The Giving God

When people think of children’s books, they tend to think of nice stories that float on rainbows and count endless sheep. Images of friendly giants and magical maids with umbrellas are some of the many colorful pictures that first come to mind when thinking of a typical children’s story. But The Giving Tree, a children’s book by author Shel Silverstein, is anything but fluffy and colorful.
The story is about a tree that has a relationship with the main character simply called “the boy”. At first, the relationship is fun and affection is mutually shared between both the tree and the boy. However, as time goes on and the boy grows up and shifts from season to season of life the relationship dramatically shifts from being an interdependent relationship to a codependent one. The boy only comes by to receive things from the tree. The tree always happily obliges his requests, even though it costs her everything. She does anything the boy wants in order to make him happy. The relationship continues like this (the boy needs money so the tree gives the boy apples, the boy needs a boat so the tree gives him her trunk, etc) for the rest of the book. At the end of the book, after giving the boy literally all she had and was, she laments to the boy, now old and near his death, that she has nothing more to give him. The boy doesn’t ask for anything but a place to sit, and so even then, after she has given him all else, the tree gives him a place to sit, right on top of what’s left of her. And the tree, the book says in its last line, “was very happy.”
There are many applications that can be taken from this book and applied to life, both negatively and positively. When looking at the relationship between the tree and the boy at first, I thought that while it was sad the boy was so selfish and the tree so selfless, the way the tree always was willing to give was an example of selfless love, something we don’t see a lot of in this world. However, there are two sides to the coin of this relationship. One is healthy and the other is potentially unhealthy.
The relationship between the boy and tree starts out healthy. Both are giving to each other. Now you may say “wait, the boy never gave the tree anything!”, but this is actually untrue because when reading into the character and desire of the tree within the text it is very clear that all she ever wanted from the boy was his time. And at first, the boy did this well. He played within her branches, he climbed her trunk, and he rested beneath her shade. It’s likely that he spent most of his free time with her while he was a child. And though it was not an equal relationship in regards to need (the boy needed the tree more than the tree needed the boy), it was equal in regards to dependency. Both were dependant on each other.
But when the boy began to grow up, he realized that he wanted more than what the tree could offer him. But for each of his desires, the tree found a way to give of herself in order to help him satisfy his longings. This made her happy. Her happiness was solely in the happiness of the one she loved. If the boy was happy, she was happy. This points to an obvious change in the relationship, to where the boy was not giving even his time to the tree anymore, but rather, came back to the tree only to receive from her. The relationship, or what was left of it, turned largely codependant. Or did it?
At first glance, the relationship is unfair. You want to feel bad for the tree, who only ever wanted the boy’s time. She constantly gives and gives of herself, until nothing she had before remains. The boy is selfish, uncaring, nonrelational, and only takes what the tree can give. Through it all, the tree remains caring, merciful, and extremely generous to the boy. But for every single thing the boy took from her, she chose to give. She was not robbed from. Was she taken advantage of? I’m not sure I can say she was, because in order to be taken advantage of, something has to be “taken” from you. She was not ignorant in what was happening; she was fully aware of what was going on and what she was doing in each circumstance. And for the most part, she was still receiving joy in giving. She was, as God tells us to be, “a cheerful giver.” (2 Corinthians 9:7)
In C.S Lewis’ The Four Loves he speaks of two main forms of love he sees in the world. One is gift-love, the love that gives and gives and needs nothing in return; the other is need-love, the love that needs and needs and often can give nothing in return. In a parent-to-child relationship, the parent often loves with gift-love, since they do not “need” anything from the child, and the child loves with need-love, since they need much from their parents and can not really give much. The parent feels love when they are needed, and the child feels love when they are given to. Obviously there are contextual exceptions to this, but this is the case for 90% of the time in a relationship between a parent and child. Both are legitimate forms of love, but they can shift depending on the context in which they are used.
