The second phase in John 3:16 says, that He gave His only begotten Son. The first three words, that He gave, highlight another dimension of God’s love—He gives gifts to those He loves.
When my daughter was a young child one of her favorite days was birthdays. On her own birthday she was overjoyed at the prospect of receiving gifts. For her, it didn’t really matter what kind of gift, she was thrilled to receive everything from toys and clothes to special family activities and visits from her grandparents. When it was someone else’s birthday, she was just as excited to make or pick out a present and give it to them.
For many of us, there is something special about giving and receiving gifts, an associated closeness of relationship that warms our hearts regardless of the gift given or received. But as we get older, we tend to take gifts for granted, coming to view them as something earned for good behavior or deserved as a byproduct of a shared relationship. But this misunderstands what a gift really is.
One dictionary defines a gift as follows:
A thing given willingly to someone without payment; a present.
First, note that a gift is given willingly by the giver. A gift is not given begrudgingly or under compulsion, as if it were something owed to the receiver. Then it would not be a gift given, but rather, a payment tendered by the giver.
Second, a gift does not require payment from the recipient. A gift does not come with expectation of return or place obligation upon the recipient. Then it would not be a gift given, but a service or product purchased by the recipient.
Third, the qualities of the gift may vary, but they do not impact its status as a gift. A gift may be useful or frivolous, serious or humorous, expensive or thrifty, ornate or plain; the characteristics of the gift don’t really matter. If the gift is given freely, without compulsion or obligation from the giver of toward the recipient, it is still a gift.
Some pets are known to be enthusiastic gift givers. I remember a story a friend told me about the gifts her cat would leave her. From hairballs on her pillows to rodent carcasses on her front stoop, these gifts certainly aren’t the kind she liked to receive. But the way she explained how her cat sat there, waiting for her approval, nonetheless warmed my heart. Her cat was saying, “I love you” in a language both the cat and the owner understood.
In a similar way, God gives all of us many gifts every day. Thankfully, God’s gifts tend to be much more useful and lasting, even if they often come instructions and some assembly required.
God is very generous toward us. When life is going good, we tend to take for granted ask the convenient niceties in our lives. But all these things are gifts from God. James 1:17 stresses this important truth:
Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning.
Everything in our lives is a gift from God. Everything in life—career, car, clothing, family, food, income, leisure, shelter, technology–everything ultimately comes from God. A lot of us like to think we work hard, earn our due, and whatever we get we’ve earned. Others tend to think so highly of themselves that their mere presence is a gift to everyone else and everyone else owes them for the opportunity to dwell in their glorious presence. But both extremes fall short of the truth.
Jesus explains the humbling truth about how God designed us to live in John 15:5, which says,
“I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing.”
God made us to live in relationship with Him. He knows we need basic necessities like clothing, for and shelter. He even promises to provide these for us. As Jesus says in Matthew 6:31-33,
“Do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.”
Notice, the greatest gift is not material. The greatest gift is the abiding presence of God in our lives. God freely and joyfully offers all of Himself all the time to whoever will come to Him.
But that’s the caveat. God will not force Himself on us. His presence in our lives is a gift freely given and freely received. This means He permits us the freedom to receive, or reject, His abiding presence in our lives.
 Catherine Soanes and Angus Stevenson, eds., Concise Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), s.v. “Gift.” Logos Bible Software.