Saturday, September 22, 2007

"...Who gives generously to all without finding fault..."

I haven't been blogging about the stuff I'm learning about God and myself through this process, because -- how can I put this? -- there's not any way I can provide the context within which I'm learning them without speaking ill of the absent. I'm going to start trying to record some of it as tactfully as I can, though, especially when it's a situation when I learn something that doesn't apply directly to the divorce I'm going through, which, in defiance of subjective experience, I am diligently but not very successfully attempting to "consider all joy."

I learned something today about giving, I think. I was thinking through James 1:5, in which we are told that God gives his gifts haplos kai me oneidizontos -- "generously and ungrudgingly" is how the RSV puts it. So I was thinking about that and meditating on what that looked like, and realized it doesn't look very much like how I was "generous" to some very difficult people in my past -- that is, I worked very hard to be generous and I made a ton of personal sacrifices that I didn't at all have to make, but the responses I consistently got posed a challenge to me that I didn't realize I was facing and didn't until tonight realize I had failed.

Haplos (NIV and RSV "generously," Bauer/Arndt/Gingrich "simply, sincerely, openly, generously, without reserve") is a word whose full connotation I think I can best sum up as, "without ulterior motives." I have recently been witness to a person ("Mr. M." for Manipulator) who had an agenda he could not accomplish without making use of somebody else ("Ms. N.", for Ms. Nice Gal, gender set to female for pronomial convenience in the next few sentences). Now, Mr. M. knew that Ms. N. would not approve of the agenda in the service of which he intended to use her, and he set about gaining her confidence, hoping to gain enough of her trust to win some sort of confidential information that he could use -- by betraying those very confidences, obviously -- against "Mr. T." -- that is, his true Target. Now the guy who pulled this stunt -- do you think that I will ever again, for the rest of my life, get a favor from this guy without wondering what he plans to use me for? Timeo Danaos et dona ferentis: I fear the Greeks even -- indeed especially -- when they come bringing gifts.

Furthermore, because there are people like that in the world, even a genuinely sincere person can be suspected: I personally know what it is to have every attempt you make to be nice to someone interpreted in the worst possible light because the person assumes you are, so to speak, a Greek giver; and the tragic thing about that was that the only thing the guy accomplished by "defending" himself against me, was to stymie every attempt I made to help him become successful -- in the job from which he was ultimately fired. (That may be specific enough for some of my longer-term acquaintances to figure out to whom I'm referring, in which case I apologize to the gentleman in question -- but I take consolation in the fact that I am 100% certain he will never read my blog and thus will never have his feelings hurt by what I have just said. Plus he's probably too bloody stupid even to realize that he's the one I'm talking, no, just kidding, really and truly.) And I have slightly more recent experience as well with another person who responded to every attempt I made to be generous with resentment and with imputation of vicious motives, and who not only took my efforts in the worst possible light but who furthermore tried to use a highly distorted version of them as a way to paint me out to be a bad person -- and when in self-defense I stopped making generous gestures, he complained to mutual acquaintances that I was a selfish and grasping and greedy and tight-fisted person because I wasn't giving him any help. (As you perceive, I have had some wonderful co-workers and very nice friends at church but I have also seen my share of dysfunctional vocational and social communities -- when I laugh at "The Office," I, like most Americans who've put in a couple of decades in the workforce, have plenty of personal experience fueling the laughter.)

Well, God isn't a Danaean: His gifts can be trusted. Not necessarily trusted to be pleasant (sometimes His gifts have to be trusted the way a child has to trust his mother's gift of a dose of castor oil or his father's gift of a sound spanking), but trusted to be sincere and straightforward and genuinely meant for the good of the recipient, not as some form of manipulation.

Try thinking of it this way (you'll see why in a minute): when God offers you a gift, you can accept it freely without worrying that He's hypocritically covering up some fault. You can just say, "Thank you," with equal sincerity and openness. God isn't a Greek and His horses aren't Trojan, if you want to put it that way.

(It dawns on me -- rosy-fingered, as it were -- that I ought not be assuming that everybody reading this is familiar with the Homeric cycle and the Aeneid and the story of the Trojan horse. Wikipedia, guys, wikipedia.)

Me oneidizontos is the flip-side, and I think the best way to capture its meaning here is "without insults." I don't quite like the NIV's "generously...without finding fault," because I don't think its point is sharp enough, and the RSV's "ungrudgingly"...well, they certainly know more than I do but that's still just not how it strikes me at all. Do you know the kind of person from whom you just hate to receive gifts because his whole manner and attitude in giving you the gift is demeaning and belittling? -- but you feel like you have to put up with because beggars can't stand on their dignity. Only, after you've been hit with that a couple of times you're apt to decide you'd rather go hungry than accept his "generosity." Do you know the kind of thing I'm talking about?

One thing I know about husbands -- I hope somehow my daughters learn this before they get married because if they don't learn it they will inevitably find themselves living out Proverbs 14:1 -- is that there are things that we husbands need that we emphatically don't deserve; but the fact that we don't deserve them doesn't at all change the fact that we desperately need them and that the consequences of our being denied them are catastrophic, especially for our wives. And I think something analogous is probably true of everybody in some sense, and indeed probably in too many senses for us to hope to count them. Certainly at the level of salvation we need from God grace that we do not deserve; but I think it is true emotionally as well -- our whole lives are, or ought to be, one long process of continually coming before God with our requests even though we are not worthy so much as to gather the crumbs under His table. And it occurs to me tonight that one of my very favorite collects from the Book of Common Prayer -- Proper 11 -- almost looks as though it had been written without due attention to what James is trying to tell us.

