Returning Gifts

"Gift Card Squirrels." Image by nightowlpapergoods via Flickr; licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

This month, I invite you to explore with me a time-honored, traditional stewardship approach that has made me increasingly uncomfortable. My problem is centered on the words of the old offertory hymn, “We give thee but thine own.”

For as long as I have been alive, this view of stewardship has held sway: that everything we have is a gift from God. When we give our offerings to God (and let’s stick with money, for simplicity), we are obligated to be generous because, after all, everything really belongs to God anyway. The world and all its resources are a trust that God has given us, and our responsibility is to be wise and faithful stewards of this trust. When we give, we are just returning this wealth to its rightful owner. 

That may sound good from a piety perspective or a fundraising perspective, but did you notice the contradiction in the above paragraph? If what we have is truly a gift from God, then, I’m sorry but it is not God’s anymore. As shocking as this may sound, we are under no obligation from God or anyone to return it. That is the nature of giving.

I assume that most of you reading this have never in your lives given a gift with the caveat that it is still your property. And to paraphrase Matthew 7:11, if we who are evil know how to give a gift, how can we expect any less of God? After all, God invented the practice of giving gifts. The “we give thee but thine own” approach to stewardship makes the unmistakable claim that God does not give gifts; God only loans them out, or puts them under temporary guardianship.

Stewardship, or the care of God’s creation, is a separate matter altogether. Given the repeated vineyard references in the Bible, a strong case can be made that God did not give this as a gift to us, but allows us to live here, and has entrusted it to our care. I assume that is what the traditional stewardship emphasis is meant to convey.

Just for the sake of pushing boundaries, though, let’s imagine that the earth is the gift of a loving God to all humankind. If that were the case, God would have no claim on me to do anything with it other than what I choose. God could be immensely disappointed in how I waste my gift, but if it were truly a gift, that’s the risk God took when bestowing it.

My sin in wasting this gift would not be that I assume ownership of something that is not mine, but that in acting as I do, I would be violating the great commandment to love the Lord my God with all my heart, soul, and mind.

Furthermore, this would not be a gift given only to me; it is a gift given to me and 7 billion other people. We share that gift. When I do not cherish, protect, and nurture this gift, or when I take more of this gift than my fair share, then I am depriving others of their fair share of the gift. I am stealing from them. This is a violation of the second part of that great commandment, to love my neighbor as myself.

When we give a gift, we let go of it. We take a risk that the recipient will be thankful for the gift and will use it wisely. One of the more amazing features of God’s immeasurable love is that God has taken tremendous risks with humans, who do not have a great record of wisdom in that regard. God gives gifts, and having given the gift, surrenders control over it. Could this be true of creation?

Even in this case, God would retain control over the expectation that we love God and our neighbor. That requires treating God’s creation as a shared trust, and we are obligated to do so honestly, wisely, generously.

After exploring all that, I still hold to the view that “This is My Father’s World,” and that it has been entrusted to our care. Nonetheless, I must also concede that I have been surprised by the depth and scope of God’s love before. Furthermore, it is clear to me that God does give gifts, which means that not everything belongs to God, and we diminish God when we imply otherwise.

I think a better approach to stewardship is this: When I have given gifts to my children, my reason has not been that I want to make a good investment, although there is sometimes an element of that. The main reason is that I love them and want to see the look on their face when they receive it. Wouldn’t it be awesome if the main reason for Christians to give generously was just that—because they love God and just want to imagine the look on God’s face when the gift is given?

In Nathan Aaseng’s bimonthly Working Preacher column, “Preaching Life,” a writer and preacher reflects on the rhythms of preaching in a parish in central Wisconsin.