When It's Better To Receive Than To Give

If you've ever wondered where the phrase "It is better to give than receive" came from, I'm here to help. 

It's actually a quote from the Apostle Paul in Acts 20:35 in his final discourse to the Church at Ephesus where he says this: 

“Remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that He Himself said, 'It is more blessed to give than to receive'”

Interestingly, when we go to the Gospels to find the moment Jesus said that very thing, it's not there.  We can discover inferences from that idea but not the exact quote.  

This means that Paul heard that Jesus had once said it is better to give than to receive from other disciples and simply repeated it.  The context of this verse is  Paul declaring that by the work of their hands, Christians should "help the weak." 

Jesus' words are filled with wisdom, and this teaching has pervaded culture to the point that it's become part of our cultural lexicon, especially during Christmas.  

In other words, many people offer up this line, perhaps not knowing who originated it. The overall assumption that giving is better than receiving gets passed around even by those without knowledge of the Bible. 

Given the context, there's something about Jesus' words that is not at all related to the giving of gifts.   In fact, sometimes giving is not better than receiving, especially in a culture where so many of us have the ability and the means to provide. 

During Advent, we have the space to think more deeply about the gift of Christ and what that means for us and all of Creation.  

When giving is thought to be better than receiving, it's often difficult to grasp what it means to humbly receive Christ, admitting that we need the gift he brings us. 

I recently read this quote from theologian and author Will Willimon that speaks to this quite well: 

We prefer to think of ourselves as givers--powerful, competent, self-sufficient, capable people whose goodness motivates us to employ some of our power, competence, and gifts to benefit the less fortunate.  Which is a direct contradiction of the biblical account of the first Christmas.  There, we are portrayed not as the givers we wish we were, but as the receivers we are. 

For the record, I'm not a stodgy, theological killjoy when giving gifts at Christmas or any other time of the year.   

Like most people, I genuinely enjoy finding and giving thoughtful, useful gifts to bring joy to those I'm giving them to.  In fact, over the past week, I've been obsessively checking the tracking information on gifts I've ordered to see where they are regarding delivery.  

But when it comes to receiving gifts, it's complicated.  Sometimes, receiving a gift from another is so much more complex than giving that we would rather not receive than give. 

Further, if it comes to admitting that we might need Christ's gift to straighten our life out, make the world a better place, and bring the peace that we long for, we struggle to be humble and simply receive. 

It is right and good that we learn to live generously.  We ought to freely give of what we have and do our best to bless those around us.  

But we should also learn to humbly admit that we need the gifts that Christ brings: The gifts of new life, restoration, redemption, and renewal.  Without these gifts offered to us in love, we will always struggle to be the people we long to be. 

May we take the time this Advent to reflect on what it means to humble, receive, and give.  May we surrender our lives to the One who comes to us in love to bring hope to all.  

May the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with us all, now and forever. Amen.  


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