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The Present You Want Is Not the Gift You Need

February 23, 2021


Some time ago, in the feverish throes of buying a book for a good friend’s birthday, I had an epiphany. Wrapping the book in colored paper and neatly nestling it in the gift bag, my wife asked me what I had purchased. After naming the book and smiling at my own thoughtfulness, my wife quipped, “Ah. You bought him a gift, not a present.” Momentarily flummoxed, I had to ask her what she meant. “Well,” she explained, “a gift is something you want them to have; a present is something they actually want.”

Well, who knew there was a difference? Not Merriam-Webster, whom I quickly consulted in my defense. Nonetheless, my wife’s sentiment has always stuck with me.

I have discovered that I spend a lot of time asking God for presents, while deflecting his many gifts. “Would you do this for me?” I implore. “Here is what I want,” I insist. “Clearly, this is what I am supposed to do, so will you expedite it for me?” I reason. For some odd reason when it comes to what is best for me, I am convinced that I am all-wise and all-knowing. “Gimme these presents, God,” I gingerly demand. Gimme, gimme, gimme.

Only, this is not the way God operates. God is interested in what is best for us even when it runs counter to what we think is best for ourselves. And we know a thing or two about this, don’t we? We don’t let our young children eat whatever they want, go to bed at a time of their choosing, and talk in whatever tone they feel best edifies their point. We also don’t casually allow our teenagers to use drugs, drive at breakneck speeds, or ignore curfew when they are having a grand old time. Do our children lack the understanding that, during their formation, we may know what is best for them? Perhaps. But they—like us—are creatures in possession of free will and appetite who reason that they, in fact, are right. “This,” they argue, “is the way I want it. This is the way it should be.” Like me at times, they are prone to say, “Gimme, gimme, gimme.” They want my presents (the things they themselves want) more than my gifts (the things I want them to have).

God loves us infinitely (dwarfing even the endless love we have for our own children), and he wants what is best for us. And so he must form us. The tricky thing about formation is that, as smart as I think I am, I cannot form myself. I once heard a gentleman say, “There are known knowns. There are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” Our path of holiness, from heights of pure sublimity to depths of dark suffering, is littered with “unknown unknowns.” Left to my own navigation, I am forever wayward; I want what feels good and what will grant me good advantage on my own terms. But that, my friends, is not the path to holiness. I simply don’t always know or want what is best for me, so I need God to help me understand or to foster my faith when I can’t understand. I must be open to God’s formation. I must open myself to God’s gifts.

This Lent, in the midst of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, I am reminded of the need to discern the difference between presents and gifts, between what I want and what I need. And I am assured that, in the midst of my modest suffering and privation, what I once insisted was necessary wasn’t so necessary after all, and what I received from God instead was not only good enough, but was perfect in his plan.

So what does it take for us accept the gifts God gives in our lives? First, we must love God. As the Source of the true, the good, and the beautiful, we should follow the advice of G.K. Chesterton to “let your religion be less of a theory and more of a love affair.” Second, we must trust. As Fr. Cavanaugh told the despondent Rudy in the movie of the same name, “Son, in thirty-five years of religious study, I’ve come up with only two hard, incontrovertible facts; there is a God, and I’m not Him.” Finally, we must be humble and open before God so we may hear ourselves called, as Parker Palmer writes, “to be the [people we were] born to be, to fulfill the original selfhood given [us] at birth by God.”

Initially, my wife’s insight about gifts and presents rankled me. After all, the book I bought my friend was perfect for him (at least that’s what I told myself). But God’s gifts, however unexpected or even undesired, are perfect. Because they are given out of the pure and unadulterated love of a Father to his child. It is now up to us, as Fr. James Schall would say, “to leave space for gifts” and return God’s love with faith and gratitude.