I read a very striking quote some time ago. It was written by Douglas Meeks. “God owns by giving.” 1Think about that for a moment. When we think about ownership, other words come to mind: possessing, taking, buying, keeping. But giving? How is that possible? In a mysterious and beautiful way, it’s possible with love. “God so loved the world that he gave . . .” And that giving made us God’s inheritance, his possession. God owns his people not by grasping them but by giving himself to them. Knowing this truth can change the way you live each day. Let’s explore how.
How the World Owns
It would help to contrast this truth with the worldly perspective on ownership. It’s common to consider ownership as the result of a transaction. Something is paid, traded, or offered freely in exchange for something else. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that basic model. It keeps the economic world turning. And yet, when we embrace that model thoughtlessly, it can bleed over into our spiritual life, polluting some of our assumptions about who God is and how he works.
How, exactly? Well, it can lead us to think that possession rather than giving is at the heart of life-that we need to chase after the things we most desire. Lack contentment? Find contentment in something, be it money, relationships, or experiences (rather than finding contentment in the person of Christ). Lack hope? Find an idea that offers momentary comfort (rather than the God of all comfort). Lack confidence? Stare at your achievements and build up your ego with positive self-talk. Whatever you need, go and find it. Take it. Carpe diem. Go get what you need. No one’s going to just give it to you. In the world, possession is a “staple” everyone’s striving after.
In one way or another, most possessions are not really possessions; they’re borrowings.
The problem is that the world is so competitive, and people are so selfish, that it’s hard to possess things. It’s hard to hold on to them. And the fact that our world is broken doesn’t help either. In one way or another, most possessions are not really possessions; they’re borrowings.
How God Owns
Note how starkly this contrasts with the nature of God. God is love (1 John 4:8), and what is the result of that love? Giving. In that verse we all memorized as children, we read, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16). We miss how revolutionary this is. What God does is bound up with who God is. Because God is love, he doesn’t seek out possession. He doesn’t take; he gives. And yet, that giving leads to possession. In Deuteronomy 32:9, it says, “the Lord’s portion is His people; Jacob is the allotment of His inheritance.” Why are God’s people his inheritance? Because God revealed himself to them. Another way of putting this is to say that God gave himself to them out of love. Because of God’s covenantal love for his people, we have become his possession, his inheritance. God owns us by giving.
How and why does this happen, specifically? There’s great mystery here, but we can at least say that the possession of persons is bound to our willful, voluntary submitting to God and his lordship. Willful, voluntary submission can’t be forced. One of my favorite images from hymns comes from Henry van Dyke’s “The Hymn of Joy.” We know it today as “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee.” There’s a line that’s impressed itself on my soul, a beautiful and spiritually potent image: “hearts unfold like flowers before thee.” Hearts like flowers. Why is that so special? It’s special because it simply and poetically represents how willful, voluntary submission happens. Flowerheads aren’t ripped open. They don’t “burst” like fireworks. They “unfold” slowly in the warm mist of grace. The more God gives, and the more we see his gifts, the more our hearts unfold.
Gentle, willful unfolding in the atmosphere of divine grace-that doesn’t sound like something from the world, does it? That’s because it isn’t. It’s from the God who made the world. That God doesn’t own by taking; he owns by giving.
What’s the takeaway for us each day? Since we’re made in the image of the God who gives, we should be giving in order for God to possess. We don’t ever possess others; that’s God’s right. But we do have the opportunity to mirror God in the world around us so that people turn their chins toward his personal love. Put differently, every time we look down, we should look up. We should stare at the nature of God in order to understand ourselves. And since God is a giver, we are too. Our days should be filled with a repeated question, How can I give myself away to someone? It can be simple. It can be giving away your time, your words, your actions, your money. There’s no limit, really. We always have the chance to give. And whenever we do, we can smile at the Godhead, who is always giving himself away.
- M. Douglas Meeks, God the Economist: The Doctrine of God and Political Economy (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1989), 115, quoted in Kelly M. Kapic, The God Who Gives: How the Trinity Shapes the Christian Story (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2018), 17, Kindle edition. Kapic earlier wrote, “As we learn to dwell in the good news of belonging to God, we will grow in the freedom to give ourselves to God and others in ways that are impossible for those who treasure their lives as their own” (p. 12).