This weekend past, my family and I were recipients of an outpouring of hospitality from some longtime friends on two separate occasions. A weekend filled with swimming and sweets, conversation and coffee, fellowship and food. And both of these visits were preceded by a question we had for our hosts: What can we bring?
I perceived this common practice of bringing something with you when you have been invited to someone’s home in a new light this weekend. And I learned something about my life and my faith alongside the discovery. The lesson began in reading about something John Piper refers to as the “debtor’s ethic.”
John Piper writes, “There is an impulse in the fallen human heart-all our hearts-to forget that gratitude is a spontaneous response of joy to receiving something over and above what we paid for. When we forget this, what happens is that gratitude starts to be misused and distorted as an impulse to pay for the very thing that came to us “gratis.” This terrible moment is the birthplace of the “debtor’s ethic.””
Piper continues by describing where the debtor’s ethic takes us, “The debtor’s ethic says, “Because you have done something good for me, I feel indebted to do something good for you.” That impulse is not what gratitude was designed to produce.”
And this is where I started considering the “What can we bring?” impulse in a new light. I have no doubt whatsoever that there are many great motivations behind the desire to bring something to a host who has invited you over. No doubt. This desire often comes from the inclination to help out, and the longing to show appreciation. And those things are good! But, if I am honest, sometimes it is also generated from a sense of indebtedness towards the gracious people who have opened their homes, fridges, and lives to us. And in this sense, I think it is wrong. In fact, if bringing something with you-a salad, a bottle of wine, a dessert-comes from the desire to pay back for a kindness shown, it really isn’t an expression of gratitude at all.
When we try and pay back someone for a free gift of hospitality, we are, in Piper’s words, turning “gifts into legal currency. Subtly the gift is no longer a gift but a business transaction.” This is not the right response to hospitality that is free and unpaid for.
So, I’m going to be intentional in the future about the offer of “What can we bring?” I’m am still going to practice this; I don’t think my wife would allow anything else. But I am going to do it purposefully and attempt to check my reasons for forwarding the offer.
However, the point of this post is not really about hospitality and the proper behaviour of guests. This all points to something much bigger and much more important. The point of this post is to consider how my heart slips into the debtor’s ethic when I contemplate and consider the free gift of grace that God has blessed me with.
My response to this grace, the grace that comes to me in the gospel, should be one of gratitude for “God meant gratitude to be a spontaneous expression of pleasure in the gift and goodwill of another.” What greater gift has been given than God’s own Son? Where has glorious goodwill ever been demonstrated more profoundly than in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus for sinners such as you and me? The gospel is grace upon grace which ought to evoke gratitude which should cause a response of riotous, uninhibited praise.
But, I find my response is often not one of worship, but one characterized by an attempt to pay God back for the gift. Paying for a gift nullifies the very gift-ness of the thing that has been freely given. That is, it is not a gift if I pay for it. I agree with John Piper as he has written about this in his book Future Grace. We need to fight the fallen desire to pay God back for the free gift of eternal life through Jesus Christ. We should respond in joyful gratitude which propels persevering praise, but we should suppress and subdue any attempt to turn the free gift of God into some sort of business transaction.
I want to be a person who lives my life out of a clear understanding of grace received, not a debt owed. I want this because one is eternal life, the other is entirely impossible. I can receive God’s gift through faith in Christ, but I will never be able to pay back the debt that my sin has incurred. Whether it is for a simple but significant gesture of hospitality from a friend, or the incomprehensible glory of God’s mercy and grace in the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ, let me be the kind of person whose response is one of gratitude.