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The theology of giving

Interview | Author and Yale professor Miroslav Volf says generosity and forgiveness are at the root of knowing God

Issue: "Effective compassion," Sept. 2, 2006

Miroslav Volf grew up as a Pentecostal in Croatia. In college he played guitar and sang in a Christian band, but in one town young Communists beat up the band members and slashed the van's tires. And that was before the war that upended his hometown and all the Balkans. As a professor at Yale Divinity School and director of the Yale Center for Faith & Culture, he now lives in a more polite environment, one that many evangelicals view suspiciously, so it's a pleasure to see the biblical grounding of his latest book, Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace (Zondervan, 2005).

WORLD: Your book explores theological principles in a deeply personal way, so let me start out personally: You write about how infertility felt for nine years like a poison and a curse, but after you and your wife adopted your two sons you came to see infertility as "God's strange gift." How can those who also feel cursed keep God's gifts in mind?

VOLF: When we feel "cursed" our souls oscillate-we weep and rage, we beat on heaven's doors, and we sit dejected and incapacitated, wondering whether heaven has any doors or whether there even is any heaven. We look for God as source of hope, but when we turn to God we see only a dark face.

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And that is, in a sense, as it ought to be for those who believe in an all-powerful and good God while facing undisputable evil. Because we believe, we run to God for help. And strange as it may seem, because we believe we also lament and protest. For if we did not believe, there'd be nothing to protest about because we'd have no reason to expect to live in a good world.

Of infertility, we'd simply acknowledge that that's what human bodies sometimes do-they fail to produce offspring-and there would be nothing more to it except to try to fix the problem. So God is both the source of our protest and the source of our help.

So first it's OK to lament and protest, which means, second, that a "curse" can't be seen as a gift while you're in it. A curse may become a gift (or give birth to a gift), but while you're in it, it's not yet a gift. Only when the resolution comes does the "curse" reveal itself to have been a gift. That's what happened to me. When our adopted children came, infertility showed itself as a painful but welcome gift. So what those who feel cursed can do is hope in (that is, count on or expect) the goodness of God, which will, in its own time, transform our curses into gifts.

I should add that I'm not so sure all of our curses-all the curses in the world-will be transformed into gifts. The Holocaust, the Rape of Nanjing, Stalin's purges as gifts!? Something in me rebels at the mere thought of that idea. As a Christian, I live with the pain of these incredible wounds and with hope for a new world without them.

WORLD: You write that God's gifts themselves oblige us to give freely to others, and that God's commands reinforce that obligation in a way that allows the constraint to work for beauty and delight. How does the Bible offer liberty in giving by providing order?

VOLF: The big issue behind your question is the proper understanding of freedom. Our Western culture, especially I'd say our American culture, is all about freedom. But what does it mean to be really free? It does not mean simply having choices and living as you please. It does mean living with every fiber of your being, including your will, in sync with who God created you to be.

Freedom isn't just a matter of will; it's a matter of being. And that's where certain forms of constraint of freedom can legitimately come in. Why? Because our desires are often not in sync with who we truly are as creatures of God. Unconstrained, we work against ourselves and generate our own slavery-sometimes even pleasant slavery for a while, but slavery nonetheless-as those addicted to drugs, pornography, gambling, or anything else will attest.

When God commands us sinners how to live, we experience God's commands as constraint. But what the commands really do is simply tell us what it means to live in sync with ourselves as God's creatures. In the world to come, when we've been made thoroughly good, the content of God's Law will remain unchanged. We just won't experience it as constraint, because we'll do spontaneously precisely what God's commands tell us to do. Then we'll be truly free. The command to give nudges us, reluctantly generous sinners that we are, to be joyful and free givers.

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