You have heard it said, “Desire the Giver, not the gifts.” I have never been able to say this, and I wonder where are all these demigods who can afford to do without God’s gifts, and who think that they have the option to make this statement. This popular slogan implies the legitimate point that we should desire God for his own sake, and not only or mainly for what he can do for us. This is a valuable lesson, since God is indeed an end in himself. He is not a tool for us to use, or a stepping-stone for us to reach for something greater, for there is none greater. However, this slogan fails to directly assert this point, and after this, it treads beyond this to assert something that is dangerous and sacrilegious.
If we do not take words seriously, then any statement can be considered acceptable or unacceptable, since it would be meaningless. But if we take words seriously, then the “not” in the slogan must mean something, and must not mean other things. It does not say, “Desire the Giver and the gifts,” or “Desire the Giver more than the gifts,” or a more elaborate “Desire the Giver, and make your fellowship with him the context within which you desire his gifts, for your own sake, and for the sake of his kingdom” (this last one would be my position). Rather, the slogan says, “Desire the Giver, not the gifts.” Sometimes people perceive that this is not right and use one of the other forms, but now our interest is in this form, where a “not” is applied to the gifts.
There are two considerations that uncover the problems. First, given the alternatives, to use “not” in the statement must suggest either a rejection of God’s gifts or an indifference toward them. If there is some desire for them, then the correct term would be “more than” instead of “not.” Second, although Christians from different traditions may mean different things by the word “gifts,” in reality they are not only the things that we need to excel in life and ministry are gifts, but also the things that we need to survive, even the air and the rain, are gifts from God. This is especially true for Christians, who are supposed to possess the perception that all good things come from God, and who are supposed to be encouraged in the faith even by naturally benevolent things like food and water, when the reprobates are hardened by them.
That said, there are at least four problems with the slogan.
First, it is outright obnoxious. Imagine holding out a present to your child, and he says, “I want you, not your gift!” And you would think, “Yes, and I am right here, giving you the gift. Take it, you brat!”
Second, it reflects a prideful and high-minded attitude. Sometimes when you go out to eat with a friend, you pay for your own meal, and he pays for his. You desire his fellowship, not a free meal. But do you think you can pay your own bill with God? The statement speaks as if we can fellowship with him on equal footing. Again, I admit that this is probably not the intention of the statement, but the word “not” makes this implication difficult to avoid.
Third, it betrays either a lack of love for God or a tragically false perception toward his gifts.
When my wife and I first met and decided to marry, we were attending high schools in different countries. (It was not until we graduated from college, also at different locations, that we married.) At that time email was not as popular and phone calls were very expensive. So we wrote many letters to each other. It took up to ten days for a letter to travel from one location to the other. It was pure agony. I would wait for each letter with a burning heart and open it with trembling hands. Then, I would carefully fold it away and write a reply. Oh, how I desired the next letter! To this day we still have the letters we sent to each other, along with the original envelopes. We started using email when we were in college, and I have always, to this day, saved all the ones she sent me, no matter how trivial.
Why do you think I do this? Do you think I do this because I am infatuated with letters and emails? If so, this tells me that you know nothing about love. No, I behave this way because I am infatuated with her! I am in love with her. And I value the things that she gives me because they come from her. I certainly do not think more of the letters than I do of her. And in a fire, I certainly would not rescue the letters and leave her to perish. That would be absurd. No doubt I would rescue her and let the letters burn. There is a priority, but there is no dichotomy.
If the love between a man and a woman is a reflection of the love between Christ and the Church, if God is my Father and Christ is my first love, and the Holy Spirit is the source and the cause even of the love that I have for my wife, then how much more should I agonize to receive from him! Just as it would be unnatural to impose a dichotomy between my wife and her gifts, it would be unnatural to impose one between God and all the things in life, whether we refer to food and water, to friends, to health, or to the Spirit’s power for ministry. The reason you think that you can “not” desire food and water is because you do not see God in your access to food and water. The reason you think you can “not” desire spiritual gifts, even though you sense the burden for ministry, is because you think they are optional. You think you are strong and rich. You are not desperate.
I was a beggar, and God made me a prince in Christ. But my status depends on my continual association with him; that is, in myself I always remain a beggar. As he said, “Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you” (John 15:4-7). He did not say, “Remain in me and ask for nothing,” but “Remain in me and ask whatever you wish.”
Fourth, and this follows from above, the popular slogan introduces unbiblical guilt, unnecessary limitations, and inordinate self-examination into a Christian’s spiritual life, crippling his faith in prayer and power in ministry. It persuades him to become suspicious of his own motives by a principle that is contrary to Scripture. It binds his conscience with a lie.
Praise be to God, his word sets us free to desire him and his gifts, and to be thankful for them. I desire God and all his gifts. I want everything, and more of everything. And the more I love him and know him, the more I witness his majesty and greatness, the more I become aware of my need for his gifts, and the more I increase in my desire for them. But when it happens this way, this desire is developed within the context of fellowship with him. There is no “not,” no dichotomy.
Thus I refuse to let people trick me into rejecting what God is so eager to give and what I am so desperate to receive. Jesus said, “Seek first his kingdom, and all these things will be added to you.” There he spoke against worry, which is contrary to God and contrary to faith, and the right priority must be established. But when he taught his disciples to pray – that is, in the context of faith and fellowship with God – he said to ask for their daily bread.
We need God’s gifts to live in this world, and especially to succeed in the work of the gospel. If we care only for the gifts, then we are non-Christians, and it would be strange to even perceive them as “gifts.” But if we have fellowship with God, then we should also have the right perception regarding his gifts, and to desire them with all faith and eagerness, without false piety, and without guilt and shame. The Lord told us to ask, and receive, so that our joy may be full.