Giving: the Beauty of Christian Hospitality

A few weeks ago, my wife and I took a houseboat trip with her extended family on Lake Powell in Utah. Building up to the trip, I knew there wasn’t going to be a lot of room on the boat since her aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, and grandma and grandpa would be on board with us. Frankly, my ideal vacation is a nice hotel in Europe, not a hot, cramped houseboat in Utah shared with people I hardly knew. I enjoy privacy, quiet, and comfort. I prefer to control when I eat, and what I eat, to be able to go home when I am tired of the people I’m around (or kick them out if they are visiting me), and to know exactly what my obligations are in every situation and to rely on others to know theirs as well. In other words, I like to be at home, alone with my wife and dog.

At home, we each have our duties, and when something extra is asked of one of us, or when we offer to help out a bit more around the house or with dinner, we do so knowing what the service will mean to the other person and why we are doing it. But around strangers, one never knows how an act of kindness will be interpreted: as a gift, an accident, a calculated move to gain leverage, or a debt that must be repaid. Even further, around strangers one rarely knows what is expected of you, making it easy to offend someone without even knowing it. Cooking, cleaning, etiquette, language, privacy, there are endless hidden rules, standards, and policies to transgress when you are visiting with extended family or friends, which for a high-strung guy like me can make a vacation on a lake feel more like tip-toeing through a minefield wearing snow shoes three sizes too big. Thankfully, when we arrived at the dock in Utah, the boat was bigger than I expected and the people understood and practiced a way of giving that not only made the trip enjoyable, but also made me reconsider what it means to give and be hospitable as a Christian.

What struck me was that during this trip people seemed to give without any sense of calculating the advantage they would be creating. When someone took my plate to wash it for me, they did it without expecting me to do the same for them, without a kind of system of exchange where one kindness on their part demanded a kindness of an equal or greater part from myself later on. Now, I’m not saying that no one acted selfishly or had ulterior motives on the houseboat, only God truly knows our hearts, but I can say that from my perception, for the most part the family served each other without a hidden agenda, false humility, or fanfare. And the best part was, this attitude was contagious. It’s hard not to want to serve other people for the sake of love when you are surrounded by people who love you in the same way. Rather than the uncomfortable and awkward trip I had feared it might be, the houseboat was a peaceful and enjoyable environment.

Although we might not consider hospitality and giving as aspects of popular culture (the focus of this site), at the center of all culture is relationship, the communing of people with one another, and therefore, the way we serve each other in community makes up a large part of what we do when we engage in cultural acts.

Whether it means buying gummy worms for your friends when they come over to play Halo 3; turning up the AC in your car on a hot summer day when you’d prefer to swelter and save gas, just to keep your friend comfortable on the ride to a concert; choosing to watch an awful movie with a family member because you know they love it; or spending a large portion of your day cleaning your house and making a meal so that you can have a couple over for dinner, and sincerely assuring them that it is perfectly alright when they accidentally spill red wine on your carpet, at the center of almost any cultural pursuit is the opportunity to give or be hospitable, to serve. And as Christians, we have a unique way of understanding hospitality and charity that stands out from the world.

Between the pervasive influence of capitalism (which can, but need not encourage an understanding of the world and human relationships as a series of commodities, values, and agents making exchanges), the ladder-climbing business world, American individualism, and plain old human selfishness, the dominate view of giving, hospitality, and service presented in our culture and by the world is one in which we act kindly in order to gain something from someone else, manipulate them, or because we owe them.

But as Christians we have the opportunity to live out a kind of giving that mirrors Christ’s acts of service: kindness motivated by love, which does not create a debt that must be repaid (for how could we repay Him?), but neither does it refuse reciprocal love in order to be “pure” disinterested love. Christ gave of Himself to such an extent that none of us can “return the favor,” but He still accepts and asks for our love, our acts of service to Him.  Which means that if we follow His example, we must be willing to suffer the loss of time and money, broken dishes and lamps, bad music and movies, and other petty comforts as we seek to be hospitable and serve others. But it is not enough to be able to give without a secret agenda, we also need to be able to receive kindness from others without thinking, “well, now we have to invite them over to dinner to repay them” or “I wonder what she expects from me now that she bought me this?”

