The Problem of the Gift of Self

Yosemite Valley
Yosemite Valley – a bit of paradise

Gift of Self

Every person’s most fundamental vocation, moral responsibility, and source of fulfillment is authentic self-giving. I think this claim can be discovered by reason and experience. I also believe it permeates Sacred Scriptures and the life of the Church.

It has been beautifully articulated in Vatican II’s Gaudium et spes §24. Here is the passage:

God, Who has fatherly concern for everyone, has willed that all men should constitute one family and treat one another in a spirit of brotherhood. For having been created in the image of God, Who “from one man has created the whole human race and made them live all over the face of the earth” (Acts 17:26), all men are called to one and the same goal, namely God Himself.

For this reason, love for God and neighbor is the first and greatest commandment. Sacred Scripture, however, teaches us that the love of God cannot be separated from love of neighbor: “If there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself . . .. Love therefore is the fulfillment of the Law” (Rom. 13:9-10; cf. 1 John 4:20).  . . .

Indeed, the Lord Jesus, when He prayed to the Father, “that all may be one . . . as we are one” (John 17:21-22) opened up vistas closed to human reason, for He implied a certain likeness between the union of the divine Persons, and the unity of God’s sons in truth and charity. This likeness reveals that man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself (cf. Lk 17:33).

I would summarize the passage in this way. God wills that humanity should be one family in which everyone is treated as a brother. We fulfill this will by love of neighbor. When God’s children are united in truth and love, they are similar to God in his inner life of three divine persons. Man cannot be fulfilled without making himself a gift.

I would like to zero in on the final sentence which I bolded above: “This likeness reveals that man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.”

In this passage, likeness refers to the assertion that when people are united in truth and charity, they are like the persons of the Blessed Trinity who are united in mutual self-giving love. Imbedded here is both the truth about the inner life of God—that it is a Trinitarian communion of love—and a signal that the ultimate vocation of human beings is to live and love the way God does. This is a vista “closed to human reason” because the inner life God had to be revealed by God.

The only creature God willed for itself means we are the only beings on earth willed for our own sake because we are the only persons. The other creatures on earth are all for something else. Human beings are for ourselves. Being for ourselves means we are ends in ourselves. We have this exalted status because we are persons.

To fully find himself means to discover the ultimate truth, to find that truth to be good, to be in full possession of all one’s faculties, to be perfectly happy or fulfilled, and to be of maximal importance and value to others.

A sincere gift of self means to give from your heart. It is not a feeling without effect but a giving which really gives something.

A footnote in the text at the end of this sentence refers to Luke 17:33, which reads, “Whoever seeks to gain his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will preserve it.” This reveals that the sincere gift of self can look like a loss of life (“except”) but it is actually a preservation of life and a finding of self (“fully find himself”).

Is it possible that life is nothing but a search for oneself in which serving others is the map? And if it is, why not just do it? Why is it so difficult?

A Photo and Three Transparencies

I think there are three conditions we experience all at once in this life. They are our expectation to be in a state of original justice, the reality that we are in a state of original sin, and our grace-assisted call to salvation. I also think every person experiences this, regardless of whether he is baptized.

An image of this might be that of a photograph with three transparencies laid over it. The photo is your life. The transparencies are these three conditions.

Original Justice

First, the condition of original justice is the way God intended things to be for us. In God’s original design, all human needs and wants were to be met through the giving of gifts. These gifts were to be given by God, angels, the natural world, and, especially, human beings, one to one another. Under original justice we were to have an exalted status. We were each to be of maximal importance and to have maximal glory. We would matter so much to one other because each would be and have to offer something others wanted or needed, and each would freely give and gratefully receive.

We can get a glimpse of original justice in these three relationships (imagining they are ideal): between father or mother and son or daughter; between husband and wife; and between friend and friend.

Or, for a more fanciful example, imagine a master fromager in Normandy who loves his work and freely offers his cheeses to anyone who wants them, especially a person who has an aptitude for enjoying them, like you. Imagine if your gift is to grow the most fantastic apples in Washington State. You develop this skill for the love of it and to please those who have the capacity to enjoy these fruits, like the cheese maker in Normandy. The fromanger esteems you and your gift which he receives with gratitude and you esteem the cheese maker and his gift which you receive with thanks.