Lewis makes the point that our relationship with God is the same as a parent-to-child relationship. We obviously can offer nothing of value to God that he needs, and he has everything that we need. How does God then receive our love if we have nothing he needs? He receives our love when we need him. It makes him feel loved when we acknowledge our lack of goodness and cry out for him to fill us. In the same way, we receive love when God gives to us. It is not a selfish way of receiving love, as many can think sometimes, it’s simply the way our relationship works. If he is not giving, we are not being loved, and if we are not needing him, he is not being loved. In the context of a normal adult-to-adult relationship this could be dangerous, but with God it is essential. We were created for codependency with God.
This changes how we look at the picture of the tree and the boy. If the tree and the boy represent two human beings in relationship with each other, it could potentially be unhealthy, for it is unequal in the amount of effort given on each part. But isn’t that what Jesus calls us to do? Doesn’t he call us to lay down our lives, and to give, give, and give some more? Yes, this is not ideal, and if the relationship was a romantic one, it would be best for the tree to break up with the boy so as not to create an unhealthy dependency. But if we as Christians are the tree, and the boy is the world, I think the picture given in the book is the exact picture of how we should interact with nonbelievers. Every time they come to us simply needing something, we should give, even if we are never “paid back”, because God is love (1 John 4:8) and love gives everything (obviously this does not mean we should support unhealthy habits or addictions, but nevertheless is still a picture of giving of ourselves and expecting nothing in return).
But a better picture I like is that tree is God and we are the boy, because the picture the book presents is then a beautiful imagery of a typical life from being young to old and how God woos us throughout our life’s entirety. When we are young we are spiritually sensitive. We are close to God in the sense that he forms us in the womb, and up until the age of accountability (which I realize is an entirely different theological argument, but for the sake of this paper I’m going to use this belief without defending its validity) we are in his arms, held by his love, like Adam and Eve in the garden. But when we grow older and gain the knowledge of good and evil and the choice between right and wrong we drift away from God like the boy with the tree, and alienate ourselves from the shade of his grace. Time and time again, as we grow and move through life’s different experiences, we have opportunities to return to our first love, but every time we near him we simply receive from his goodness and run away with the goods in our hands, never thanking the hands that provided them.
For many, it takes them an entire life to realize that all they ever needed was relationship with God; just to sit and to be with the one who loved and gave himself for them every single moment of their lives. The things of the world amount to nothing when held up to the light of simply who he is. It took the boy a lifetime to realize the tree was the only one that ever really cared for him, the only one who was ever always there for him, the only one who never stopped giving love to him. It often takes us a lifetime to realize this as well. As humans we are fickle creatures, prone to lusting after every wind that rustles our hair and every voice that tickles our ears. We are insatiable, discontent with remaining children, and so we grow up into adults that crave after the happiness we experience as children, forgetting that as children we found our happiness in everything, not the next thing.
But God is better than we make him out to be. Just like the tree, he gives and gives to provide for us the things we want, knowing that we’ll eventually realize all we ever wanted was him. Every good and perfect gift is from him (James 1:17), whether we realize it or not. The apples, the branches, and even the trunk were all from him; but unlike the tree he does not grow weary in giving nor does he lose what he gives. As he gives he receives, for it is the same law of love that we are given: “it is better to give than to receive.” (Acts 20:35)
If the book were rewritten to be such an allegory, the tree would not lose what it gave, but rather gain more apples, become wider with branches, and grow a stronger trunk. For Christ did not remain in the grave but was raised to glory. So then, even in giving his entirety, he did not lose anything but received more (Hebrews 12:12). And just as in the end of the book the boy realizes his mistakes and desires only to sit with the tree, so we also are wooed back to the Father throughout a series of gifts and whispers in every season of life. So as the apostle Paul says in Romans, it truly is the “goodness of God that leads you to repentance.” This repentance is not wearisome nor shameful, but is merely an act of our turning from our pursuits to come and be with the one who gave everything that we might be with him once again. God, our God, is the true Giving Tree.

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