To get and to receive. These are the two modes of living which sustain us. Both of these paths provide for us, but there is a marked difference between them. In one, I am the subject; in the other, I am the object.
In getting, I am the subject. Words like work, earn, achieve, deserve, reward, ambition all become a natural part of my vocabulary and understanding. These are words tied to my sense of worth. I perceive my life through the effort and energy of my talents, education, merit, struggle and success. Life becomes very much about what I can do and what I believe I have coming to me. So naturally a sense of possession and protection takes over. This is my house that I have to maintain. This is my job that I should excel in. This is my bank account which inflates as a result of my skills. The personal pronouns and attitude of “getting more” or “hanging on” can combine into a white-knuckle fear. If life is what I can grab by my drive and ambition, then life can be taken from me by forces larger than my grip. Of course there is another way of sustenance.
In receiving, I am the object. Something is done for me or to me. Now the words which fill my mouth and mind are different. Gifts, donation, kindness, blessing and most of all, grace. These words are not tied to worth. They speak of obtaining outside of effort, ingenuity or drive. They can deliver to me as much as the pathway of getting (perhaps more), but they create a different effect. Instead of fear about losing what I can’t get or hold on to, there is a sense of humility and wonder. “Why should I receive such a gift?” Instead of being my own hub where everything spins around my best efforts, the hub is grace. Everything revolves around the Giver.
When I take stock of my life, I am amazed at how much of it falls on the “receive” pathway. I do not earn sunsets, robust health, family giggles, breath or divine smiles. These are given to me. In fact, Paul says that everything in my life is given to me: “What do you have that you did not receive?” (1 Cor.4:7) I may perceive two paths of provision for my life, but God sees only one. When I claim my paycheque as evidence of my ability to get, I have to confess that every resource I employed was a gift. It is not that I arrive in this world naked and everything next is earned. The fact that I arrive at all is a gift! All of my life is a great grace!
Of course, this simple truth applies not only to the material aspects of my living, but to the spiritual as well. God does not have one set of rules for the material and another for the spiritual. I should remember that my soul grows by grace, not by earning. My soul is always on the path of receiving. That doesn’t diminish the responsibility of my Christian life. I am to follow and obey. But every ability I have to respond and follow is fostered by God’s grace. He gives to us that we may answer His call. Spirituality is not about the measure of my merit or achievement. The progress of soul is found by recognition and receiving God’s infinite generosity.
What difference will it make to see living as a gift—something to receive? The cynical suggest that such an attitude encourages laziness, dependence or entitlement. I can only answer that the risk of grace abused seems to be a risk God is willing to take. But also, experience teaches me that those who see life as grace don’t slide into sloth. They grow into freedom, gratitude, generosity and praise. Not bad gifts to get.
Scott Tolhurst is a pastor in Abbotsford, B.C. This reflection originally appeared at bethelmennonitechurch.org.