Children often struggle with being fickle and indecisive when receiving or shopping for a gift. Those who’ve witnessed that awkward, anti-climactic moment when a child is clearly unimpressed by some gift they’ve just been given know the gut-wrenching desire that the unfortunate moment would pass quickly.
One of the hallmarks of adolescence is an inability to discern the true, objective value of one thing in comparison to another. What glitters in the eyes of a child today becomes rubbish tomorrow. For children, the investment that originally secured the object for them is of little concern.
Christmas and birthdays are a prime time to observe this phenomenon. A child unwraps a gift like a tornado ripping through the aluminum siding of a mobile home, plays with it momentarily, and then drops it in hot pursuit of the next big thing.
Unaware that material goods offer only a fleeting, momentary satisfaction, children convince themselves that happiness will be found in the next best gift. They have not yet learned that discontentment produces only sadness and disappointment. The things of this world are surely passing away (1 Jn. 2:17).
A parent’s dismay at their child’s struggle with idolatry is short-lived, however, when they hear Paul say, “Such were some of you” (1 Cor. 6:11). We are not entirely unlike our little ones, as we’ll soon learn.
A History of Gift Exchange
As adults, we carry on a legacy of gift exchange that works in our hearts like an almost unstoppable force. The next big thing tempts us in much the same way that we see our children enticed by things that glitter. An example of this might be the ensuing fervor that occurs whenever the latest smartphone or luxury car hits the marketplace.
Many people today sit at the counseling table or in discipleship meetings brokenhearted over what amounts to the inability of their functional gods to make good on false promises (Deut. 4:28).
In biblical counseling, we refer to this as spiritual or circumstantial sadness and depression. It’s different from a sadness that’s rooted in biology, but it’s no less real. It doesn’t originate in the brain, as much as in the heart. In a materialistic culture, it’s all too common—even for those in the church.
Ruling desires of the heart not aligned with Scripture lead us into the restlessness of which Augustine warned: You made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it finds its place of rest in you. Humans were created for worship. Indeed, something or someone will always occupy the throne of man’s heart. For this and other reasons, we are instructed to guard our hearts—the wellspring of life (Prov. 4:23).
We fail to guard our hearts, however, when we seek wholeness in career, fulfillment in marriage, happiness in education, comfort in the praises of men, or ultimate rest in recreation. Instead, we risk further estrangement from the God who created us and who now offers us fullness of joy in relationship with him when we continue seeking to exchange what we cannot lose for what we cannot keep (Ps. 16:11).
God the Father is indeed the Giver of all good gifts, such as those listed above, but when we exchange the pleasure of knowing the Giver for the gratification of merely possessing the gift, we reveal the true condition of our heart.
We say, in effect, God may be good, but there must be something better.
A Gift Exchanged for a Curse
Our propensity toward dissatisfaction begins in the garden with Adam exchanging the unspeakable joy of covenant communion with God for the false hope of becoming like God (Gen. 3:5). The horror of Adam’s deception was that he was already like God. Adam was the unique recipient of God’s immortal image and was the pinnacle of God’s creation (Gen. 1:26).
The greatest gift given to Adam at the beginning of human history was not “free will,” but the privilege of being God’s image-bearing vice regent over all the earth. God had already loved Adam, but Adam would ask God, in effect, “How have you loved me?” (Mal. 1:2).
By exchanging the divine gift, that is, his covenantal relationship with God in the garden, what Adam received was not blessing but curse. Not higher freedom but slavery. Not life but death. Not the truth but a lie. Not a deeper faith but unbelief.
Adam believed, in a way similar to an immature child, that he would find in the creation something better than the good gift he already possessed in God. The fruit of this is that we inherit this tragedy from Adam—the curse of sin and death along with a fundamental nature that is altogether different from Adam’s original state (Gen. 2:17; Ps. 51:5).
We continue making Adam’s fatal exchange each time we reject God’s good gift of communion with him in favor of lustful desires for something better in the world. Like Adam, we attempt to seek in the creation what can only be found in God. Like fickle children, only sadness and disappointment await us when we seek to exchange this toy for that toy.
It was C.S. Lewis who wrote in “The Weight of Glory”:
It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.
A Biblical Exchange Policy
It used to be that stores would not exchange a gift without a receipt and certainly not after it had been opened or beyond thirty days. Store policies have changed over the years, so much so that shoppers are encouraged to read the fine print on any gift receipt. Shoppers are warned to not lose their receipt or attempt the return of items not purchased at the same store.
Thankfully, the story of the gospel, in both its diagnosis of man’s condition and prescription for redemption and restoration, has never been altered or amended.
This biblical exchange policy, though strict, is incredibly gracious to the returning customer (man) who offers an item (sin) that did not originate with the storeowner (God). Even more outlandish is that the customer seeks an item in exchange for their sin and sadness to which they can lay no claim—the righteousness of Christ and eternal life in him (Jn. 3:16).
The scandal of this policy is the storeowner’s perfect and just willingness to allow and even make provision for this outrageous exchange. Concerning this transaction, Paul writes:
“He made the one who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God in [Christ]” —2 Corinthians 5:21 HCSB
Unlike children who are bound for eventual sadness and disappointment when the newness of something better wears off, those who receive the miracle of this Great Exchange will never tire of restored peace and fellowship with the author and finisher of their faith (Heb. 12:2).
To be sure, shadows of happiness and pleasure are evident in the world, but shadows do not fill the soul. Produced by that which moth and rust destroy, they leave the heart restless and empty (Matt. 6:19). By contrast, the “holiday at the sea” Lewis alluded to was secured by Jesus for Christians when he traded places with them on the cross.
Writing of this glorious truth, authors Jerry Bridges and Bob Bevington write:
In this Great Exchange, we find ourselves arriving at God himself. . . . Far from being slaves, we are now God-esteemed sons of God and Christ-esteemed brothers of Christ. . . . What can this inheritance mean? What blessing can be excluded? What a reward, what grace, what a God, what a Christ, what a Gospel!
An Exchange Worth Making
Much of what passes as clinical depression today is discovered to be situational rather than biological. Some significant percentage of those cases, once the layers are pulled back, are driven by unruly desires of the heart. Satisfaction and contentment in Christ alone have been exchanged for whatever fills the lust of the eyes, the lust of the flesh, and the pride of life (1 Jn. 2:16).
The good news is that despite our great folly when this is the case, God offers hope for prodigals who exchange their birthright for a bowl of soup or who spent their future inheritance on immediate pleasures only to find themselves wallowing in a pig’s pen.
As the Prodigal Son of Luke 15 learned, let us be convinced of our need for repentance and faith in the face of our own misguided exchanges and let us run with confidence back to our heavenly Father who waits for us and stands ready to exchange our soiled garments for a robe of righteousness and our earthly trinkets for eternal treasure.