From the March/April 2015 issue of Discern Magazine

Pay It Forward

Popular catchphrases can be shallow and trite. But the concept of “paying it forward” actually has an amazing history and a powerful potential to do good.

Pay it forward is a very old and intriguing idea. Benjamin Franklin believed and practiced it. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote of it. Science-fiction masters Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury illustrated it in their work. 

Some believe pay it forward actually dates from the Greek playwright Menander in the 300s B.C. In reality the concept is much more ancient that that; it’s existed since the beginning of time.

More recently it was made popular in a 1999 novel by Catherine Ryan Hyde and a popular film released the next year. Both bore the title that crystalizes the concept: Pay It Forward. This phrase encourages us to do a good deed for people in need and, when thanked, to ask them to repay the good to someone else.

Quotes about pay it forward: Benjamin Franklin and doing “a deal of good”

Benjamin Franklin’s practice is found in a letter to Benjamin Webb in 1784: 

“I send you herewith a Bill for Ten Louis d’ors [French gold coins]. I do not pretend to give such a Sum; I only lend it to you. When you shall return to your Country with a good Character, you cannot fail of getting into some Business, that will in time enable you to pay all your Debts. In that Case, when you meet with another honest Man in similar Distress, you must pay me by lending this Sum to him; enjoining him to discharge the Debt by a like operation, when he shall be able, and shall meet with another opportunity. I hope it may thus go thro’ many hands, before it meets with a Knave that will stop its Progress. 

“This is a trick of mine for doing a deal of good with a little money.”

Encouraging those we help to pay it forward can indeed multiply the good we practice.

Several “pay it forward”–oriented foundations now encourage the practice in various ways. One sells plastic bracelets with the motto inscribed as a wearable reminder to look for opportunities to do good for others. The bracelets are intended to be passed on to a beneficiary as a reminder to keep the chain of good deeds unbroken.

The origin of the idea behind pay it forward

This idea, whether in its modern adaptations or its ancient applications, actually has an older and more important source than any human history: God created it, and He has practiced it since “the beginning.”

We see this in James 1:16-17: “Do not be deceived, my beloved brethren. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning.”

Everything good we experience in life is a gift from God, where good starts. He doesn’t owe anyone anything; He has no debts to repay. He doesn’t practice “random acts” of kindness; His blessings are all significant and serve the transcendent purpose of human life. 

Whatever good we are capable of doing is only possible because God gave us the means, starting with the breath of life: “In Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).

Pay it forward and the Golden Rule

The Bible enjoins upon Christians the necessity of passing on to others the good God has done to them. Jesus’ simple statement is now often known as the Golden Rule: “Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12). 

Doing good in this way sums up God’s relationship principles in the Bible.

We should strive to do good deeds wherever we can. No one should be excluded, though fellow Christians deserve extra attention. “And let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all, especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6:9-10).

The Bible, then, encourages us to reflect on the good God has done in our lives and to pass it on to others. 

What good does the Bible say we should pay forward?

1. Love 

“We love Him because He first loved us. If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen? And this commandment we have from Him: that he who loves God must love his brother also” (1 John 4:19-21).

When we realize how much God loves us, and how many good things He is doing for us now and will do for us in the future, we love Him in return. And when that happens, we have a responsibility to love our fellow human beings. That divine, selfless, altruistic love that we receive from our Father in heaven must be paid forward to His other children.

One of the concepts in the novel Pay It Forward is that good deeds are more powerful if done for people we don’t know or wouldn’t naturally want to help. This, too, is a reflection of God’s character and His will for us. When God begins to work with us, doing good to us, we’re not good. 

When we realize how much God loves us, and how many good things He is doing for us now and will do for us in the future, we love Him in return. And when that happens, we have a responsibility to love our fellow human beings.

“But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him. For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. And not only that, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation” (Romans 5:8-11). 

God shows mercy to us when we are still “enemies,” living in violation of His will. Jesus was willing to die for people who were opposing Him. 

We must pay forward this kind of love. Jesus stated, “I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:44-45).

2. Reconciliation

“Now all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation, that is, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them, and has committed to us the word of reconciliation. Now then, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us: we implore you on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:18-20). 

Through Christ’s sacrifice, God reconciled us to Him. That is, He healed and restored our relationship, which had been broken by our sins. Now we are told we have a ministry (service) of reconciliation, to do what we can to help people be reconciled with God and with each other. Working collectively to proclaim the way to reconciliation with God is part of the mission of the Church. We should also individually seek ways to help restore fractured friendships and heal wounded family relationships.

3. Hope

“But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear” (1 Peter 3:15).

The world is growing increasingly dark and forbidding. Fears of wars and terrorism, crime, disease epidemics, religious persecution, economic crises and other ills are causing many people to doubt there can be a bright future. Some live in despair. 

Christians live in the hope of God’s promises that, though the planet will traverse a very dark time, the world will finally see the ultimate happy ending. And those who walk with God can be assured of His care and protection even in the most difficult circumstances (Hebrews 13:5-6). 

We need to be prepared to share that hope with others who ask about our faith and confidence. This will become more important as the days further darken. We should be prepared to pay forward the hope that God has given us.

4. The gospel of the Kingdom

Jesus chose 12 disciples and sent them out on a mission. He said, “And as you go, preach, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out demons. Freely you have received, freely give” (Matthew 10:7-8). 

He told the disciples that they had been taught the truth of God without charge, and they were to pay that forward to others without cost. This is the reason Discern has no subscription cost. We who produce this magazine learned the truth of the gospel of the Kingdom of God for free, made possible by the contributions of those who supported the work of God in the past. We now pay this forward to you without obligation. 

We hope that if you feel thankful for learning these biblical truths, you will become involved in continuing this work and help make it possible to pay it forward to others.

While we are told to be ready to share this hope with those who ask us individually, sharing the gospel is mostly a collective effort. If you would like to know how you can help pay forward this vital gift of truth, please see the How Can I Help? link at the bottom of the Life, Hope & Truth website.

Do your part in paying it forward

Passing on good deeds may seem like a modern idea, but it is as old as the work God is doing with humanity. He has given us life and everything else we need to achieve our potential—eternal life in the family of God. Let’s take the good things God has done for us and do our part to pay them forward.

About the Author

Joel Meeker

Joel Meeker

Joel Meeker is a pastor, writer, editor and administrator. He serves as regional director for the French-speaking regions of the Church of God, a Worldwide Association, and as chairman of its Board of Directors.

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