Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?”…

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.

ROMANS 11:33-35, 12:1 (ESV)

Somewhere along the way, our idea of what constitutes a good birthday gift changes. When we’re kids we mark the day in our heads in bold, bright colors, anticipating the moment when we’ll tear away the beautiful, if inconvenient wrapping between us and our presents. We have made requests, however unreasonable, and expect nothing less than our parents to deliver on all of them, whether it be with the gaming system or a bicycle or a play set or a puppy, if we’re feeling ambitious.

This starts to change as you get older. It isn’t so much that you’re less joyful or newly cynical or more stoic. Birthdays are still great occasions, but the day changes because you change. What gives you joy is different now.

A few years ago, my brothers and I decided that the kind of gifts we were buying for our parents just weren’t working in celebrating their birthdays. Sure, turning present time into a quiet competition between siblings was fun. Which brother would outdo the others for gift giving supremacy? Whose gift would garner the biggest reaction? But these games can only get you through so many years. Like any good sons, we knew we could never really repay our parents for all they sacrificed to see us grow, but we still had a desire to give them something in return to show how much we love and appreciate them. So after the games came some searching.

The main problem we were encountering was that watching our parents open presents was way more about us than it was about them. Those kind of gifts just don’t speak to them. Once we realized this we pivoted, and every year since we’ve opted for experiences over presents. A trip to Top Golf. A buffet at a Brazilian steakhouse. A movie in one of those theaters with reclinable seats. A handwritten letter of appreciation. The memories we’ve made in the process have lingered way beyond whatever sweater or movie or book we would’ve wrapped instead. These gifts have been so much better because of what they say. Each experience tells my parents they are known and heard, that their children are trying to love them in the way they desire and deserve to be loved. Out of a posture of humility flows a purity of intent.

Think about the best gift you’ve ever gotten. It didn’t come from a stranger. It came from someone who knew you well, who recognized your style. A friend who understood your needs and wants and expectations and did his best to meet them. In the end, you felt appreciated.

In Jesus, God gave us the kind of gift that only someone who knows us well could give. He was exactly what we needed when we needed it most, and everything was sacrificed for us to make this happen. Of course we know this gift of life could never be repaid, but it is still our joy as children to give something in return to our Father, to express our gratitude and our understanding. Who could stand silent in the light of the cross and the promise of the empty tomb? And who, when moved to respond, would do so without care or thought?

The Bible speaks often about what people bring to God. Sacrifices of praise. Gifts of fine fragrance and expensive materials. Many of these things presented to God look different on the surface, but it’s the picture underneath that looks the same. Paul tells us in Romans that the thing God really wants of us is not grand spectacle or eloquent language or fine jewelry or successful businesses. What he really desires, what speaks to His heart that He is known and appreciated, is holiness – specifically His holiness.

Consider this. A holy king bore our sins to make us his holy people. You did not earn what you could not repay. So how do you respond to a king? When he calls you forward, you bow down before him. When he stands you up, you rise a new person. Gratitude is remembering the King who made you royalty. It’s knowing God and appreciating the work He did to make you holy. It is every day a bowing down and standing up and going out. We can’t really wrap that kind of gift for Him, but He likes it better that way.

God I thank You that You are not a God who conceals Your nature from me. You are awesome and holy, and I could never stand alone in Your presence. Thank you that I don’t have to. Thank You that You are also gracious and merciful. Thank You that I can stand before You in Christ, that I can move forward in his steps, that I can work to glorify You in his hands. Fill me with a deep sense of gratitude today. AMEN.

Bow down, stand up, go forward: remember and reflect on these three components of gratitude as you please the Father throughout the day. Maintain a posture of humility. Cling to your identity in Christ. Do all things in the holiness to which you’ve been called.