“Giving with Joy,” Ensign, Dec. 1982, 9
I’ve always had a daydream of being a great gift-giver. I can picture someone opening my gift with tears of joy and a smile, showing that the giving, not just the gift, had touched a heart. Others must have that dream, too, and many are likely already experts in gift-giving. But even the experts may share some of my curiosity about what makes a gift great.
I’ve been surrounded by expert gift-givers all my life. None of them has ever told me how to do it, but I’ve been watching and I’ve been building a theory. My theory comes from thinking about many gifts and many holidays, but one day and one gift can illustrate it.
The day was not Christmas, or even close to it. It was a summer day. My mother died in the early afternoon. My father, my brother, and I had gone from the hospital to our family home, just the three of us. Friends and family came to the house, and went. In a lull, we fixed ourselves a snack; then we visited with more callers. It grew late, dusk fell, and I remember we still had not turned on the lights.
Dad answered the doorbell. It was Aunt Catherine and Uncle Bill. When they’d walked just a few feet past the vestibule, Uncle Bill extended his hand and I could see that he was holding a bottle of cherries. I can still see the deep-red, almost purple, cherries and the shiny gold cap on the jar. He said, “You might enjoy these. You probably haven’t had dessert.”
We hadn’t. The three of us sat around the kitchen table, and put some cherries in bowls, and ate them as Uncle Bill and Aunt Catherine cleared some dishes. Uncle Bill asked, “Are there people you haven’t had time to call? Just give me some names and I’ll do it.” We mentioned a few relatives who would want to know of mother’s death. And then Aunt Catherine and Uncle Bill were gone. They could not have been with us more than twenty minutes.
Now, we can understand my theory best if we focus on one gift: the bottle of cherries. And let’s explain our theory from the point of view of the person who received the gift: me. That’s crucial, because what matters in giving is what the receiver feels.
As nearly as I can tell, the giving and receiving of a great gift always has three parts. Here they are, illustrated by that gift on a summer evening.
First, I knew that Uncle Bill and Aunt Catherine had felt what I was feeling and had been touched. I’m not over the thrill of that yet. They must have felt we’d be too tired to fix much food. They must have felt that a bowl of home-canned cherries would make us feel, for a moment, like a family again. And they felt what I felt. Just knowing that someone had understood meant far more to me than the cherries themselves. I can’t remember the taste of the cherries, but I remember that someone knew my heart and cared.
Second, I felt that the gift was free. I knew Uncle Bill and Aunt Catherine had chosen freely to bring a gift. They weren’t doing it to compel a response from me; the gift seemed to provide them joy in the giving.
And third, there was an element of sacrifice. Someone might say, “But how could they give for the joy of it and yet make sacrifice?” Well, I could see the sacrifice. I knew, from the cherries being home-bottled, that Aunt Catherine had made them for her family. They must have liked cherries. But she took that possible pleasure from them and gave it to me. That’s sacrifice. But I have realized since then this marvelous fact: It must have seemed to Uncle Bill and Aunt Catherine that they’d have more pleasure if I had the cherries than if they did. There was sacrifice, but it was made for a greater return to them—my happiness. Anyone can feel deprived as they sacrifice, and then let the person who gets a gift know it. But only an expert can let you sense that his sacrifice brings him joy because it blesses you.
Well, there is my theory. Great gift-giving involves three things: you feel what the other feels; you give freely; and you count sacrifice a bargain.
Now, it won’t be easy to use this theory to make great strides in our gift-giving this Christmas. It will take some practice, more than one holiday, to learn how to be touched by what’s inside others. And giving freely and counting sacrifice as joy, will take a while. But we could at least start this Christmas being a good receiver. We have the power to make others great gift-givers by what we notice. We can make any gift better by what we choose to see—and we can, by failing to notice, make any gift a failure. Gift giving takes a giver and a receiver. I hope no one uses this theory to criticize the gifts and giving that come his way this year, but to see how often his heart is understood and how often gifts are given joyfully, even with sacrifice.
Still, there is something we could do this Christmas to start becoming better gift-givers. We could begin to put some gifts—great gifts—on lay-a-way for future Christmases. I remember a religion class I taught once at Ricks College. I was teaching from section 25 of the Doctrine and Covenants, in which Emma Smith is told she should give her time “to writing, and to learning much.” (D&C 25:8.) About three rows back in the class sat a blond girl whose brow wrinkled as I urged diligence in developing writing skills. She raised her hand and said, “That doesn’t seem reasonable to me. All I’ll ever write are letters to my children.” That brought laughter.
