The Awkward Economics of Christmas Gift-Giving

This is the Christmas topic that is too awkward to bring up before Christmas, so here it is in early January instead. We’ve just come through the season of gift giving. Friends and families had meals together, engaged in varying degrees of awkward conversation with one another, and have exchanged gifts with one another.

‘Exchange’ is an interesting description of gift-giving. At Christmas we mostly tend to give gifts to people who we expect will likewise give us something in return. Some of us are disappointed that the other person gave us a very ordinary gift when our gift to them was so good. Others are embarrassed that they received such a valuable gift from someone that they gave something so ordinary to.

‘Exchange’ is a particularly interesting description of Christmas gift-giving because Christians will tell you that the real great gift of Christmas is God sending his Son Jesus into the world. He became one of us, to save us from our sins by his death on a cross. This is what the Bible calls ‘grace’. It is the giving of a gift that is not deserved and doesn’t expect reciprocation. It’s an entirely different thing to the common Christmas practice of ‘exchanging gifts.’ In fact, if we apply this exchange-logic to the gospel then we have another gospel entirely. The only contribution we make to the great gift of Christmas is being the sinners who need saving!

Gift-giving as Economics

What we call ‘gift-giving’ is often really a covert form of economics. It is a form of trade, not giving. It is a really weird form of trade, where people try to meet the expectations of others without having confidence that they are getting the price right. Gift-exchange is bartering with a blindfold on. A lot of people find it very stressful!

The problem with the exchange view of Christmas gift giving is well portrayed in the sitcom The Big Bang Theory. In one episode Sheldon is upset when Penny states that she got him a Christmas present:

“why would you do such a thing? …the foundation of gift-giving is reciprocity. You haven’t given me a gift; you’ve given me an obligation.”

That’s the problem with the exchange view of gift-giving in a nutshell: there is an implicit expectation that the other person will give us something in return. A gift is really a covert demand. It is an underhanded way of expecting something from someone else. Sheldon elaborates in his characteristically over-the-top way:

“The essence of the custom is that I now have to go out and purchase for you a gift of commensurate value and representing the perceived same level of friendship as that represented by the gift you’ve given me.”

Many people know the sense of embarrassment that can come when someone gives you a gift that is especially surprising or generous, and you have nothing in return. We owe them now. We are in their debt. Perhaps we even feel that they have something over us, even if it is just the sense that they are a generous gift-giver and we are not. At very least, I suspect that most of us find it difficult to simply be the recipient of generosity without worrying about what we ought to do to return the favour. We instinctively want to turn gifts into exchanges.

But gift-exchange isn’t about gifts or grace at all; it’s about economics. By definition, gifts are freely given and freely received. Gifts are not exchanged or traded. That is bartering.

When Exchange is Impossible

The Big Bang Theory episode follows the logic to its extreme. Sheldon purchases a range of gift baskets of varying values so that he can offer Penny a suitably priced one in exchange for her gift to him once he discovers what it is. He then plans to return the other gift baskets for a refund having completed his Christmas present transaction equitably. It’s a sensible economic solution.

Sheldon unwraps his present from Penny

But there is a problem. When Sheldon receives Penny’s gift he is overwhelmed by its value. Realising his obligation (it’s an exchange, after all!), he panics and flees the room to try to pay her back. He soon realises that he can’t possibly reciprocate. He returns, bringing all the gift baskets, and dejectedly offers them to Penny crying: “it’s not enough!”

That’s the problem. It isn’t enough. That’s why the gospel is not about economics.

What will you offer in exchange for the Son of God who died for your sins? How can we begin to calculate the value of that gift?! It is blasphemously foolish to even try to put a value on it. The only possible right response to the gift of Jesus is to gratefully receive him. That means we must refuse to try to pay God back.

But doesn’t the gospel make demands of us?

Some have argued that the gift of Jesus is really an obligation in disguise. It is easy to see why they might say this. How does the Bible call on people to respond to Jesus? Faith and obedience to his commands. That begins to sound a bit like we are supposed to pay God back! The Bible says things like: ‘You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.’ (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). A much-loved hymn exclaims: “Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all!” Sometimes people even present the gospel as paying God back. They reason that God’s gift to us was Jesus dying for our sins, and our gift in return is to live a life of obedience. God gives his bit and we give ours in return.

It is very important to recognise the element of truth here. Responding to the gift of Jesus does involve a response. The Christian life involves obedience, duties, and obligations. But it is not at all accurate to say that the gift of Jesus is really an obligation in disguise.

God doesn’t give us Jesus so that we will then give him something in return.
God gives us Jesus so that he can keep on giving to us.

When we receive the Son of God, we receive another gift: the Holy Spirit. The Spirit gives us the gift of regeneration and inward-renewal. He marks us out as recipients of the gift of God’s kingdom. He works the gift of obedience in us. We don’t obey God as mere slaves, but as his adopted children. God’s commands aren’t burdens to begrudge, but the way to live life to its fullest. They are about love, belonging, and enabling us to be who we really are and what we are intended to be. God’s commands are our heavenly Father graciously sharing with his children: “let me tell you how life is…”.

The gift of Jesus is the fountain-head of an eternal procession of gifts flowing down from God to his children. We haven’t begun to imagine the great gifts that God has in store for us (1 Corinthians 2:9)!

Our society may treat Christmas as a weird and stressful form of economic exchange. But once we see the gift of Jesus to us (and that he is the beginning of an eternity of gifts to us in him) all notions of paying God back fall flat. The foolish person who tries to pay God back needs to realise that their efforts will never be enough, and trying to pay God back is an offence to his generosity. All we can do in response to God’s great gift is receive Christ and all that comes with him. That’s what it means to receive a gift.