A long red envelope — subtle enough for a hundred-dollar bill to feel extravagant, but extravagant enough for even a single dollar bill to feel elevated. If you’ve ever received one, you know. It’s a thing of elegance and expectation. The red envelope’s edges are crisp and, if adorned, exquisite. The flap is sealed, and until the moment it’s delivered to the recipient, the hongbao is kept carefully and pristinely tucked away.
Like all Chinese children, I learned to anticipate the hongbao.
But there are rules:
- Red envelopes are given at Chinese New Year, weddings, or special celebrations and are only given by someone older and in authority.
- Only crisp, new bills, no crinkly money or coins from your wallet, may go in the envelope.
- Envelopes must be red for good luck.
- Oh — and don’t give bills in quantities that include the number four because four in Mandarin sounds like the word for “death.” And death is unlucky.
- And no odd numbers, just even please. Because odd numbers are unlucky.
And there’s etiquette:
- Never open a hongbao in front of the presenter.
- Decline the gift at first before receiving it.
- Receive it with both hands, and children should bow.
- And if it’s the Lunar New Year, don’t forget to say, “Gong xi fa cai.”
I found the tradition fascinating, but I didn’t love the way I felt in the exchange — an exchange that isn’t unique to the red envelope but that anyone at any Christmas morning, birthday dinner, or graduation party might experience. You may even experience it virtually when given a shout-out on social media. It’s the tension between worthiness and unworthiness. Gratitude and guilt. Met or unmet expectations. It’s the tension of wondering where affection ends and obligation begins.
Formalities and rules don’t ensure love, assurance, or gratitude (and I think love, assurance, or gratitude are what we are looking for in giving and receiving gifts); they simply facilitate expectations and how to meet them.
Like a red envelope that silently signals an orchestrated dance of honor and respect, expectations and qualification, I wonder if we are sometimes tempted to view the gift of grace — from God — as a ritual of forced etiquette within an unspoken exchange that determines and secures worthiness.
Ritual can feel reverent, but without relationship, assurance is fleeting and love is questionable.
Have we mistakenly imposed a set of rules for receiving the gift of God, hoping to contain all that is infinitely mysterious and impossibly difficult about fully grasping redeeming grace — the ultimate gift of God?
And then we wonder, after following all the tidy rules and self-made standards:
Is this as good as it gets?
I’m here to tell you no — it’s not.
Here’s what I know about God’s gift of grace:
- We didn’t deserve it and did nothing to merit His favor toward us.
But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ. — Ephesians 2:4-5
- God pursued us with love and intention to pull us out of the sinkhole of misery and self-sufficiency, and He made us fit to be with Jesus through Jesus.
By grace you have been saved — and raised us up with Him and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages He might show the immeasurable riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. — Ephesians 2:5-7
- He made it abundantly clear that it was His idea, His provision, His way, and His gift.
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. — Ephesians 2:8-9
God eliminates the tension of His gift by pronouncing us as unworthy to begin with and by declaring, with tremendous clarity, that His rescue was motivated by mercy and love. We don’t have to question His motivation. God’s only obligation was to His own holiness; His love for us did not have to end for His obligation to justice to begin. Both were met in the Cross of Christ.
What if we didn’t skip over this passage from Ephesians 2 but sat with it, thought on it, let it sweep over us with truth that we didn’t dismiss as impractical doctrine?
Friend, I wonder if this is why some of us keep limping along in our walks with God, struggling to know where we stand. Is this why so many of us struggle to feel freedom rather than obligation in our relationships with God? Why some still think to be a Christ follower is to follow rules?
For so long I looked at the gift of God like the gift that came with rules and etiquette. Him, bearing down with His authority, requiring proper etiquette and a perfect two-handed, bowing reception. Me, wondering if God really loved me or if this gift was but an obligation or a display of His expectations for my good behavior. It was all rather me-centered. And it turns out, a me-centered view of anything, including one’s theology, is the lens through which we end up seeing the skewed ideas of never enough and forever needing self-improvement.
All I ever really wanted — what anyone really wants — is to be worthy of a gift that comes with no strings attached. After all, a gift with an invoice due upon receipt is no gift at all.
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Excerpted with permission from When Strivings Cease by Ruth Chou Simons, copyright Ruth Chou Simons.
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Do you feel freedom in your relationship with God? Obligation? Do you sense an expectation to perform perfectly? Follow the rules? What if that isn’t what relationship with Him is really all about? Come share your thoughts. We want to hear from you!