When I was 8 years old, all I wanted for Christmas was a scooter. I had dreams of flying through the neighborhood on my brand new wheels, casually slowing down by pressing my back foot on the break. I even imagined doing a few tricks.
On Christmas morning, I received exactly what I wanted. I waited impatiently for the rest of my family to finish their gift-giving, resisting the urge to start scooting around the house. At that moment, it was the best Christmas ever.
When the wrapping paper scraps were all cleaned up, I went to our garage. As I pressed the button and the door started opening, I could hear a whirring noise and the other neighborhood children shouting with glee. The tension continued building.
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Finally, I could see why everyone was so excited: they had received electric scooters for Christmas. I took my little scooter and tried to keep up with them as they rode around the cul-de-sac, but it was to no avail. My little 8-year-old foot simply could not keep up with the electric motors. Suddenly, in the span of about two minutes, the best gift ever became the bane of my 8-year-old existence.
There is a lesson in here about gratitude that my parents lovingly tried to emphasize. But when it came down to it, the gift that I had received became one more reminder that I did not measure up to the other kids and that I was not good enough.
Even writing about this story, I remember those feelings, and they once again become fresh. Mostly, I remember them well because that was not the only time in my life when I have felt that same disappointment.
Throughout my life, I have asked God for various gifts. The greatest gift that God has ever given me was the three years that I spent in formation for religious life, living in a convent and preparing to become a nun. It was a time when I knew that God was real, when I felt like I belonged and I was completely fulfilled knowing my purpose in life. I spent my days praying and joyfully serving him.
And yet, even that came to an end.
Gifts can be powerful reminders of the love of God. But when what God gives us does not line up with our expectations, they can also be very real challenges in learning how to trust him.
The book of Job is the classic story of suffering. When Job receives the news that his children have just died, he tears his robes in anguish. He follows it up by saying, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord!” (Job 1:21).
“Blessed be the name of the Lord” is not a platitude. It is not something that we are simply supposed to say and pretend like that makes everything better. No, when we are hurting, saying “Blessed be the name of the Lord” is a statement of conviction and of trust. We are saying, “Thank you, God, for not giving me the gift I had hoped for.”
Now, that is a tough one. How can we really be grateful when God does not give us what we had hoped for?
There are a few ways that we might try to make sense of God giving us gifts that are difficult to bear. One might be a platitude that says that God is just waiting to give us something better. Another could be trying to convince ourselves that something bad would have happened if we received what we had hoped for.
I don’t think Job was comforted by platitudes when his children died, though. And I wasn’t either when I realized that God was asking me to give up the single greatest thing that he had ever given me by leaving the convent.
What was comforting was saying over and over again, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord!”
It can be a temptation to frame gifts from God as always making our lives easier or adding some small pleasure as we go about our day. In reality, the gifts that God gives us lead us to praise him not only on this earth but for all eternity in heaven. That is the ultimate gift.
It might not make us feel great; in fact, it may be painful as his gifts purify our hearts and our lives of any obstacles that are in the way of receiving his abundant love.
The Lord gives. He gives love, he gives mercy, he gives his own life.
The Lord takes away. He takes away sin, he takes away death.
Blessed be the name of the Lord.