” of Chinese culture truly a reflection of divinity?
My high school years were dreadfully awkward. I rarely hung out with friends outside of school or church related activities which made college a bewildering world that clashed strongly with my sheltered and under-socialized life. I had a 9PM curfew most of my freshman year and spent weekends at home. I learned from friends that the spoon served with your spaghetti isn’t for the sauce but is meant to hold the pasta in place as you wind it up with the fork. I learned that people from Malaysia don’t eat bugs and swing from tree to tree. And I learned that I was terribly insecure. I bent over backwards to make people happy, taking extreme precautions to avoid offending others. I gave people gifts to show that I liked them, cleaned up messes that weren’t mine, was overly-polite, and tried to overwhelm friends with signs of affection.
Then people started to treat me the same way. They started to give me stuff. I mean, they took me out to dinner and baked me cookies. They visited me when I was lonely and frustrated. They did kind things for me and other things to show me love. So I refused it all. I insisted on paying for dinner. I wouldn’t take the cookies. I tried to compensate for their kindness with more kindness of my own. And I couldn’t figure out why they seemed hurt or offended as a consequence. I couldn’t figure out what was going on and why everything seemed so wrong, even though I was doing the “right” thing.
This was the time I began to understand grace.
I had grown up with the faulty impression that the correct way to honor a gift was through the exchange of one with equal or greater value. I thought that love was a two-way street, where affection grew out of mutual reciprocations over time. But what I learned is that this concept is a subtle but insidious expression of pride. It is oriented around the self. It makes an estimate of self-worth, matches that to the value of the gift, and then attempts to reconcile the difference with an equivalent exchange.
Love and grace are entirely different. Love is really the alignment of two one-way streets where people are compelled towards each other by an unknowable and unmitigable force. It doesn’t earn its meaning by the value of what is sacrificed but by the satisfaction, happiness, and pleasure of its object. It gives gifts purely as an expression of selflessness with no anticipation of reciprocation and no calculations of social obligations. It gives simply to honor and pleasure the recipient.
And the reason I had such difficulty accepting this was because I didn’t believe that I was worth it. I had deep issues of shame and self-doubt. I had this internal mismatch between the value I saw in myself and what others wanted to give me. I believed that I had to earn the affection and respect of others, that unless I had a right to what they offered, I had no right to receive anything from them. I couldn’t come to terms with the attention and affection set before me that I craved but felt undeserving of.
But that is exactly what grace is: a cascade of undeserved blessing. I readily accepted the doctrine of sin and justice in my life. Growing up in a shame-based culture, it was easy for me to accept the teaching that I was less than worthless, that I was a vile sort of thing in the eyes of a holy God. But it made it nearly impossible to believe that the same God loved me with a furious and jealous and overwhelming desire to see me… happy. Satisfied. Pleased. Content. Brimming with joy.
What happened to me was very similar to what happened to Don Miller, as described in one of my favorite books, Blue Like Jazz:
“Things got worse with the girl. We would spend hours on the phone working through the math of our relationship, but nothing added up, which I received as only a sign of my incompetence, and this made me more sad than before.
Then she did it; she decided we didn’t need to be in touch anymore. She broke it off. She sent me a letter saying that I didn’t love myself and could not receive love from her. There was nothing she could do about it, and it was killing her. I wandered around the house for an hour just looking at the blank walls, making coffee or cleaning the bathroom, not sure when my body was going to explode in sobs and tears. I was scrubbing the toilet when the voices began. I’d listened to them so often before, but on this day they were shouting. They were telling me that I was as disgusting as the urine on the wall around the toilet.
And then the sentiment occurred. I am certain it was the voice of God because it was accompanied by such a strong epiphany like a movement in a symphony or something. The sentiment was simple: Love your neighbor as yourself.
And I thought about that for a second and wondered why God would put that phrase so strongly in my mind. I thought about our neighbor Mark, who is tall and skinny and gay, and I wondered whether God was telling me I was gay, which was odd because I had never felt gay, but then it hit me that God was not telling me I was gay. He was saying I would never talk to my neighbor the way I talked to myself, and that somehow I had come to believe it was wrong to kick other people around but it was okay to do it to myself. It was as if God had put me in a plane and flown me over myself so I could see how I was connected, all the neighborhoods that were falling apart because I would not let myself receive love from myself, from others, or from God. And I wouldn’t receive love because it felt so wrong. It didn’t feel humble, and I knew I was supposed to be humble. But that was all crap, and it didn’t make any sense. If it is wrong for me to receive love, then it is also wrong for me to give it because by giving it I am causing somebody else to receive it, which I had pre-supposed was the wrong thing to do. So I stopped. And I mean that. I stopped hating myself. It no longer felt right.”
So things changed. I started accepting things from other people. In fact, it became an unspoken but beautiful habit to do that sort of stuff all the time: a whimsical treat to a meal here or there, a small gift or present for no particular reason at all. It became a true exchange of gifts and not merely a tabulation of collective debts. Instead of arguing and bickering over my self-worth, I actually thanked people and let myself be happy… because I knew that that’s what they wanted all along.
I mean, that’s all I want for you.
So when I offer to pay for your dinner or give you a bag of mangoes, I’m not trying to repay you for some debt I owe. I’m not asking for some future favor in kind. I just want you to enjoy the moment. I want to share with you an inkling of how much God loves you and longs to lavish you with mercy and blessing. Forgive me if I’m still awkward at doing it, if the timing seems weird and I send all the wrong messages and stutter and look embarrassed and try to make excuses for it. I’m a little rusty these days and am still as under-socialized as ever. So help me out. Take it. Enjoy it. Release the temptation to feel guilty, just this once, and simply let yourself be saturated with grace.