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.
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.