This almost sounds like a Marxist dream. But Marxism was a colossal lie based on a profound truth about original justice. The lie was that in our world, socialism could make the conditions possible that the goods of this earth would come “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!” (Karl Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme). The truth is that this was exactly the reality that would obtain under original justice for all goods, material and spiritual. Not just Camembert cheese and Mackintosh apples, but all social life, the arts, and the sciences as well.

Under original justice, we each would be prince and good servant. The prince is the one to whom everything is due. The good servant is the one who provides everything willingly.

No one who thinks like a Catholic thinks we live in the condition of original justice, so what is the point of imagining what it would have been like?

The state of original justice is relevant to recall today because we still expect it.

For example, as a child awakens to consciousness, she expects everything to come to her as a good gift from the people and things around her, and ultimately from God. She expects everyone to see her as the most important person in the world, whose every thought and experience matter tremendously. She is pleased but not at all surprised when people treat her with importance, take care of her, give her gifts, and tell her she is beautiful.

In other words, we enter conscious life hoping everything.

Original Sin

The second state we experience is original sin. It is the condition in which our minds are full of errors; our wills are drawn to things that may or may not be actually good, and that often we (futilely) desire but cannot have; and we can sin, do suffer, and eventually will die.

Under original sin, we view any form of suffering, including the denial of a desire, with surprise and as an unjust outrage. Any baby would tell you that if he could talk. The sad truth that a child learns about his actual importance to others is that others don’t care about him to the extent he feels they should. A child might also realize later that he doesn’t care that much about others or that his care is very selective, limited to his family, or his friends, or his tribe, or school, or some other group.

People learn to live in a compromised way under original sin. Without any conscious planning, children and youth develop understandable but destructive coping strategies. We find some physic “place” to protect ourselves and to maximize our importance.

These “physic places” people can put themselves in to protect themselves can be any apparent or real good or some combination of apparent or real goods. What are some of these “places”?

To name just a few:

Being good or acting out; physical beauty or looking bizarre; the intellectual life or being anti-intellectual; reading or writing books; playing games; athletics or being a fan; friendships or hating enemies; business or crime; acquiring wealth or having sex; having a family.

All these have in common the attempt to recreate for ourselves a state of original justice.

Self-giving in the state of original sin is difficult. Almost everyone withholds his gifts to some extent to protect himself from those who take but do not give. We are naturally suspicious and fearful in the state of original sin because other persons and the physical world can hurt us in countless ways. And what is bizarre is the veneer of normalcy everyone has. We live as if everything is perfectly normal. In reality, everything is falling apart and we are hurtling toward death.


The third condition or “transparency” is the state of redeemed humanity due to the grace of Jesus Christ. The state of being redeemed is that in God’s eyes we are in the condition that original justice expects. We are children of God and reconciled to one another. In this redeemed condition, God expects us to live as children of God and in a state of brotherhood, just as Gaudium et spes described.

This expectation of God is possible to meet because of sanctifying and actual graces. The Holy Spirit gives us the theological virtue of charity so we can live (or give) self-giving love.

Nevertheless, it is difficult to live in this condition. One reason is that we still carry the wounds of original sin and so resist grace. Another is that others are not trying to live in this new way or are doing so very imperfectly. And so are we.

A surprising thing is that this third condition does not pertain only to baptized Christians. To some extent it applies to every human being in all times and places, because in a way hidden to us, the Holy Spirit offers his graces to each human being (CCC 1260).

To summarize, I’m making the claim that our normal human experience is actually very abnormal! We experience all at once (1) the expectation that the original just order should exist for us, (2) the reality of existing in a wounded world, and (3) the divine vocation and ability to live original justice.

An Integration of the Gift of Self with the Three Conditions

We began by looking at the gift of self in the Vatican II pastoral constitution Gaudium et spes. The key statement we examined was “This likeness [“between the union of the divine Persons, and the unity of God’s sons in truth and charity”] reveals that man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.” The sincere gift of self or authentic self-giving means loving, and so serving, other persons despite any tendency to selfishness we possess. When we do this we are like God in his inner Trinitarian life and we find fulfillment.

