Sample text for Free of charge : giving and forgiving in a culture stripped of grace : the Archbishop's official 2006 Lent book / Miroslav Volf.
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Free of Charge
Copyright © 2005 by Miroslav Volf
Requests for information should be addressed to:
Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan 49530
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Free of Charge : giving and forgiving in a culture stripped of grace : the
Archbishop's official 2006 Lent book / Miroslav Volf.
Includes bibliographical references.
1. Generosity -- Religious aspects -- Christianity. 2. Forgiveness -- Religious
aspects -- Christianity. I. Title: Archbishop's official 2006 Lent book. II. Title.
241'.4 -- dc22
Miroslav Volf asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.
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Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Chris tian Education of the National
Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission.
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Interior design by Michelle Espinoza
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God the Giver
In The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky tells a story about
an old peasant woman, very wicked, who died without leaving a single
good deed behind. All she did, she did for herself alone, illicitly
taking what she could take and acquiring by legitimate means what
she could acquire, but not giving anything to anyone, nothing useful
or beautiful, no helpful deeds, not even a kind look. After she died,
the devil seized her and plunged her into the lake of fire. The story
So her guardian angel stood and wondered what good deed
of hers he could remember to tell to God; "She once pulled
up an onion in her garden," said he, "and gave it to a beggar
woman." And God answered: "You take that onion then, hold
it out to her in the lake, and let her take hold and be pulled
out. And if you can pull her out of the lake, let her come to
Paradise, but if the onion breaks, then the woman must stay
where she is." The angel ran to the woman and held out the
onion to her. "Come," said he, "catch hold and I'll pull you
out." He began cautiously pulling her out. He had just pulled
her right out, when the other sinners in the lake, seeing how
she was being drawn out, began catching hold of her so as
to be pulled out with her. But she was a very wicked woman
and she began kicking them. "I'm to be pulled out, not you.
It's my onion, not yours." As soon as she said that, the onion
broke. And the woman fell into the lake and she is burning
there to this day. So the angel wept and went away.1
Some may read this story naïvely, as a recipe for how to get into
paradise with minimal effort. If you do just a single good deed, God
will pull you on the slender thread of that generosity out of the lake
of fire. But the deed must be good, given to others in true generosity.
If you do it just for yourself, just to get you out of hell, the thread will
break, and you'll end up licked by flames for eternity.
If this wonderful story were a recipe for getting into paradise,
it would be a bad one. True, it would get one thing right. God, here
personified in the guardian angel, is immensely good even to the
wicked. God seeks to save them and weeps when they are desperately
stuck in their sin. But it would get the main thing wrong. It's not by
our generosity, however slender, that we are saved, at least not according
to the Chris tian tradition. We are saved by God's generosity.
But the story isn't about how to get into paradise as much as
about how to avoid hell - not the fiery lake at the end of one's life and
of the world's history, but the hell in the here and now, whose flames
are made up of greed, selfishness, cold calculation, pride, indifference,
exclusion, and many such things. No life worth living is possible
without generosity. Indeed, it is doubtful whether the tender plant of
newborn human life would even survive without generosity.
Yet from the get-go, we seem to be but one bundle of cravings
that screams for satisfaction of needs that appear to go unfulfilled
and for interests that feel threatened from all sides. That's the big
fissure in the life of human beings, individually and collectively - a
yawning gap between deep self-centeredness and true generosity.
Can we bridge the gap? We can, if we can show that in all our selfcentered
cravings, we are ultimately craving love - which is to say,
craving both to receive love and to give it. Such recognition would be
the first part of the bridge on which we could travel from the land in
which even what looks like generosity is a form of self-centeredness to
a land where generosity is our true self-interest. But how can we con-
struct such a bridge? We can't construct it using secular materials -
or at least, I haven't seen it happen so far, and I can't imagine how it
could. It takes God to make such a bridge, a God who is love, a God
who gives and forgives, a God who created human beings to find fulfillment
in love. This chapter - this book as a whole - is an attempt
to construct such a bridge, and it is an invitation to then walk from
one side to the other, from self-centeredness to generosity.
So the first and central question is, Who is God?
Library of Congress subject headings for this publication:
Generosity -- Religious aspects -- Christianity.
Forgiveness -- Religious aspects -- Christianity.