Simple, Binding Gifts

I find a common confusion in the use of the phrase “free gift.”  Someone gives a free gift, properly speaking, if he was not bound to give it.  No legal constraint or moral obligation or physical coercion dictated the gift.  The giver gave it freely, perhaps because it struck him as good, or he felt pity. But people get confused and think that a “free gift” means that the recipient is not bound through receiving it.  All gifts bind, however. There is no such thing as a gift with “no strings attached.”

The bindingness of gifts is attested to in so-called “gift economies,” such as the mafia.  You simply do not want a “free” gift from a mafioso, as you will eventually be asked to repay, on the mafioso’s terms.

Or consider flatterers, who lose their freedom because they do not see how the binding works in their case.  They think that by saying what the boss wants to hear, they gain control over the boss, who now has to show them favors.  But the boss recognized that the flatterer only said what was supposed to please him – he never regarded it as a free gift – while he thinks his own indulgence of the obviously craven flatterer is a free gift.  Thus, in his eyes the flatterer becomes successively more bound, even as the flatterer misguidedly presumes he is getting more and more control.

If I had to place my finger on the false idea of our time, the root of all other heresies, it would be that gifts do not bind.  Perhaps the idea had its origin long ago in the Protestant assertion of salvation by faith, not works. What that declaration was supposed to mean is that we do not earn our salvation or otherwise obligate God to save us, say, by obedience to the ceremonial law.  Salvation is a free gift.  God was not constrained to save us.  He did so of his own mercy.  But it does not follow that once we are saved, if we are, that we are not seriously bound as a result.

I’ll leave it to you to trace out how “autonomy,” our lack of care for the common good, the general expectation of free stuff, our attitudes towards public debt and future generations, the general preference for “spirituality” over “religion” (i.e., being bound) – how these and other bad attitudes flow from this central falsehood.

Of course, if we at least implicitly recognize that gifts do bind, then, to extricate ourselves from bonds, and to “cast their cords from us” (Psalm 2:3), it becomes necessary to deny that what we have received is a gift.  It was the result of chance, or necessity.

Christian “universalism,” the view that God can’t help but save his rational creatures, that his moral nature requires it, is a vast exercise in denying the reality of the gift of salvation.  It thereby sets its adherents free from any obligation to act in response.

All human life is a free gift from God, of course. And that you have this particular life, that you are you, rather than someone else, is also a gift.  But one way of construing Christian marriage is that it clarifies and testifies to the gratuitousness.  The inherent consequences of a process or state into which we freely enter, we also freely will.


A child conceived in a free marriage is given his life by his parents freely, because the marriage is free.  Therefore, it is more evident and easier to see that he is bound.  But a child conceived in a chance hook-up or some cohabitation that was persisted in because it was inconvenient to separate?

We must conclude that there is a fundamental difference in consciousness between a child conceived within a free marriage, and someone not so conceived.  Piety is easier for the one than the other.

One way to view “as we forgive our debtors” is that Christianity is intent on making the bindingness of free gifts even more salient.  The Faith emphasizes even more how someone is bound by being the recipient of a freely bestowed good, while minimizing how someone becomes bound by having freely done something bad.  It locates the more serious obligations in the right places.

I am not sure that there is any genuine motive for the Christian reform of society other than a conviction of being bound because one has been saved.  Not enthrallment with the glorious history of Christendom, not love of beauty, not awe in the face of sublime nature, not allegiance to the pope, not even admiration of the saints.

Converts may look to the before and after of their conversion for clear evidence of their salvation, and Protestant “testimonies” are edifying for doing so.  But Catholics have usually turned to the Passion.

Contemplating the Passion, St. Alphonsus Liguori wrote,

Therefore, O my Jesus, I cannot any longer, without injustice, dispose of myself, or of my own concerns, since Thou has made me Thine by purchasing me through Thy death.  My body, my soul, my life are no longer mine; they are Thine, and entirely Thine. . . .If thou, my God, art thus become mad, as it were, for the love of me, how is it that I do not become mad for the love of God?

“You are not your own,” St. Paul writes, “You have been bought at a price.  Therefore, honor God with your bodies.” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20)

The complete offering up, for God’s purposes, of all of your external goods, even the good that is your body and its life, and this done with intense ardor – haven’t these motives always been the Christian basis of great awakenings and reforms?

“What shall I repay to the Lord for all His benefits to me? I will lift up the cup of salvation, and call upon the name of the LORD.” (Psalm 116:12-13)  And the Eucharist has always been the burning fire that inflames such ardor.


*Image: Jesus Receiving the World from God the Father by Antonio Arias Fernández, c. 1657 [Museo del Prado, Madrid]

You may also enjoy:

Michael Novak’s Everything Is a Gift

David G. Bonagura Jr’s Why Catholicism is the True Religion

Michael Pakaluk, an Aristotle scholar and Ordinarius of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas, is a professor in the Busch School of Business at the Catholic University of America. He lives in Hyattsville, MD with his wife Catherine, also a professor at the Busch School, and their eight children. His acclaimed book on the Gospel of Mark is The Memoirs of St Peter. His most recent book, Mary's Voice in the Gospel of John: A New Translation with Commentary, is now available. His new book, Be Good Bankers: The Divine Economy in the Gospel of Matthew, is forthcoming from Regnery Gateway in the spring. Prof. Pakaluk was appointed to the Pontifical Academy of St Thomas Aquinas by Pope Benedict XVI.