The Ungodly Burden of Paying It Forward

In That One Time I Didn’t Pay It Forward, Trillia Newbell faced a quandary:

I was in the drive-thru at a Starbucks and when I rolled up to the window, the barista informed me that the driver ahead of me had paid for my drink. … I paused, looked at her and admitted, “It’s so interesting. I never really know what to do in this situation.”

As Trillia explains in her post, whether to pass along the kindness by automatically paying for the next person in line for coffee is not as simple as you might think.

I … thought about the day before when I was faced with someone who was clearly in financial need and it hit me, if I can learn to steward my finances well and pray for these opportunities, perhaps I can serve those in need in greater ways.

Trillia gives wise counsel on how to be prepared to give to those in need. Praying for the opportunities means asking for God to make you ready to act on the opportunities he gives you. There’s no sense asking for God-given opportunities if you’re just going to let them pass you by.

The Ungracious Burdens of Pay-It-Forward

Pay-it-forward is not always a blessing. Like many opportunities of grace it can become a burden instead. Trillia found it in her own experience: does accepting the kindness of the person ahead of her in the coffee line mean she is now obligated to pay for the person behind her?

After all, that’s how pay-it-forward is supposed to work: you receive from one person and you help the next. But if that’s what’s required then the pay-it-forward philosophy becomes more burden than blessing, like the philosophies warned about here:

See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ. (Colossians 2:8.)

Is there anything more deceptive than being told you are receiving a gift only to find out there were strings attached?

“Someone just bought your coffee for you. They said it’s their gift to you.”

“Wow, that’s nice. Thanks!”

“Now they expect you to pay for someone else’s coffee.”

“Hm … tell me again how this is a ‘gift’?”

It’s not. It’s an empty gesture built on a deceptive philosophy..

Getting and Giving and the Goodness of God

Blessings of grace come without requirements. They are gifts given with no preconditions attached, not even the precondition that they be handed on to the next person.* Yet there are principles that guide us in giving and receiving. Jesus made it clear:

It is more blessed to give than to receive.(Acts 20:35.)

When Paul quoted Jesus in Acts 20, it was in the context of using material wealth to care for others:

I have not coveted anyone’s silver or gold or clothing. You yourselves know that these hands of mine have supplied my own needs and the needs of my companions. In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” (Acts 20:33-35.)

Paul’s actions followed the command of Jesus to his original followers: “Freely you have received; freely give.” (Matthew 10:8.) And as a group of God’s people later learned, “Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” (2 Corinthians 9:7.)

You have freely received and you are to freely give, not under compulsion, not reluctantly, but cheerfully. No strings attached.

Freely Receive, Freely Give

So don’t let anyone force you to comply with a pay-it-forward philosophy, a philosophy that looks good on the surface but can turn a blessing into a burden. If someone unexpectedly buys you coffee, enjoy. And if your heart prompts you to buy the next person’s cup of coffee, enjoy the good cheer that comes from that.



*You might be thinking of the parable Jesus told about the king’s servant who not only failed to give generously but also failed to receive graciously. (Matthew 18:21-35.) In this story the servant owed his king a debt he could never repay, the king forgave the entire debt, and then the servant went to another person and demanded repayment of a very small personal debt. The king heard about it and was so furious he reinstated the original debt, throwing the servant into prison. But that parable is about forgiveness among God’s people, not how we are to give generously of our possessions to those in need. Not that it has no application whatsoever, but it is not directly about the pay-it-forward problems noted in this post.



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15 Responses to The Ungodly Burden of Paying It Forward

  1. Pastor Bob says:

    I have found that phrase to a bit silly.
    Case in point, waiting at the bus stop a man pulls up, says,
    “OK people, I;m going to pay it forward who wants a ride to the rail station?”
    No takers. He probably did not know that we were going to a different location, and our buss was behind him. Someone told that the buss we were waiting for was behind him. Hope he saw that the bus went a different direction.

    The burden to pay for someone else is NOT served by repeating the gesture then and there. You are correct, it is burden at THAT point. The gesture is best reserved for a moment in the future.
    OR, one is receiving for a past gift.

    There is NO burden, but an opportunity to be generous in the future.

    • Tim says:

      The guy in the car might also have been speaking to some people who would be quite wary of taking a ride from a stranger, no matter how well meaning he was. That’s another thing about giving freely; you have to be ready to have the other person say “No, thanks.”

  2. Laura Droege says:

    When I hear about those pay-it-forward paying for the car in line behind you stories, I wonder about situations where paying-it-forward is irresponsible. For example, the person going through the drive-thru who has her coffee paid for might be financially able to pay for her own coffee, but not for the mega-expensive order of the person in line behind them. Doing so might place her in the position of being unwise with her own finances. (Imagine if it were an order for an entire office!)

    The other situation I thought about was where the person I would be paying for is being irresponsible with whatever they are putting in their own bodies; why should I feel obligated to pay for someone else’s addiction to fast food or sugary drinks? (Yes, this is me being judgmental. But considering that fast food and sugary drinks are addictive and should be considered treats instead of a regular source of calories, then I think the point is valid. I wouldn’t consider paying for another person’s heroin or meth, so why should I feel obligated to pay for the highly addictive food and drink available at most drive thru’s?)

    If the person were truly hungry, I would feel differently. (My husband and I have paid for the meal of someone who was obviously hungry.) But I would need to see the need, rather than be burdened by the “obligation” given in the deceptive pay-it-forward philosophy.

    All of this is a bit of a digression from your post’s intent. But my brain is warmed up and ready to go this morning.

    • Tim says:

      I wondered the same thing. Laura. The Colossians were told to give freely, but it was in the context of caring for those in need. Even wealthy people can be in need of kindness and if picking up their coffee tab is encouraging then it’s a good thing. But when pay-it-forward becomes a rote action in a drive-through line then I think it becomes stale and loses it’s flavor.

  3. Drive through coffee? Huh. I didn’t know that was a thing. We have drive throughs for fast food but I guess we like to walk to get coffee! I’m not convinced by that pay it forward thing. It sounds like a contrived way to make your conscience feel better. Jesus said, “…when you give… do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing…” (Matthew 6:3). In other words, give without keeping account and almost without thinking.

  4. Really good point here, Tim. That pressure to “pass it on” can diminish the enjoyment of what we’ve received — and also our ability to experience the grace. Sometimes we don’t want to feel like receivers or takers, so we quickly try to jump into the giver role where we feel like we have more power and control. I remember in a sermon, our former pastor gave the example of how his friend GAVE him a motorcycle. When someone gives you a vehicle in Ontario, you have to pay a dollar to make it a “sale.” Pastor Doug said that he insisted on giving his friend the dollar, even though the friend did not want to take it — and afterward Pastor Doug said to himself, “Doug, you’re an idiot. You don’t understand grace.” He was so determined to “pay” that he missed the experience of receiving a gift with no strings. I think this could happen with pay-it-forward too; note the word “pay,” not “share” or “give”!

    • Tim says:

      That wording is important, Jeannie. We often say “I’ll pay you back soon.” That works fine for a debt but has no place in a gift, as your pastor experienced. Gifts are given freely with no expectation of repayment, whether forward or back.

  5. Pingback: My Picks for Monday 5-23-2016 | Life on the Bridge

  6. Speaking of other people paying for things, I was getting groceries the other night and because I was cycling and due to having opted for a backpack instead of a handbag, I had left my purse at home. The kind woman behind me insisted upon paying my $17 grocery bill and I noticed afterward that she owned a very modest vehicle. I pray her generosity comes back to her.

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