The Greatest Gift | Ann Voskamp
The Greatest Gift is a 1943 short story written by Philip Van Doren Stern which became the basis for the classic Christmas film It’s a Wonderful Life. But that’s not really relevant (except it’ll make a great icebreaker question for this series) for today. Ann Voskamp’s The Greatest Gift first debuted in 2013, hitting the NYT bestseller’s list. She followed it up in 2014 with Unwrapping the Greatest Gift, which also made the list and the same time climbing sales for Christmas put her original book back on the list.
In the years since, Voskamp has built on the foundation of that success and developed a whole line of Christmas and advent materials. This small group series is a natural addition to that list. Each session in the four-week series runs about twenty minutes in length and is intended for a forty-five to sixty minute lesson in total.
Session 1: Look For Hope
The first session introduces the longing and hoping for Messiah. Voskamp encourages us to look for hope, to long for the presence of Christ. She builds the case that we only find out where we are when we know where he is. She discusses God’s presence throughout history, culminating in the Incarnation. The overriding theme of this session is that any who may have experienced loss in this season can find encouragement in Christ.
Session 2: Linger for Peace
The Greatest Gift continues with Ann Voskamp reminding us to linger with Jesus once we have found him. She focuses on our human inability to receive grace. “What if, by receiving grace, my sins are exposed?” she asks. “We’re better givers than getters,” she continues. Voskamp then encourages us to put our selves aside and allow ourselves to receive God’s grace. She concludes by telling Abraham’s story of provision and his hope in God.
Session 3: Laugh for Joy
Session three is all about the unstoppable force of joy, even if sorrow precedes it. Ann Voskamp relates the story of Sarah and her laughing at Yahweh’s promise of child. That laughter had been preceded by a lifetime of loss, barrenness and sorrow. She compares it with the words of Jesus concerning his coming death and ascension. So you also have sorrow now. But I will see you again. Your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy from you.
Voskamp says that, like Sarah, we can laugh, because our pain has absurdly been turned into improbably into joy. Joy says that ache is not the last word, Jesus is. God takes the greatest evil, the death of Christ, and turns it into the greatest gift. My one quibble with this—major or minor is your decision—is that Sarah’s laugh is not one of relief but of derision. It is not filled with hope, but considers it absurd. Voskamp’s point still stands, but her method of getting there is a bit lacking.
Session 4: Love for Always
The final session of The Greatest Gift is intended to leave a lasting impression. Having looked for hope and discovered the peace and joy of God’s presence, we must now live out that changed life. When you unwrap your worth in Christ, says Voskamp, you are free to give your own gifts and riches. No matter your story before, this is your story now.
The key analogy that Ann Voskamp uses is that of a roof. Love bears…everything. Like a roof, love absorbs everything that lands on it, including the damage. Jesus is our roof, our shelter. And if we are to show his love, we must become the shelter for others as well.
The Greatest Gift Study Guide
Rather disappointingly, the discussion guide for this series is a small booklet that comes with the DVD set. (So, on the plus side, it’s not an added expense.) However, it is also arranged with the expectation that you are going to be reading through the full The Greatest Gift book as well. I’m really not a fan of this style because it has the tendency to turn Bible studies into book clubs. It makes a bit more sense for this study, as the book is meant to be an Advent devotional. Participants read the devotional throughout the week and have a video recap on Sundays.
Each session has two icebreaker questions and four to five discussion questions. If none of these questions seem especially relevant to your group or you have extra time, you can always turn to the discussion questions in The Greatest Gift book for further materials. The guide also suggests that you read through a specific portion of the book and close in prayer. It even includes suggested prayer points that would be relevant to the lesson.
On its own, this wouldn’t be a complete resource, but as it is meant to be used in conjunction with The Greatest Gift devotional, it fulfills its purpose of moderating and moving the Sunday session forward.
The Greatest Gift is beautifully shot, with Ann Voskamp in a very homey and festive setting with Christmas decorations in the background. Voskamp speaks exactly the way she writes—which you’ll love or hate. Her style veers from the excessively poetic into purple prose. Despite these video sessions running 20 minutes on average, there’s not actually a lot being said. It’s so overdone and so cloyingly sweet that I found it personally obnoxious. And lest you think that it’s my male insensitivities, when listening through it again for review, my wife requested I put on headphones about three minutes in.
Obviously, it’s a style that’s gotten the NYT list, so it’s a deliberate choice and one that has worked for her. But for me, it comes across as so scripted, so melodramatic, that it honestly loses some of its sincerity.
The Greatest Gift is not for me personally—but Max Lucado has said that “Ann Voskamp on Christmas is like Monet with sunsets”—so I might be in the minority. If you know Voskamp’s style and like it, then you’ll love this small group Advent study.