. . . we often hear this phrase, typically associated with those who have ‘made it!’; “Yeah so and so NBA star has made it to the top, escaping the dregs of the ‘hood’ he came from in South Central L. A., and now it is great to see that he has not forgotten where he came from, and he’s giving back, through spending time and money; having acheived the ‘American Dream’.” This scenario can be applied to a multitude of situations, people, and circumstances; the common thread between them is that they are all giving back out of their ‘surplus’.

On the surface this sounds all well and good, even commendable and laudable; but viewed from a deeper vantage point, it is quickly realizable that this ethic of charity is fraught with problems. The cracks become apparent when this perspective is juxtaposed with the ethic of the cross, the ethic of true love-service. I know, I can hear it, “. . . not again, Bobby, isn’t there any good in the world, isn’t ‘giving back’ ultimately a ‘good’ thing . . . why do you always have to be so critical, Bobby?” Glad you asked 😉 .

The problem is, is that the “giving back ethic” is not the Christian ethic! You see, the “giving back ethic” turns on me (humanity) **making it**; once I achieve a level of independence, a level of security (defined mostly, but not only, by monetary standards . . . which lead to meeting other ‘societal’ standards of success), a level of possessing my own life, indeed a level of surplus—I now have the freedom to give back. I have become the master of my own universe, I have become like God (or a god who I have created in my own image); when I ‘make it’ to this altitude I am ‘free’ to ‘give back’ without crimping my own style, without sacrificing any of my own needs (in fact, my perception is that I do not have any ‘needs’, thus my ability to “give back”), in fact I can truly ‘live my best life now’ 😉 .

Contrariwise, the Christian ethic flows out of a deep sense of need. The Christic frame says that we can only truly give back when we realize and are living in the very depths of ‘our need’. It operates this way because it realizes that life is not something we possess, but instead something we receive. Jesus always recognized that His life was a shared life (Jn. 10. 30), something that He was constantly receiving from the Father (Jn. 17. 20-26); thus His freedom to pour out His life for us! He was not clinging to something, His life, holding on to something that He was afraid He might lose; au contraire, in fact just the opposite, His life is always outward shaped, and in this shape His life is exemplified. So when we come to the cross, we see Jesus at a point where He is most free to ‘give back’; He is at a point that the sharedness of His life with the Father is pushed to its breaking point. It is at this point that He cries out to the Father, the source of His shared and received life, He laments and submits to the Father until the very end; when He finally commits His life into the Father’s hands.

Because Christ’s life is not based on possession, but reception, we see the resurrection. There is nothing that can separate Him from the Father’s life, not even sin, because the source of the Son’s life is the Father’s life (and vice versa, let’s not forget the Spirit here either). And this is the wisdom of God, He alone, His life of constant giving and sharing is the perfect remedy to our sin; which is only really a parasite on the true life of God. Man’s ‘giving back ethic’ seeks to achieve a life of possession, its faulty perception of the life of God, before it ‘feels’ secure and independent to ‘give back’. God’s ‘giving back ethic’ is just that, in itself, it is a life of constantly giving, pouring out, sharing and receiving.

When we are brought into the life of God, through faith, we are now truly free to give; not out of our surplus, but out of our deepest sense of need. It is at this point that we truly find life, like Job, when we are dependent on the Father’s life, through the Son’s life, by the power and ‘otherness’ of the Spirit’s life! That is why Paul says:

. . . always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. 11. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. 12. So death is at work in us, but life in you. — Corinthians 4. 10-12

In conclusion I want to leave with a summary from a man who inspired this whole little article for me; here is how Arthur C. McGill says it:

The image of the grain of wheat represents an astonishing proposal [he previously has been discussing  Jn 12, and the “death of the seed”]. It construes death as the process of generating and communicating identity in life. In this teaching Jesus interprets his death in terms of the agricultural process of sowing. When a grain of wheat is put into the ground and cracks open, when it releases from itself its own life and reality and dies, only then does it yield a harvest. Here emerges the principle that within the arena of Jesus the act of conferring and nourishing life for others requires the loss and expenditure of one’s own life. The Gospel of John especially celebrates Jesus’ death as the process whereby the new kind of received life and received identity is extended to the human race. Like the grain of wheat which bears fruit by dying, Jesus’ dying is the gift to us of the identity he receives from his Father. Jesus says that his death is how we receive his life. . . .

. . . The Father, as revealed by Jesus in his dying, is the origin and principle of this glory [McGill has been developing a ‘theology of God’s glory in John’ as a glory that is founded in death {giving self} vs. man’s glory that self-exalts], this vitality of bearing fruit and engendering life, this vitality which we meet in Jesus. The glory of God the Father is identical in kind to the glory of Jesus’ sacrificial death. God is to be worshiped, not because God is absolute, but because God engenders and communicates life. . . .

. . . The Christian worships not the absoluteness of God but the fecundity of God, the fact that the Father engenders the Son who carries the fullness of divinity. God is not God as superior, as superior to us in holding onto the divine reality. We do not worship God as a self-contained divinity. We worship God for the glory of the Father, a glory which consists in bearing fruit. That is the meaning of the cross. We worship God as Father, that is, as one who engenders the Son. We worship God further as one, who not only engenders the Son, but engenders in all of us the same life. Where do we see the glory of God? In the Son. Here the Father is glorified, and fruitful power is the Father’s and not the Son’s own. Worship then is a response to glory. Where is glory? In Jesus’ act of dying. In the act he shares his glory and bestows life, but we worship here the glory of the Father.

In Jesus Christ we see that none of us is simply the life we now receive because we will receive again anew each day. Therefore, in laying down his life, Jesus does not abolish his identity. He does not commit suicide in the sense of acting so as to be nothing. His identity does not depend on and does not consist in the life which he holds onto and the life which he offers. He is by virtue of God, by virtue of God’s constant activity to him and with him. Without detriment to his true self, he can give away everything of himself. He can give away everything at his disposal. He can lay down his life and receive it again. Contrary to all the injunctions against suicide, Jesus claims the right to give away everything. [bracketing mine] (Arthur C. McGill, “Death and Life: an American Theology,” 72-75)

You see, my point then? The world tries to hold onto something, themselves, before they can give something; the true God, holds onto nothing, and in this self-giving (first in his intra-trinitarian life, then through His super-abundance, to us) He becomes who He already and always has been. This kind of life, then, indeed is the kind that can say “. . . in weakness, His strength is made perfect!”