If you say no, then how is God different than Santa Claus? And if you say yes, what is it that He demands? The difference is this: Unlike gifts received from Santa Claus, whose gifts are the end of the story, God's gifts oblige us to something further.
But what can we give to God? As Paul says " ... all things are from God, and through God, and to God, and that no one has given a gift to God first so as to oblige God to reciprocate..." Romans 11: 36.
Miroslav Volf in his book, Free of Charge, states it this way: "We cannot return benefits to God for the simple reason that everything we return to God was God's to begin with. When God gives, it's not a transfer of goods (like it is when we give a gift to a friend). We receive things from God not because God takes them from here (where God happens to be) and places them there (where we happen to be), but because God is present where we are and is continually giving to us all the things and abilities we have. To return something to God would be like pushing back to the giver the hand that gives."
Okay, my head is starting to hurt, and it feels like I am going in circles. So receiving from God obligates us to something, BUT no one can give to God who already has everything, and needs nothing, and even our very breath is from Him.
If we cannot return benefits to God, then how can obligations be attached to God's gifts to us?
Immediately after the statement by Paul in Romans 11 that all things are from God, through God, and to God, he starts Romans 12 with the following injunction: " I appeal to you therefore, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship".
Okay, then here it is: the God who gives is the God who expects a sacrifice, and the expectation of a sacrifice is grounded in the gifts received: " I appeal to you therefore....". In other words , "You've received: therefore you should present a sacrifice".
What is this sacrifice that is neither a gift nor a counter-gift to God? To what are we obliged?
There are two 'obligations' that have to do with the FACT that God is the Giver- FAITH and GRATITUDE. There are two 'obligations' that have to do with the PURPOSE for which God gives - AVAILABILITY and PARTICIPATION.
1. Faith - The first thing to which God's gifts oblige us
Faith is the way we as receivers relate appropriately to God as the giver. It is empty hands held open for God to fill. We are as beggars - holding our hands open in a posture of expectant receptivity. However, the dilemma for many of us, is that we see ourselves as achievers rather than beggars. What we fail to realize is that good works - or things we do for God - actually dishonor God. They tell a lie about God and our relation to the divine Giver, and they take away God's due.
2. Gratitude - The second thing to which God's gifts oblige us
But let's look a little closer. Here is a thought to "chew on". 'Gratitude is not a return gift but is owed in addition to that gift'. When we 'give' thanks, we impart nothing to givers. What is it then that we owe to the giver when we owe gratitude? it is similar with our gratitude toward God. Those who thank God tell the divine Giver that they appreciate the gifts received; they honor God for that.
Gratitude toward God and Faith in God are similar.
- When I have faith: I affirm explicitly that I am a recipient of God's favors, and I implicitly affirm God as the giver.
- When I am grateful, I implicitly recognize and affirm myself as a recipient of God's gifts,and I recognize and honor God explicitly as the giver.
3. Availability - The third thing to which God's gifts oblige us.
Is favor transfered when we give ourselves to the Lord? It's not. We're simply living the way God created us to live. We can't give anything back to God, not even ourselves, since we were never our own in the first place. We live and breathe and have our being in God.The most we can do is to make ourselves available for God to be used as instruments.
God the giver requires a living sacrifice, ready to do God's work in God's world. In this way then does God still 'gets' something God would otherwise not have? In a sense yes, but what God gets is precisely what God created: human beings as God's instruments. Even if our availability delights God, it is God's gift to us and to the world, not our gift to God.
We don't pursue our own purposes in the world but are ready to pursue God's. God sets the purposes and commands us to realize them; we listen to what God desires and are at hand to be at the divine Commander's service. God provides the model, and we are ready to observe and imitate.
The prayer of St Francis of Assisi says it well..... "Lord, make me an instrument..." to have this prayer answered is to be available to God.
4. Participation - The fourth thing to which God's gifts oblige us.
What happens to the flow when it reaches us?
Does it then stop, having bestowed the gift and fulfilled its purpose? if the flow were to stop, we would be only receivers, not givers. But we were created to be and act like God. And so the flow of God's gifts shouldn't stop as soon as it reaches us. The outbound movement (flow) must continue. In addition to making us flourish, giving to others is the very purpose for which God gave us the gifts. To pass them on, participating in God's gift giving is an obligation.
"I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:19-20)
Our lives are paradoxically both our own ('the life I now live') and not our own ('it is no longer I who live') but rather Christ's ('it is Christ who lives in me'). It is not just that Christ sends the goods to flow into us; Christ makes the goods flow from us as well, truly indwelling, motivating, and acting through us.