Friday, October 05, 2007

Is "Give and Take" a valid Christian Expression?

"Let's give and take." "Our organization is a place where everyone is expected to 'give-and-take' ." These are common cliches we hear from time to time, from day to day.

Even in Christian organizations, such 'give-and-take' are unconsciously inked in the unwritten code of conduct for all employees and volunteers. The concept is simple. Sometimes I give so that you can take. Other times, the converse becomes true.

The problem I have with such give-and-take behaviour lies in the expectation that comes with it.
  • Will I be prepared to give if there is no possibility of taking back what I have given?
  • Will I take something if I am expected to give back another in kind?
  • Is it true giving when we only give to people who can afford to reciprocate our giving?

I think while the earthly practice of give-and-take remains theologically flawed, I still think that there are situations where it can still be useful. However, it should not be the first card we flash everytime, especially for Christians. If I were to put it in a chronological order, the flow goes as follows:

#1 - Take-and-Take
#2 - Give-And-Give
#3 - (if need to), Give-and Take

Here is my rationale. Firstly, we are from the start incapable of giving. We are all born as babies, desiring to be carried, wanting to be fed and clamoring frequently for attention. How can babies be asked to give? They cannot communicate or provide comfort in ways adults often expect of each other. Parents not only have to give time and attention, sometimes they need to go beyond the call of duty to make sure that ALL the needs of the baby are taken care of. Young Christians are in that kind of situation, which is one reason why Paul requests that young believers are not to be called into positions of leadership in the Church. The only person who can give us everything is God. Between God and us, we are always on the receiving end of grace. Can we give God what he already has? Second, true giving can only come with true receiving. This leads us to the next stage, a give-and-give attitude. Christ give and give. We take and take. Even today, Christ is continuing to give us wisdom and truth, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. We need to 'take-and-take' (from the Lord), so that we can 'give-and-give' to others. The less we 'take-and-take' from God, the less able we are to 'give-and-give' to one another. It is from this perspective that I think 'give-and-take' is less than the Christian ideal.

Perhaps the final stage of 'give-and-take' does apply in organizations where people have expectations of each other. I will argue that a 'give-and-take' relationship is not good in the long run. It is as unstable as a grenade, constantly needing to have 'something in return' to act as a safety catch to avoid detonation. I will further argue, that if we allow #3 (give-and-take) to dominate our thinking, our lifestyle and our expectations of one another, we will be digging our own trench of unhappiness hemming our own selves in. The gulf of the trench becomes so wide that those without the ability to 'give' to our expectations cannot cross over to meet us. Relationships will become more transactional. This transactional implication is my third argument. The problem is that human relationships get defined by one's ability to meet one another's expectations, written or unwritten. Transactions are very impersonal, as impersonal as an online book purchase from Amazon.

'Give-and-Take' is essentially a transaction of expectations. It is not to be held up as the Christian way of doing things. It works in many areas of society. It get things done. That is besides the point. It is the attitude of the heart that will put a relationship on a more durable and longer life span. Without this attitude, life gets reduced to a series of transactions and calculative behaviour. When that happens, life loses the human touch. Thankfully, Christ has shown us the way. Only Christ can restore our human touch. Let's begin with Christ in our heart and receive grace from him. The more we take-and-take from Christ, the more able we are to give-and-give to one another. Of course, When I say take-and-take, God is completely free to choose to reveal himself to us in both supernatural phenomena and through brothers and sisters like you and me. The prayer of St Anselm is a helpful prayer:

God of truth,
I ask that I may receive, so that my joy may be full.
Meanwhile, let my mind meditate on it, let my tongue speak of it,
let my heart love it, let my mouth preach it,
my flesh thirst for it, and my whole being desire it,
until I enter into the joy of my Lord,
who is God one and triune, blessed forever. Amen.
(St Anselm, Prayers and Meditations of St Anselm with the Proslogion, trans . Benedicta Ward, (London: Penguin Books, 1973), p81)

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