A few weeks before last Christmas, we had my son and daughter compile a list of the gifts they most desired. Topping my son’s list was a Playmobil castle–a huge, grey castle that looks like the kind of toy every boy dreams about. He asked for this with some hesitation, though, because he knew that it was expensive. We told him several times leading up to Christmas that we did not think we would be able to afford such a toy. Neither Aileen or I were raised in families that celebrated Christmas or birthdays with hundreds of dollars worth of presents, so the pricetag of the castle would be quite a stretch for us. In the end, we settled on a smaller castle, still Playmobil, but one that was the “bad guy” castle instead of the “good guy” castle.
When my son opened this gift on Christmas morning we could tell that he was both thrilled and disappointed. He had so badly wanted that big castle but knew it was unlikely that he would receive it. When he saw a big box on Christmas morning he thought that maybe, just maybe, we had splurged and bought it for him. But when he opened it, he saw that it was almost what he had wanted, but not quite. Still, he was happy with the gift and put a brave face on it. If he was exceedingly disappointed, he masked it well for a five-year old. We were proud of him.
When his birthday rolled around in March, the Playmobil castle was still at the top of his list. Knowing now that his desire for this castle was not just a passing fancy, we decided that we would break form and buy it for him. We shopped around a little bit, found the best price, and bought it. When the day of his birthday arrived we hid the box and had him open all his other gifts first. When he had opened a couple of gifts from us, and gifts from other family members, he seemed truly pleased. It was then that I went downstairs and returned with that huge box. His eyes went wide and he exclaimed, “You didn’t! No, you didn’t!” We put the box before him and he made short work of the wrapping paper. His eyes lit up and I think I saw a tear in his eye as he saw that long-awaited castle. I think it was made sweeter by the waiting. We built the castle for him that afternoon (I did half before falling asleep and Aileen had to finish it off. I had just returned that morning, via the red-eye, from the Shepherd’s Conference in California!) and it has given him countless hours of pleasure in the months since then. It remains his favorite toy.
One little event struck me later that afternoon. The castle had been built and my son had already been playing with it for a few hours. After I woke from a short nap I went downstairs to watch him enjoying his toy. When he saw me, he ran up to his room and returned clutching something in his little hand. He walked up to me and handed me a loonie, a one dollar coin. He explained that he knew the castle was very expensive and that we could not really afford it. He wanted to give me a dollar to help with the expense. It was a touching moment, really, and one that showed a sweet innocence, for of course his one dollar coin could hardly repay the castle. I explained to him that it was my privilege to give him the castle as a gift and that he could show me gratitude not by attempting to pay me back, something he could not do despite his best efforts, but by playing with the castle and receiving from it a great deal of joy. That seemed to satisfy him, so he put his money in his pocket and continued to play with his new toys.
I think there is a lesson in my son’s behavior, though one that did not register in my mind and in my heart until I read The Great Work of the Gospel by John Ensor. So often, I realize, I have been just like my son, attempting to repay God for His gifts. I attempt to provide good works as repayment for mercy. God gives us grace as a gift and does not expect us to repay Him for it. As with myself when looking at my son, God’s satisfaction is not in our attempts to repay Him, but in seeing our heartfelt delight as we rejoice in His free gift. The gift is cheapened when we attempt to repay it. John Ensor writes, “His reward as a gift giver is in the gladness of heart that we experience in receiving his gift as a gift.” Ensor points out another reason we cannot pay for our sins by doing good works as a tradeoff for God’s mercy. “Anything we do with a motive of adding to the work of Christ so as to win the forgiveness of God becomes the ground of self-satisfaction in our own goodness, rather than trust in God’s grace.” In receiving this gift from me, my son was unable to boast. Had he saved his money and paid me back, he could have led his friends to the playroom and said, “Here is a castle I earned.” But with the gift I gave him, all he can boast in is in having a father who loves him and who knows how to give him good gifts.
My son’s motives were pure. He felt some measure of guilt in receiving a gift he felt we could not afford. And so he tried to repay me, but in a way that was inadequate, impossible and in denial of the very fact that what I gave him was intended to be a gift. I expected no repayment and took my joy in my son’s delight. And there is the lesson for me. God wants me to receive mercy and grace as a gift. Even my best efforts at repaying Him merit me nothing. What God desires is that I receive His gift as a gift and that I return to Him all the praise and the glory through enjoying what He has so graciously given me.