"At the very first “show and tell” of my kindergarten career, I was faced with a moment of decision. We were seated in a circle, one by one offering the class our name and our favorite color. Oddly, it seemed as though there was an unwritten rule emerging around that circle. All of the girls, without exception, were declaring unanimously that “pink” and/or “purple” was their favorite. I was new to the idea of classmates and wanted these people beside me to be my friends. But I didn’t like either of these colors. Getting more and more anxious with each passing declaration, I decided to tell the truth. “Orange and green,” I avowed incompatibly. My response was met with giggles from boys and girls alike. Yet somehow this embarrassing spectacle only sealed my affection for the obviously unloved, underdog colors.
So when I found the pitiable orange plastic day lilies in the tiny green velvet flowerpot, I knew I had to buy them. My five-year-old eyes saw the beauty in the rejected knickknack, lost on a table full of junk, bearing a tag marked twenty-five cents at a garage sale. When I got them home, I dusted off the crispy petals, proudly wrapped a ribbon around the pot, and presented the flowers triumphantly as a gift to my dad.
Twenty years later, cleaning out the belongings of my father after he had passed away, I found the unsightly plastic flora still perched upon his desk. Looking at the tacky flowers, covered again with dust, still bearing the small ribbon, I recalled the joy of finding the orange treasure, the excitement in handing over twenty-five cents to claim it as my own, and the hard decision I made to give it away. Brushing my fingers over the green velvet pot, I recalled the pleased expression on my dad’s face as he placed it on his desk and told me he would keep it there always. And then I remembered a detail in adulthood that the eyes of the child overlooked: The quarter that purchased these flowers was his own.
Christianity is often thought of as a set of principles that people struggle to follow, earning their way into God’s favor with self-denial and obedience. But this is looking at God as we might look at a gumball machine or a bank. We cannot earn our way to whatever prize we have our eye on—even if the prize we seek is God. The shiny quarters we proudly offer, belong, in fact, to God.
Indeed, in the Christian imagination every faculty we have—from our ability to think or move to our ability to praise or seek Father, Son, and Spirit—is given to us by God Himself. As the apostle Paul declared among the idols of Mars Hill, “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else” (Acts 17:24-25). We are embedded in God’s creation; we are creatures within it. We cannot escape our creaturely vocation or our creaturely end. Everything we do is fixed within this drama of creation.
As such, we cannot possibly earn our way into God’s presence, for we cannot give the maker of heaven and earth anything that is not in a sense already God’s own. “It is because of [God] that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: ‘Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.’” The tattered gifts of faith and obedience we offer were purchased with God’s own flesh and blood. As hymnist Stuart Townend has written:
How deep the Father’s love for us,
how vast beyond all measure
That He should give His only Son
to make a wretch His treasure!
How great the pain of searing loss;
the Father turns His face away,
As wounds which mar the Chosen One
bring many sons to glory.
At the time, the thought didn’t strike me at all: I borrowed a quarter from my dad to by him a present. Technically, he bought himself an ugly dust-collector. But it was nonetheless a five year-old’s sacrifice of love, and one he held onto all his life. How much more so God the Father treasures his children’s sacrifice of praise."