It was just this type of giving that I witnessed on the houseboat and have witnessed many times around other Christians. It is a giving that sets us apart from the world as people who love one another, but it is not an attitude that comes naturally. Our culture is constantly at work to force us to see love as a tool to manipulate others, as one more commodity at our disposal to give us leverage in a competitive world. But if we chose to resist the influence of the world, we will be known as Christians, able to welcome and comfort even the most anxious individuals into our homes (or houseboats) with the assurance that our love is given without the expectation of indebtedness.

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  • Alan Noble

    If anyone is interested, I owe part of the inspiration for this post (especially the idea that disinterested love is not Christian) to David Bentley Hart’s book, The Beauty Of The Infinite: The Aesthetics Of Christian Truth, which is a monster of a book.

  • Amen!

  • Thanks for this, Alan. I think sometimes it’s hard to remember to have this sort of Christian love and service around those you know the best – especially if you’re family. It’s relatively easy to be kind to a stranger, but harder, I think, to be kind and serving to someone you know well. This is something that’s been a problem for me for years – it’s much easier to say “do it yourself” to family than it is to a stranger. I know that’s not entirely what you were getting at here, but I think it’s part of the point.

    And I think you and I, as teachers, have a unique role in serving others that I can’t wait to explore. We’re the leaders of the classroom, but we’re also there to serve, which means, in this circumstance, taking the time to listen and understand what the students are getting at.

    Thanks for posting this. It made me think.

    Diannas last blog post..Okay, so now what?

  • @Alan – You mean this?

    Scotts last blog post..MJ/WH Intertextuality

  • Er. I mean: this.

    Scotts last blog post..MJ/WH Intertextuality

  • Alan Noble

    Yep, that’s the one. I was thinking of a later passage where Hart talks about the Gift. Did you read the whole book? If so, what did you think of it? I’m most of the way through, and thus far I’m not able to follow a lot of his argument, I don’t seem to have the theological/philosophical background.

    I’ve heard that some Reformed theologians have critiqued the book, but haven’t been able to find anything. What are your thoughts?

  • Thanks for the reflections, Alan. Amazing how right hospitality is. I’m a big fan of Henri Nouwen and have enjoyed his material on the movement from Hostility to Hospitality in the book, Reaching Out.

    Possibly of note, I’m hosting a conversation on The Gift by Lewis Hyde at The book is sort of a treatise on gifts – what they are, how they move, how they increase, etc. Here’s a post related to your content here: Don’t be a keeper.

  • Well, Yes. I did read the whole book. I actually read it in preparation for attending a theological conference on the analogy of being. Even though I found the book to be a fascinating and excellent read, even with a theological and philosophical background, I found it as well to be a very challenging read. I don’t even feel qualified to comment critically on it since I feel I was only grasping at comprehending the main point of the book. It’s on my “to re-read” list.

    This is not to say that I didn’t understand any of it, but it was the first time I had ever read seriously about the question of being and God. I described my impression of Hart to someone who understands him much deeper than I do, and he seemed to like the description: a philosophically erudite version of James Jordan and John Piper. I’m not sure what you know of Jordan, but there is a since in which, if you’ve read Piper’s Desiring God, then you’ve gotten a sliver of what Hart’s after.

    As for Reformed treatments of the book, I’m not aware of any. If you’d like some criticism, though, you might find the following comments from Halden, of Inhabitatio Dei, helpful: link, link.

    Scotts last blog post..34.2 Miles

  • @Alan – I’ve been reading a book that might interest you, Alan. You’ve probably heard of it. It’s Leithart’s Deep Comedy. It’s much shorter than Hart’s book and, while it’s certainly not light reading, it’s notably more accessible. It’s not precisely about the same thing as The Beauty…, but it draws heavily from it, and discusses many similar themes. Plus, with your literary education it might touch on some topics that would intrigue you.

  • Thank you taking turns the knowledge. I ran across the data unbelievably beneficial.