All truly great gifts are hideous. Which outs all of us who give such nice, polite, beautiful gifts as truly selfish and self-absorbed gifters. We give gifts that make sense to us. We give gifts that we think the person ought to have. This is why giving cash is so despised by the givers. How often have you heard someone recoil at the suggestion of giving a cash gift with the retort, “If I give them cash they won’t spend it on something they want!” Meaning, they will spend it on groceries or gas or shoes for their kids. So instead we give them things that we think they should want, not things we know they need. Or we give them a gift card, magnanimously affording them an ever so slight degree of freedom of choice. They can choose what dish they want from the menu, but they will eat at the restaurant of our choosing; that much is certain! Of course, husbands have perfected the art of the selfish gift: Nothing says, “Honey, I love me!” quite like a bouquet of lingerie and tickets to the football game, with a gift card to the fat camp.
Great gifts are hideous because they are needed. Needing something is weak and weakness is embarrassing. When you give someone something that embarresses them, it is offensive. So we give people things they don’t really need. Maybe we give them things they can really use, but not things they really need. John Gerstner explained a gift that we need as receiving a beautifully wrapped Christmas gift that, when you unwrap it, you find a very large bottle of mouthwash. Gifts that we need are offensive like that, which is why we don’t give them. We gift around the bush. However, the only way to get something you really, really need is to embrace the offense. If you can’t handle being offended you will never get what you really need; at best you will get what you really want.
Getting what you want might sound splendid, but it is never everything you hoped; and often it becomes everything you hate. There is also a dark side to being given what you want. Conmen and cult leaders and narcissists give people what they want as a means of holding sway over them. And people will continue to go along with it so long as they feel they are getting a little more than they are being asked to give up in return. What they don’t realize is that what they are getting is little more than the satiation of their lust and what they are giving up is real, tangible value. These charlatans trade compliments for value. In the end, you have gotten everything you want and nothing you need. Whereas, people who love you might not ever provide you with what you want but they will offer you what you need, and that stings. They tell you the truth while the snake-oil salesmen tell you what you want to hear. But don’t fall into the trap of thinking that avoiding being deceived is as simple as being suspicious of compliments and flattery. No. These hucksters are far more sophisticated than that. They are experts at identifying the most bitter pill you want to swallow and wrapping that up in feigned concern for the truth. When you take their medicine, you get to feel noble and honest, even though, deep down, it is neither. They offer an insidious version of the Pharisees self-righteous prayer: They bring you to whole-hearted conviction and tearful repentance, of someone else’s sins. Deep down you delight in knowing those really aren’t yours, but it feels so good to repent of being so vicariously bad. It is far more offensive to be confronted with the little sins you actually are guilty of than it is to cop to huge sins that you don’t actually commit.
Accepting a gift that we need requires us to want what we don’t want. It means to mortify our desires and acknowledge our true self as seen through the eyes of another. Jesus offers the most hideous of all such gifts. He offers a gift that implies abject weakness. If he offered you crutches or a wheelchair you could at least infer that he saw some strength, some dignity in you; enough to pull yourself along, even if it were assisted. But he offers you a cross and a grave… occupied by another in your place. You aren’t even capable of hanging on it or lying in it. Everyone else is holding out the things you want. Beautiful gifts. Polite gifts. Nice gifts. They offer you new clothes, fancy shoes, and expensive trips. Jesus offers you his blood and his flesh. They extend praise, comfort, and safety. He holds out rejection, dishonor, and death. It is no wonder that most people recoil at the gospel. It is a great offense because it is the gift we most need. The offense of the gospel doesn’t have anything to do with Jesus, it is offensive because of what it says about us. And we know that what is says is true and that what it offers is precisely what we need; but we do not want to admit it, not even to ourselves. It pierces too deep; all the way down to dividing the soul and spirit and discerning the thoughts and intents.