One of the movies produced by the church that I actually rather enjoy is Nora’s Christmas Gift, partly because even though it has its cheesy moments, I like Nora, who is funny and real. But I also appreciate its message, which is one that resonates with me. Nora has to cope with life circumstances that I think most of us would find quite challenging, as age and declining health put her in a position where she finds herself more dependent on others. She has to cope with the unsettling shift from being the person who organized things and offered help to others to being the person in need of help. She quite understandably resents the situation and resists the help. But at the end of the movie, it occurs to her that learning to accept what others offer her—and ultimately what God offers her—is what Christmas is ultimately about: “let earth receive her King,” she says, with a dawning recognition that is it up to her to allow grace to affect her life.
Over the years, I’ve thought a lot about just why the act of receiving gifts can be so hard. Right now my six-year-old nephew talks regularly about his upcoming birthday, which is not exactly upcoming at this point as it is still a good four months away. But he wants to know what things we might be planning to give him (more specifically, which exact Star Wars Lego ship), and describes in detail what he is going to do when he finally encounters the tall stack of presents which he imagines will appear on that blessed day. Listening to him, I find myself wondering—when did I lose that ability to take pure and unabashed joy in the receiving of gifts? How did it all get so complicated?
Part of the problem in my own life, I think, has been the ideal of independence. Obviously a fair amount of independence is an important and healthy thing to develop. But in my life history, I have at times been overly invested in a narrative of myself in which I am a shining star of pretty much not needing anyone at all. I’ve never managed to live up this aspiration, of course, but I’ve clung to it as a goal worth pursuing nonetheless. In the last few years in particular, this self-sufficiency balloon has been punctured more than once, as I’ve dealt with my own health challenges—my experience has been that there is nothing quite like being alone for hours in an ER to completely erode your pride and spark you to start texting your friends asking them to please just come when they can.
But for me, and I suspect that I’m not alone in this, asking for help feels very risky. Therapy has helped me realize that part of the problem is that when people say no, I’m prone to hear it not as a reflection of their legitimate limitations, but as a judgment on my neediness, an implicit message that I am too much and my needs are too much, which leaves me feeling acutely ashamed and even like asking for something was a moral failing. Much better, I have often thought, to just figure out how to go it alone than risk having that painful experience. It’s definitely gotten easier over the years, but making even simple requests of people often still leaves me feeling vulnerable and anxious.
Yet over the years I have come to believe that authentic giving to others necessitates an openness to letting them give to you sometimes, too. When I have played the person who helps others but refuses to every let them help me in any way, there is a way in which it sabotages the relationship; the one-sidedness eventually becomes unsustainable. To be clear, I am not advocating for a model of relationship in which both people maintain a balance tally in their heads and try to keep everything as even as possible—I don’t think that really works, either. I imagine that most relationships at any particular moment in time are not an exact 50/50 split in terms of who is doing more giving, and that’s absolutely okay. What I’m pointing to here is more a stance of openness to letting other people share what they have to offer and accepting it graciously. Because when I’m doing the “I have to be the person who gives but not receives” thing, I’m refusing to be a fully human participant in the relationship. It’s seductively easy, in my experience, to turn other people into the objects of my generosity, to toss out care packages from my fortress of self-reliance, but not actually engage them as fellow human beings who might have something to give me, too. But I find that I am a more genuinely and spontaneously caring person when I’m also open to the caring that other people offer me.
This brings me to Easter, and its message that Christ offers us ultimately everything: redemption from sin, and divine life—but it’s up to us to decide whether to receive those gifts. Unfortunately, I think this profoundly hopeful message all too often comes loaded with baggage of all kinds. As I’ve blogged about before, I had a deeply ambivalent relationship to the Good Friday narratives as a child. More often than not, my takeaway from the story of Christ’s suffering and death was along the lines of “Jesus had to die because you were so bad.” In response, I would feel both guilty and angry; I would think, “well, I never asked him to do it, so it’s not fair for him to hold it over me now.” I knew I was supposed to be grateful, but I really didn’t; instead I would feel even more guilt over my lack of gratitude.
