December 16, 2013

The Humility of Receiving

There is an old joke about the pastor who received a pie from a female congregation member.

When he brought it home and cut into it, the pie was truly awful—undercooked, full of pet hair, you name it according to your version of the joke. The pastor threw the pie in the garbage and washed the pan. All week, he considered what he could say to her about her gift. When he returned the dish to the woman on the next Sunday he smiled and said, “Pies like that don’t last long at our house.”

Over the years, I have received some astoundingly thoughtful gifts from people in my church, but I’m sure every pastor’s family has at least one story of receiving a gift that contained more love than discernment.

Maybe, like the pie in the joke, the gift was inedible or ugly. Perhaps it was simply unsuitable: fragile decorations for a family with small children, homemade candy for a diabetic.

Sometimes gifts even violate our principles. I can remember a few items from my life that featured pictures of Christ—because, of course, the pastor’s family needs a religious-themed gift—even though my parents, my husband, and I have always had a strong theological conviction against visual images of the second person of the Trinity.

It’s hard to know what to do with such gifts—well-intentioned, but not quite right. One friend jokingly told me she has a stash of previous Christmas gifts from church members to consign at the nearest resale shop, if her husband should ever receive a call to another church.

Sometimes, upon receiving our third copy of The Trending Christian Book of 2013, all we can do is laugh. But the moment of unwrapping is also an opportunity for humility.

Recently, I read an essay from 2010 by Amy Julia Becker about the goodness of Christmas gifts. One line in the essay was particularly poignant to me. Becker writes, “And yet this celebration [Christmas] isn’t just about the goodness of stuff. It’s not just about giving gifts, but also about receiving them. Receiving gifts is humbling. Instead of selecting and purchasing what I want for myself, I have to submit to the gift given by someone else.” 

In an age of Amazon gift cards and one-click returns, it’s all too easy to presume that we know best what we ought to receive. It’s easy, even for adults, to give room for pride when the thing unwrapped doesn’t match the thing desired.

But thanks be to God that he, the Giver of All Good Gifts, does not give to us according to our deserving (Ps. 103:10) or even according to our expectations. He is the one who gifts “far more abundantly than all we ask or think.” (Ephesians 3:20) Submitting to God’s greatest gift—the Lord Jesus—is the way of humility.

Jesus is the Good and Perfect Gift, of course, but when receiving even imperfect gifts, we can put aside our wish lists and preferences and aesthetic standards. Instead, in intentional humility, we can submit to the gift, as we have submitted to The Gift.

It doesn’t make such a good joke, of course, but in my version, the pastor with the pie would simply say: “Thank you.”


  1. In a previous church, there was a woman who baked us mini loaves of quick bread each Christmas. At the center of each loaf, we found uncooked dough. I have such failures, too. But, at the time, I felt self-righteous about it and unappreciative. Your posting helps me reflect on that experience and repent of my ingratitude. As I think back, I remember that this baker was the only one in the congregation that gave us such a personal gift filled with love.

  2. I think we all receive such gifts, and don't know how to respond. If our gratitude is taken as appreciation, it may encourage the giver to continue in the same vein. Is there a place for politely acknowledging the gift but redirecting the giver to better choices, especially if you know the giver is spending money sacrificially? If done well, it could enhance knowing each other better. But I know I have not done it well in the past.

  3. It was awesome reading a post that I can totally relate to in regards to the religious gifts. I have several items just like that and I can't really tell anyone about it but my husband but it really is kinda funny in a way. So glad to have rediscovered your blog. It's been a while but I look forward to reading more.


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