When you receive a gift do you feel compelled to reciprocate? When you give a gift do you also expect something in return? If we’re honest, reciprocity can undermine our gratefulness.
Reciprocity and gift-giving
Reciprocity roars it’s ugly head every year at Christmas time. We remember what someone gave us last year and we strategize how to match or one-up them. Even when we can’t afford it. Do you know how many families go into debt every year just to give gifts they can’t afford?
It reminds me of the Lending Tree commercial of Stanley who’s in debt up to his eyeballs with his perfect house, new car, and manicured life. See here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r0HX4a5P8eE
My parents never expected me to reciprocate the lavish gifts they gave me. They unwittingly taught me that I can’t outgive them. Even more so, I can never outgive God. God knows we can’t repay the priceless gift we received in our salvation. In fact, God doesn’t need anything from us.
“Human hands can’t serve his needs—for he has no needs. He himself gives life and breath to everything, and he satisfies every need.”Acts 17:25 NLT
I recently received a gift from a work colleague. It’s beautiful, unexpected, and there’s no way I can repay him. But why do I feel like I need to?
The game of reciprocity
We’ve been trained from childhood that actions earn rewards. Games like Monopoly, Life, and Acquire taught us to make wise investments with our money, time, and friendships so we can grow our bank accounts and influence. We give because we never know when we’ll need to call on the favor.
If you’re like me, you also don’t want to feel like you’re in debt to someone else’s generosity.
The Golden Rule is sometimes misapplied
The Golden Rule, as expressed by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount underlies all the prosperous cultures in history. When people treat others the way they want to be treated, families, companies, communities, and societies will get along better than when people only look after their own interests.
“In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets.”Matt. 7:12 NLT
In a pluralistic world, people no longer find the Golden Rule helpful (as expressed in this NY Times article). Many bristle at the idea that someone might impose their idea of morality upon them.
I think that’s one way the Golden Rule is misunderstood. It’s not about imposing my will upon others for how they should live. Instead, it’s about putting the interests of others before my own.
Here’s where that relates to reciprocity. If I think carefully about your needs, serve you, and give you extravagant gifts, but expect that because of the Golden Rule that you will return the favor someday, that’s not gratitude. I’m keeping score. I expect you to do unto me what I did unto you.
If we want to play that game with God, we will lose every day.
Generosity > Reciprocity
It’s not wrong to reciprocate generosity. As Jesus points out in Luke 6:32-34, even sinners do that. It’s easy to give to someone who will return the favor.
If you want to model God, you will follow Jesus’ teachings. “Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who hurt you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, offer the other cheek also. If someone demands your coat, offer your shirt also. Give to anyone who asks; and when things are taken away from you, don’t try to get them back.”
Only after saying all this does Jesus deliver the golden rule: “Do to others as you would like them to do to you.”
True gratitude flows from a heart that so full that it doesn’t need anything in return. The joy comes from giving. Seeing the gratitude of the receiver is a gift in itself, but even when the gift isn’t acknowledged, a truly grateful person delights that they could give because they know they are mightily blessed.
Try one of these ways to practice generosity without expectation of reciprocity. Be sure to express your gratitude as you do it:
- Visit someone who is alone and can’t return the visit
- Take someone out for lunch who you know can’t repay you
- If someone asks you for a favor, go beyond what they requested
- Volunteer to babysit or petsit for someone without compensation
- Deliver groceries anonymously to a family in need
- Give to an unemployed family anonymously through your church
- Pay it forward by buying someone’s drink at Starbucks
Father, thank you for loving me, even though I can never repay you. Fill my heart with gratitude for all the amazing gifts you keep pouring out on me. Forgive me for thinking I somehow need to repay you or others. Teach me to receive without feeling compelled to repay the gift. Even more, teach me to give without expectation of reciprocity. In Jesus’ name, I pray. Amen.