Proper 11 reads, in part [the emphasis is mine], "Have compassion on our weakness, and mercifully give us those things which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask." Now, the godly men who composed this prayer wisely knew that there are lots of times in our lives in which we are all too aware of how little we deserve, and because of our unworthiness we dare not ask God. But James is saying simply, "If there is ever any time in which there is something you need from God and you dare not ask Him because of your unworthiness, then you don't really know God -- if for your unworthiness you dare not ask, then that's your fault, not His"

God gives sincerely and generously, without ulterior motive or hidden selfish agenda; He is no Greek giver; you need not suspiciously try to find fault with Him. And you need not worry that when you go to Him asking for wisdom He will remind you of your shortcomings and sneer at your needs and in the end give you His gifts only while making sure you are made bitterly aware of how much better He is than you: He will not find fault with you.

So now the real question is: how does my giving, stack up against God's? And what I've realized tonight is something that sheds a lot of retrospective light on that old relationship I referred to earlier, in which every time I tried to be generous to the guy, he turned it into an excuse to claim I was a vicious and evil person. Well, looking back now, I finally perceive that there is one respect in which my generosity has been deficient, and when I dig into it more deeply I find that I was not quite giving haplos and I was not exactly giving oneidizontos. Close, but not quite. And the reason I know I wasn't, is that I used to get so angry whenever he took my attempts at generosity and peacemaking and tried to use them to further my destruction.

Interestingly, as time went on he got less and less willing to accept any generosity from me, and I have realized that it is because there was an agenda behind my giving and because I did find fault. The agenda was the making of peace, an aspect of which I habitually expect (as would most civilized people) to be a response of gratitude. And while I was careful not to find fault (even in my own mind) when I was going to special trouble to be helpful to him, still I could sit in a corner and cry, "Heigh, ho," for gratitude from him for those gestures -- and the lack of gratitude infuriated me, whereupon I would find fault...not with the fact that he needed help, but with his striking lack of gratitude whenever I tried to help him.

But that means that my gifts were not given freely -- they were given with the expectation of gratitude, and in (it would seem) the service of a private agenda on my part of obtaining gratitude and graciousness from the dude, and I resented his failure to go along with my agenda in giving the gifts.

So, um, my bad there, is what I'm saying. And the sad thing is that every generous gesture I made with my agenda of making peace, seemed to wind up doing nothing but worsen and further embitter the conflict...for I was not giving haplos kai me oneidizontos. And my basic reaction was pretty much, "Well if THAT'S what I'm gonna get for trying to help, why the hell am I bothering?"

Which turns out, actually, to be a very good question, and we'll return to it for the final wrap-up of this post; but my immediate point is that it didn't occur to me to ask, "What in the world did I do wrong in the way I went about trying to help, that caused it to do so much harm than good?" I spent a long time asking myself, "Why does that S.O.B. act that way?"...but it's only tonight that I finally stopped wondering, "Why did he always behave so badly?" and started wondering, "Is it possible that I was behaving badly myself?" And the answer is: yes, I was; I was not living out my responsibility to be an imitator of Christ with respect to James 1:5.

So, I'm thinking about all of this with my New Testament open in front of me, and I suddenly realize God is addressing, with me, the question of, "Is THAT what I get for trying to help?" At that point God was finally able to get through that six inches of bone that apparently surrounds my brain, something along these lines: "Kenny, because of the attitude that has underlain your 'generosity,' if [that guy] had reacted with gratitude and had reciprocated your generosity with generosity of his own, then verily, verily, I say unto you: you would have had your reward."

Every good and perfect gift, even when it appears to come from other people, is, James famously says in this same chapter, from God. What I have realized tonight is that I should see to it that my gifts to other people -- or at least to those annoying and socially-self-destructive persons who respond to generosity in a manner apparently calculated to ensure that one never again makes the mistake of treating them generously -- will only be good and perfect gifts if, even when they appear to go to other people, they are in truth gifts I offer to God. For then, if the person responds with bitterness and betrayal and insults rather than with gratitude and graciousness and what? It wasn't really his present anyway.

I'll have to think about this some more because it's a new thought for me and I probably don't really have it exactly right yet. But I think I'm a lot closer to the right attitude than I was before I sat down this evening with James. And certainly it's true that if, when I cast my mind back over the backstabbings and spittings-in-the-face and slanderings I've gotten clobbered with in exchange for trying to be nice to people, I find that as long as I think about what God was doing for me in the middle of that, it's actually possible to consider it pure joy -- but the moment I shift my focus to what the Mr. M du jour was doing to me, the joy is gone and I'm instantly seething with fury. And that doesn't do anybody any good at all.

Persons who set me straight in the comments will find I am grateful for the correction.


At 1:09 AM, Anonymous diane said...

James is a wonderful book, isn't it! I like James 4:10 - Humble yourselves before the Lord, and HE will lift you up. Feel like you're floating Kenny??? You should! That whole refiner's fire, it's good to know that we are worth the bother!!! Be blessed!!


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