We always want that reciprocity with our friends. When they’ve helped us out, we welcome opportunities to do a kindness in return. If things get too lopsided — if you’ve helped me so much but I haven’t been able to give back — the debt grows. I suspect it’s usually worse on the receiver’s side. Sure, someone who gives and gives can begin to resent it, but because giving has its own unexpected joys, the giver can often be generous for quite a while.
Do good friends even keep tabs? They’ll sometimes say they don’t, but I think they do on some level. They are grateful for the good they’ve received from the other, and it can feel uncomfortable to be too much on the needy side of the equation.
So we use actions or words to balance things out. Words often seem so short of the mark, but at least they’re something. (Chesterton’s definition of a beggar is someone who has nothing to give in return except words of thanks.) Imagine if you were unable to do even that! I remember a friend blessed with kindnesses when her husband was extremely ill. Friends and neighbours helped in a lot of ways, but in her state at the time, it was next to impossible to keep track of the various favours and to thank the people the way she would have liked. It must be a drop of sorrow in all that gratitude to be unable to say “thank you” the way you normally would. But it occurs to me just now that her husband would feel this same thing even more keenly. With increasing disability, he needed more and more care. He had already lost his ability to return his wife’s kindness with his own helpfulness, but now, having lost his ability to speak, he could no longer even whisper the words, “Thank you!” How he would have yearned to do so!
It’s a different thing though with the parent-child relationship. A parent expects to be the giver, and gives even before the child knows he takes. The baby will take the very minerals from his mother’s bones, but she does not begrudge this, and as she continues to bear him and then raise him, she will joyfully sacrifice and empty herself. The father too will expend his energy selflessly for his son, for his daughter. At least, this is how it’s supposed to be, in the natural order. It’s the human reflection and imperfect imitation of the supernatural order.
God gives in infinite measure and we cannot even tabulate the ways. We cannot comprehend his generosity. We receive and then we receive again. We take and take, and he gives and gives. The physical world, the intellectual, the emotional, the spiritual — he provides for us in so many ways. Each day he gives us a new dawn, with a brand new painted sky, never before appearing that way, and meanwhile in some far-away ocean, a diver discovers a new kind of coral that nobody knew existed. The abundance, even on the natural plane, is mind-boggling.
So how fitting it is then that God tells us to call him ‘Father.’ He didn’t choose ‘Supreme Being,’ ‘Almighty Power,’ ‘Infinite Deity,’ or something like that. He puts on our lips, ‘Father,’ that word of relationship, a relationship where we acknowledge ourselves as little children. We are indebted, hopelessly and completely.