The three conditions we simultaneously find ourselves in are original justice, in which we expect to receive everything good as a gift, original sin in which we do not, and redemption, in which we are expected to give everything good as a gift.

Original justice

The sincere gift of self relates to the condition of original justice because the gift corresponds to the way things should be from original justice. Under original justice each man is both the prince to whom every good thing is due and the good servant who provides everything to the master joyfully.


The gift of self relates to the condition of redemption because it is possible for us to give this gift through grace. It is interesting that at the Last Supper, Christ the Master donned an apron and humbly washed the feet of his disciples. After he said,

Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. (Jn 13:12-15)

Original sin

The gift of self relates to the condition of original sin in that our condition under original sin makes this self-giving very difficult in some cases. We are usually happy to receive others’ self-giving, although we can also easily take it for granted or judge it not adequate. In our current state in the world, we almost all withhold our gifts to some extent to protect ourselves from those who take but do not give.

Notable exceptions to the withholding of gifts are the saints, totally available persons like Bl. Mother Teresa or St. Josemaria Escriva.

That said, there are plenty of circumstances in which, even in the condition of original sin, gift giving is easy and natural. A mother caring for her cuddly newborn baby is one. Being in love is another. Christmas and birthday giving and helping a friend are others. On the other hand, the baby can cry for the first six months of his life. The beloved can become irritating. The gift may disappoint. The friend might make fun of us behind our back.

So, even through human beings are designed to give themselves to others, it is hard. Due to original sin, we have adopted a defense of selfishness to compensate for the fact that others have not been for us the gift they ought to have been. That selfishness means we are not the gift for others we ought to be. But we can begin to overcome our selfishness and become more self-giving through our correspondence with God’s grace.

As David Isaacs puts it, “A generous person acts unselfishly and cheerfully for the benefit of others, conscious of the value of his help and despite the fact that it may cost him an effort” (Character Building—a guide for parents and teachers. Kildare, Ireland: Four Courts Press, 1976).

Serving others may mean giving something we don’t want to give, which makes it a mortification. But even though it seems like a death, it is really a kind of getting life and fulfillment. “Whoever seeks to gain his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will preserve it” (Lk 17:33).

The Meaning of this Life

For as long as we are in the world, the meaning of life is fully finding ourselves through the sincere gift of ourselves.

We are born not knowing who we are and what we are to do. These must be discovered by experience and reflection. We are very fortunate if someone guides us. We eventually learn we cannot expect others to give to us the way we want. We are very fortunate if some do. However, with God’s grace, we can try to give to others the way they want. When we correspond and grow in the virtue of generosity, this giving can become a joy.

Christ’s invitation to the rich young man can be seen to refer to this gift of self. He told him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Mt 19:21). The Master’s words are not just an invitation, then, to some to dedicate themselves as apostles, or today for some to enter the priesthood or religious life. Rather, it applies to everyone. It is a continual giving of everything we have. It is a giving to the poor, which means everyone, because everyone is spiritually or materially poor in some way. When we do this we are following Christ.

And what about after “this life”? In heaven we will be in the condition we were born for but have been denied. Everyone will be a gift to everyone else and receive everything.


In this life, we experience three simultaneous conditions:

  1. Original justice—how things were supposed to be;
  2. Original sin—how things are because of the Fall;
  3. Redemption—how things can be because of Christ’s death and resurrection.

The gift of self relates to these conditions in these ways:

  1. Under original justice—The gift of self would have been easy and automatic.
  2. Under original sin—The gift of self is difficult because people are trying to protect themselves from others who won’t treat them as they should.
  3. Under Redemption—The gift of self is our vocation, and so, is possible. Because of grace we are able to make a complete gift of self but it is still difficult because of the lasting effects of original sin, which make responding to grace harder.

We can make life better for those around us by making a sincere gift of ourselves, without expecting others to do the same.

  • Our level of success reflects how much we correspond to God’s grace.
  • Hope for every good thing, disappointing and compromised reality, and noble vocation to love mix to create the conflict at the heart of life.

This essay was first published in three parts at The Catholic Imagination.






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