must admit that, in picking up Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace by theologian Miroslav Volf, I was not expecting to be brought to tears. Having read some of Volf's less personal academic work, I didnt anticipate the searing transparency that fills these pages. After reading the first few pages of the book's Prelude, however, I began to weep. There Volf begins this examination of giving and forgiving by describing how a young birth mother gave him and his wife a most beautiful gift--her son. After describing the deep appreciation he had for this woman's generosity, Volf describes the grace-drenched scene:
"There he was, wonderful to the point of tears, rolled in to us in a crib. She took him and held him for a while in her arms, in a last maternal embrace. Then she handed him over to my wife Judy. In one simple act, painfully sad for her and wonderfully joyful for us, she gave him to us, and she gave us to him." (12)
I, too, was in tears.
One hour before this breathtaking act of pure generosity, he continues, Volf and his wife had had a strikingly different experience. Having accidentally driven down a one-way street the wrong way on the way to the hospital, they were pulled over by an gruff cop, barked at, and given a ticket. "Within the space of one hour," writes Volf, "I got a nasty ticket from a gruff cop, and a tender child from a loving mother." Gracelessness and profound grace shown in such a short period of time.
With this story, Volf begins a long, 247-page theological reflection on "giving and forgiving in a culture stripped of grace" that is often profound, sometimes touching, and--surprisingly--rarely dry. Steeped in Scripture and the writings of Martin Luther, Volf also draws on popular culture along with classical and modern literature to illuminate the necessity of and the challenges to living a life of giving and forgiving.
The structure of the book is unique, with deeply personal stories told in the prelude and the interlude, and a seemingly fictional dialogue with a skeptic in the postlude. These surround the two examinations that make up the bulk of the book--one on giving, the other on forgiving.
The giving half of the book discusses God's generosity as that which saves us and that which we are called to emulate. In Chapter One, he dispels two false images of God, namely God the negotiator and God as Santa Claus. It is tempting, Volf writes, to think of God as a negotiator--one who demands something of us before he will give. But this is wrong. "God doesn't make deals," Volf argues, "God gives." (26) On the other hand, we like the idea of a God who showers us with gifts without making any demands. But this, too, is wrong. Volf writes that we "conveniently forget that we were created in God's image to be in some significance sense like God...The true God gives so we can become joyful givers." (28) The struggle is coming to recognize ALL that God gives are, in fact, his gifts. In reflecting on his and his wife's years of infertility, he eventually came to see that it was, indeed, a gift. Volf goes on to say that we must come to realize that our call is not to assert our independence or to take pride in our achievements. Since God is a pure giver, our call is simply "to be grateful to the giver and attentive to the purpose for which the gifts are given." (36) In the rest of Chapter One, Two, and Three, Volf continues a clear examination of the theology and practice of Christian generosity.
The interlude, entitled "Daniel's Death," marks a poignant--if slightly forced--transition to a discussion of forgiveness. Volf recounts the story of his brother's tragic death at the hands of some careless off-duty soldiers who playfully allowed the young Daniel to ride on the back of their wagon. As Daniel leaned sideways from the wagon, his head was crushed between the wagon and a door post. What his parents had never told him, though, was that his Aunt Milica was partly to blame. She had been watching Daniel, but hadn't seen him slip away. Volf recounts what a beautiful gift it was that his parents had forgiven Aunt Milica (and the soldiers) so thoroughly that they had never hinted to him of her guilt.
The section on forgiving parallels the first section with two false gods unmasked, the Judge and the Doting Grandparent, that vie for our allegiance. Here Volf describes the forgiveness made available to us through Christ and the transformed life we now live through union with Christ. Volf here stresses the centrality of repentance and the confession of sin. The entire section on forgiveness, also spanning three chapters, is full of wisdom that is stunning in its simplicity. For example, in discussing what it means for us to release debt, Volf begins with God. "To forgive means, first, not to press charges against the wrongdoer. That's what God has done for sinful humanity. The story of Christ's death tells us that God doesn't press charges against humanity. Instead, on account of Christ's unity with God, Jesus Christ bears human sin. No punishment will fall on us. The divine Judge was judged in our place. We are free of the charge." (169)
The book concludes with a postlude that appears to be a fictional conversation between Volf the theologian and a skeptic. The first line begins "Do you really believe all that stuff you've written about?" What ensues is a delightful conversation on the merits of the Christian life. Volf's central argument with the skeptic is disarmingly simple, yet startling for those who share his convictions. Volf commends Christianity simply because the Christian life--the life of giving and forgiving--is a beautiful life, a truth that the skeptic concedes. The living God, he concludes, can be found "not at the end of an argument, but in the midst of a life well lived." For those who claim the name Christian, this immediately convicts us. If our lives are truly seasoned with gracious giving and forgiving, then the beauty of Christ will be immediately apparent to those who do not believe. The reader is left to examine her conscience: is my life so seasoned with Christ's character?
In the afterword, Volf describes what he has done in four ways: Free of Charge is an invitation to the Christian life; an interpretation of the apostle Paul; a reading of Martin Luther; and, finally, a theologically informed spiritual writing. I am certainly not qualified to assess Volf on the second and the third points, but as a spiritual work that invites the reader to the Christian life, in which it certainly succeeds. In a genre that today includes much shallow sentimentality, Volf's theological depth and biblical grounding disclose a wisdom that comes only through a life wisely lived. For those seeking counsel in the way of Christ, one can find few contemporary guides like Miroslav Volf. Highly Recommended. Dan Olson, Christian Book Previews.com