Then a young man stood up, near the back. He’d said little during the term. He was older than the other students, and shy. He asked if he could speak, then told in a quiet voice of being a soldier in Vietnam. In what he thought would be a lull, he’d left his rifle and walked across his fortified compound to mail call. Just as he got a letter in his hand, he heard a bugle blow and shouts and mortar and rifle fire coming in ahead of the swarming enemy. He fought his way back to his rifle, using his hands as weapons. With the men who survived, he drove the enemy out. The wounded were evacuated. Then he sat down among the living, and some of the dead, and opened the letter.
It was from his mother. She wrote that she’d had a spiritual experience that assured her he would live to come home, if he were righteous. To my class, the boy said quietly, “That letter was scripture to me. I kept it.” And he sat down.
If you do not now have a child, you probably will someday. Can you see his face? Can you see him somewhere, sometime, in mortal danger? Can you feel the fear in his heart? Would you like to freely give? What sacrifice will it take to write the letter your heart will want to send? You won’t be able to make that sacrifice in the hour before the postman comes. Nor will it be possible in a day or even a week. It may take years, but you can start preparing now. One good way is to keep a journal. And it won’t seem like sacrifice if when you write in your journal you picture that child, feel his heart, and think of the letters he’ll need.
There is another gift some of us may want to give that takes starting early. I saw it start once. A student sat across my bishop’s desk from me and talked about mistakes he had made. He talked about how much he wanted the children he might have someday to have a dad who could use his priesthood and to whom they were sealed forever. He said he knew that the price and pain of repentance might be great. And then he said what I will not forget: “Bishop, I am coming back. I will do whatever it takes. I am coming back.” He felt sorrow; he had faith in Christ. And still it took months of painful effort.
But somewhere this Christmas there is a family with a priesthood dad, once that student, and they have eternal hopes and peace on earth. He’ll probably give his family all sorts of gifts wrapped brightly; but nothing will matter quite so much as the one he started a long time ago in my office, and has never stopped giving. He felt then the needs of children he’d only dreamed of—and he gave early, and freely. He sacrificed his pride and sloth and numbed feelings. I am sure it doesn’t seem like sacrifice now.
He could give that gift because of other gifts given long ago. God the Father gave his Son, and Jesus Christ gave us the Atonement, gifts of unfathomable depth and value for us.
Jesus gave his gift freely, willingly to us all. He said, “Therefore doth my Father love me, because I lay down my life, that I might take it again.
“No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself.” (John 10:17–18.)
I bear testimony that as we accept that gift, given through infinite sacrifice, it brings joy to the giver. Jesus taught, “I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance.” (Luke 15:7.)
If that warms you as it does me, you may well want to give a gift to the Savior. But he seems to have everything, doesn’t he? Well, not quite. He doesn’t have all of us with him again, forever—not yet. I hope we are touched enough by the feelings of his heart to sense how much he wants to know each of us is coming home to him. We can’t give that gift to him in one day, or in one Christmas. But we could show him today that we are on the way.
If we have already done that, there is still something left to give. All around us are people he loves, and he wants to help them—through us.
One of the sure signs of a person who has accepted the gift of the Savior’s atonement is a willingness to give. The process of cleansing our lives seems to make us more sensitive, more generous, more pleased to share what means so much to us. I suppose that’s why the Savior used an example of gift-giving in describing who would finally come home to him:
“Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:
“For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:
“Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. …
“Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” (Matt. 25:34–36, 40.)
And that, I suppose, is the nicest effect of receiving great gifts: it makes us want to give, and give well. I’ve been blessed all my life by such gifts. I acknowledge that.
Many of those gifts were given long ago. We’re near the birthday of the Prophet Joseph Smith. He gave his great talent and his life that the gospel of Jesus Christ might be restored. Ancestors of mine from Switzerland and Germany and Yorkshire and Wales left home and familiar ways to embrace the restored gospel—as much, perhaps more, for me as for them.
And so what shall we do to appreciate and give a merry Christmas? “Freely ye have received, freely give.” (Matt. 10:8.)
I hope that each of us this Christmas season will be touched by the feelings of others and give freely, without compulsion or expectation of gain. I hope we experience the joy of sacrifice, of giving something of ourselves. If we do so, we will learn this final lesson about giving—that those gifts are truly great which are given simply for the joy they bring to another heart.
After reading “Giving with Joy” individually or as a family, you may wish to discuss some of the following questions during a gospel study period:
1. Describe a gift you have received that has had special meaning in your life. Why did that gift have such significance?
2. Keeping in mind the author’s concept of giving, what are some things you and/or your family can do to make your gift-giving a more spiritual experience?
3. Is there an individual or a family in your ward or branch who could be blessed by your gift-giving? Discuss ways to give that will bring joy to both giver and receiver.
4. Silently determine what gifts of repentance and forgiveness you can give this Christmas.