And I think that’s another element that can be at work in our resistance to receiving gifts. To let your guard down and let another person help you requires a certain amount of trust in the good faith of the person offering the help—that it doesn’t come with strings attached, that the giver isn’t going to hold your indebtedness to them over you or demand that you now prove yourself deserving of the gift you were given. But I have to admit that I’ve read at times read certain scriptural passages, like King Benjamin’s observation that we are all unprofitable servants, eternally indebted to God and unable to repay him no matter what we do (see Mosiah 2:21-24), as indicating that that is the lens through which God sees us: as a bad investment, so to speak. Learning to re-think my negative ideas about God has been a lifelong process, and it’s taken time and experience to develop more trust that God is offering generously and freely and not resentfully, or with the expectation that we’d now better do our part so that he doesn’t regret helping us. As is so often the case, the words of Chieko Okazaki have been a healing force for me. She writes,
What is the message of the gospel? Is it that we’re weak, frail sinners? That Heavenly Father is disgusted and angry with us? That Jesus is sorry he died for us because it was a real waste of the Atonement? That all the angels have decided that giving us agency was a stupid thing to do? No! The message of the scriptures is that nothing can separate us from the love of Christ.1
I’ve written in the past about my tendencies toward scrupulosity, and what I’ve sometimes thought about as a stance of “pathological integrity,” in which I’ve felt like the moral thing to do was to go to hell and suffer for my own sins rather than allow grace to have any impact on me, because that’s what’s fair, that’s what’s just, that’s what’s right. To accept grace, by contrast, means breaking out of a world in which everyone gets exactly what they deserve—and that’s not always an easy move to make. Not only do you have to ease up on yourself, there are real implications for your ability to judge others; you can’t simultaneously accept God’s forgiveness and help in your own life and demand that other people be subject to absolute justice. You know how people sometimes assert that they personally accomplished everything on their own without any “handouts,” so it wouldn’t be fair for anyone else to get assistance of any kind? I think one of the real challenges in accepting grace is that it upends a worldview in which people have to earn everything they get. Notably, the Book of Mormon figure most associated with this stance is Korihor, the anti-Christ, who preaches that “every man fared in this life according to the management of the creature; therefore every man prospered according to his genius, and every man conquered according to his strength.”2 Given this worldview, it is no surprise that Korihor has no use for the atonement. But looking at my own experience, I notice that when I feel personally loved and accepted and forgiven, I get less worried about whether other people are going to get what they “deserve,” and have an easier time feeling compassion. Conversely, when I’m feeling miserable and like the world is unfair to me, I’m more prone to experiencing resentment if it seems that other people are getting more help than they have earned. There is a reason why the plea for divine forgiveness is expressed in tandem with a willingness to forgive others in the Lord’s Prayer.
Going back to building trust in the character of Christ and in the atonement as something offered freely, without strings attached or underlying resentment, I was blown away when I first encountered the writings of Julian of Norwich. At one point in Julian’s extended vision of the Savior, she reports this exchange:
THEN said our good Lord Jesus Christ: Art thou well pleased that I suffered for thee? I said: Yea, good Lord, I thank Thee; Yea, good Lord, blessed mayst Thou be. Then said Jesus, our kind Lord: If thou art pleased, I am pleased: it is a joy, a bliss, an endless satisfying to me that ever suffered I Passion for thee; and if I might suffer more, I would suffer more.3
In other words, Jesus inquires as to whether she is happy that he suffered for her, and she responds yes, and he says that it is a joy to have suffered for her and even that he would have suffered more if he could have. I am well aware that we are in tricky territory here, because Christianity has often had a deeply unhealthy relationship with suffering, which regularly gets romanticized and seen as something to emulate, rather than being something we seek to alleviate in the world. I don’t know what I think about the theology of this passage. But on a pastoral level, for people like me who have at times lived in terror of a Christ who was angry and annoyed that he had to suffer, I think this vision can be immensely liberating and healing—how radical is it to imagine a Savior who takes sheer joy and delight in being able to help you? That is the Christ I want to worship on Easter.
- Chieko Okazaki, Lighten Up! (Salt Lake: Deseret Book, 1993), 156. [↩]
- Alma 30:17 [↩]
- Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love, 25; see https://www.catholicspiritualdirection.org/revelations.pdf [↩]