“Thanks be to God for his unspeakable gift!”
2 Corinthians 9:15
Japan is a culture of gift-giving. The list of occasions for the giving of gifts runs long, from the custom of bringing a gift for your host when invited into their home, to the custom of bringing お土産 (souvenirs) back for family, friends and co-workers after traveling, to the exchange of extravagant monetary gifts at weddings.
This last one in particular may surprise you: Depending on your relationship to the bride or the groom, you may be expected to bring anywhere from several hundred to a thousand dollars in cash for the new couple! Even more fascinating is that the bride and groom are in turn expected to pay back half of the money they received from you, when sending “thank-you” cards.
Japan is a culture of gift-giving. But it is not a culture of gift-receiving. Every gift given carries the unwritten expectation of somehow paying the giver back, no matter how grand the gift. And indeed, most gifts can be repaid on some level.
However, what happens when a gift cannot be repaid? This is, in fact, a very real obstacle to the spread of the Gospel in Japan. Various translations of the Bible use the adjectives“unspeakable”,“indescribable” or “inexpressible” to refer to God’s giving of His only son to die for our sins. In Jesus, we receive a gift that cannot be quantified; a gift without a price tag; a gift impossible to repay. For a culture insistent upon parity in the exchange of gifts, this is not only difficult to swallow, but perhaps even repugnant.
America may not have the same strict gifting etiquette that Japan has, and our visceral reaction to the gift of grace may not be quite so strong, but are our hearts really so different?
How do we respond to the Unspeakable Gift? Do we insist on trying to be more deserving of it, as though this were within our power? Do we harden our hearts because we would rather not receive something we cannot repay? Or, do we acknowledge that we are wholly undeserving and accept the Gift as we are, knowing that it will transform our hearts?
In a season often characterized by gifts under the tree, there may be no greater object lesson than this. Let us turn our eyes to the Gift who hung on the tree so that we might live. Regardless of our culture, may we receive this Gift humbly, responding with gratitude and joy unending!