They say life doesn’t come with an instruction manual. But we can discover some instructions if we understand it’s a present and we apply by analogy what we know we must do with presents.
Indeed, everything’s a present. God gives us, first of all, life and salvation, but in addition to that, He doesn’t cease to pamper us: not only He offers to us a series of spectacular presents in His Church (the Bible, the sacraments, the Virgin and the saints…) but He’s also constantly giving us personal presents in our life, both spiritual and earthly ones. How should we act in regards to the presents of God?
Don’t be sad
One doesn’t get sad when he’s given a present. Even less if it’s a very good present, and moreover it’s from a person that loves us a lot and has put all his love to choose it for us. There was a time when I used to feel bad about feeling good, guilty about enjoying things. I believed the only purpose of good things was rejecting them in order to be more disciplined. However, this attitude has little to do with the true spirit of detachment, and rather turns into an insolence towards He who wants to give us the presents.
It doesn’t make sense either to think that receiving little good things is a sign that big bad things are going to happen later. We must tackle each day with a gratitude mindset, accepting with joy everything we receive. God rejoices seeing us rejoice with His gifts.
Don’t abuse them
The previous point doesn’t mean we can do whatever we want with the present. We must use it in the way it’s intended for. For example, if we’re given a kitchen knife, we mustn’t go kill someone with it. That would be bad for others (the victim), for yourself (because you harm your soul) and for the one who gave you the present, who would feel deeply upset. That’s what happens when we abuse God’s gifts and we don’t use them for what they’re planned for, but to satisfy bad passions.
Ask Him how to use them
Sometimes we may not be clear about how to use a present correctly in order to enjoy it and not abuse it. It’s like if someone gives you a complicated electronic machine and you try to assemble it by yourself without knowing a thing about it: it might work, but more likely it won’t or you might even start a fire. Whereas if the person that has given you the present is an expert on that, the most logical thing is to ask him to help you.
When it comes to the presents of God, a great part of the answers are already in the Bible and documents such as the Catechism. Don’t tire yourself out asking Him things that have already been answered to try to get a different answer for yourself. For more specific doubts, a lot of prayer (and if possible, the guide of a spiritual director).
Use them with Him
It would be so rude to take a present from the hands of the person who’s brought it, not even say thank you, open it and start playing with it without never remembering it was a present. But that’s what we do a lot of times to God. Something good comes, we grab it, we celebrate it, and we leave Him out. Invite Him in your joy too. God doesn’t only want to be with you supporting you in your bad moments, but as a good friend, He’s going to be there in those ones, but He also wants to share the good ones with you. And then your joy will be multiplied.
Presents vs prizes
A prize is a direct consequence of something good we’ve accomplished. A present, however, has more to do with the person who gives it than with the one who receives it: it’s a gesture by which the first expresses his love. That doesn’t mean that the one who receives it has sometimes had to “earn” them by being a good friend, a good son, a good spouse. With God, we can never talk about prizes, strictly speaking, since there’s nothing we can really earn by ourselves, in a way that He doesn’t have any other choice but to give it to us: when we accomplish something, it’s Him who has given us the ability, the means, the will and the final triumph. Therefore, they’re always presents.
But sometimes you have to do things to get them: put your effort, your love, pray, forgive, persevere, practice a virtue… God demands this from us for our own good, so that we grow more internally. But the presents exceed by far our works, especially the eternal ones. So the fact that they’re presents shouldn’t make us just expect them to fall into our hands, and the fact that sometimes we have to do something first shouldn’t make us consider them as well-deserved prizes.
Now or later
Sometimes you can choose between a smaller present now or a greater one later. For example, imagine someone’s painting a picture for you and you want it now: you can go and demand the person to give it to you even if it’s barely sketched, or you can hang on and your waiting will be rewarded by having the final artwork.
