“Giving with Joy,” Liahona, Dec. 1996, 11
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, has 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 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 even close to Christmas. 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. We fixed ourselves a snack; then we talked with visitors. 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. I could see that Uncle Bill 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, 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 20 minutes.
Now, we can understand my theory best if we focus on one gift: the bottle of cherries. And let’s explain the theory from the point of view of the person who received the gift: me. That’s crucial, because what matters in what the giver does 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. Just knowing that someone had understood what I felt 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 a sacrifice?” Well, I could see the sacrifice. I knew that Aunt Catherine had canned those cherries 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 would 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 let the person who gets a gift know of the giver’s sacrifice. But only an expert can let you sense that sacrifice brings joy to the giver because it blesses the receiver.
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 we use this theory not to criticize the gifts and giving that come our way this year, but to see how often our hearts are 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-away for future Christmases.
During a religion class 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 woman 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 had said little during the term. He was older than the other students, and he was shy. He asked if he could speak, then told in a quiet voice of being a soldier in Vietnam. One day he had 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 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 would remain 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 children, you probably will someday. Can you see their faces? Can you see them somewhere, sometime, in mortal danger? Can you feel the fear in their hearts? 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 a sacrifice if you picture those children, feel their hearts, and think of the letters they will need.
There is another gift some of us may want to give that takes starting early. I saw it start once as a bishop. A student sat across 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 dad who holds the priesthood, once that student, and they have eternal hopes and peace on earth. He will probably give his family all sorts of brightly wrapped gifts, but nothing will matter quite so much as the gift he started a long time ago in my office. He felt then the needs of children he had 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 a 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 hungered, 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—December 23. He gave his great talent and his life that the gospel of Jesus Christ might be restored. My ancestors 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 to give a merry Christmas? “Freely ye have received, freely give” (Matt. 10:8).
I pray that we will freely give. I pray that we will be touched by the feelings of others, that we will give without feelings of compulsion or expectation of gain, and that we will know that sacrifice is made sweet to us when we treasure the joy it brings to another heart.