In the Gospel (Mt 6:1-18) we’re given the next example: doing deeds “to win the praise of others” or for God, “your Father who sees in secret”. We could think God’s going to leave the first ones without presents, but He isn’t; He’s going to give them exactly what they want: “they have received their reward”, the applause from the people. Whereas the ones in the second group will have to wait; because they haven’t taken that present, the next one will be given to them a little later, but in the end “your Father who sees in secret will repay you”, and it will be with something much greater.
Old vs new
We might love a present and use it a lot, but there comes a day when it becomes old or obsolete. This doesn’t mean the present was bad, but that it was thought to serve only for a while. We would be wrong to keep attached to it even when it’s clearly useless, because it would prevent us from moving forward. For example, if we’re given a kitchen course of the basic level, we’ll make the most of it at first, but once we’ve finished it we should go to the next level if we want to be good cooks, not become too attached to the basic course. Or we can be given a jacket that we like a lot, but that ends up wearing away and it doesn’t keep us warm anymore.
God is willing to give you another splendid present, but you have to be willing to get rid of the old one. Maybe, as in the example of the course, you’re afraid to go to the next level, with things you don’t understand, that are going to be challenging, that are going to make you feel dumb when at the lower level you felt like an expert; but you need that change. Maybe, as in the example of the jacket, you’re afraid of ending up with nothing if you throw away what you have: but you’re not throwing it away, you’re giving it to God, and that’s a very different thing.
A little story
R. Tagore expresses it much more poetically in his well-know story of the king and the beggar:
I had gone a-begging from door to door in the village path, when thy golden chariot appeared in the distance like a gorgeous dream and I wondered who was this King of all kings!
My hopes rose high and methought my evil days were at an end, and I stood waiting for alms to be given unasked and for wealth scattered on all sides in the dust.
The chariot stopped where I stood. Thy glance fell on me and thou camest down with a smile. I felt that the luck of my life had come at last. Then of a sudden thou didst hold out thy right hand and say `What hast thou to give to me?’
Ah, what a kingly jest was it to open thy palm to a beggar to beg! I was confused and stood undecided, and then from my wallet I slowly took out the least little grain of corn and gave it to thee.
But how great my surprise when at the day’s end I emptied my bag on the floor to find a least little gram of gold among the poor heap. I bitterly wept and wished that I had had the heart to give thee my all.
Not all of them are for you
Imagine a family before a Christmas Tree full of presents. All the presents are good, but not all of them are for the same person. Some of them could be for more than one person, but others? The wrong family member either wouldn’t know how to take advantage of it (what does one want a soccer ball for if, unlike his brother, he plays basketball?) or could even get hurt (the baby can get burnt with the hair straightener for his mother).
The Church, as a big Christmas Tree, makes available to us a lot of presents: lives of saints, prayers, types of spiritualities, practices, books, sacraments, life paths, religious orders… But some of them are universal, and everyone needs them for salvation, while others aren’t. We must take this other ones only as long as they help us walk towards God depending on our own vocation and the specific gifts, traits and personalities that He has put in us.
There’s nothing wrong with preferring ones over others, as long as the others aren’t looked down on but we admit it’s just that, a personal preference. And in fact, if they aren’t for us at a certain point of our life, they can —without ceasing to be good— harm us. For example, for me, because of the circumstances of my anorexia recovery, some things from saints, spiritual books, etc. were triggering when they talked about mortification and fasting. I wasn’t ready to understand them, and instead of insisting on doing so because I didn’t want to be “less of a Christian”, I had to learn to leave them aside, at least for a while, and realize I had made a mistake when I took the present; it was for another person.
To sum up
Welcome the presents of God with joy and gratitude, using them to fulfill His will in your life, and then your joy will grow, and count on Him to celebrate it together, because He rejoices with you. Don’t be afraid to renounce to small presents when it’s needed in order to get greater presents. And equip yourself with the wonderful treasures that God offers to you in His Church, taking advantage of the richness of its unity in diversity.