In recent years, the phrase “pay it forward” has become very popular in Christian circles. The movie by that name (produced in 2000) helped to make the phrase famous. Even in Midland County, we have seen this phrase take on new meaning connected to the life and death of young Jayden Lamb; around here, people “pay it forward Jayden style.”
You probably know what this means: to do something nice for someone else, even a stranger, before they do anything nice for you. You might pay for the person behind you in line at McDonald’s. You might leave your waitress an extra-large tip and a word of encouragement on the receipt. You might donate blood, hold the door open for a stranger, or offer to take a picture for a couple holding their camera at arm’s length. All of these ideas are summed up in one word: selflessness.
“Paying it forward” is a wonderful thing to do. After all, it is more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20:35). What’s more, Jesus taught us to do unto others as we would have them do to us (Matthew 7:12) – something we learned, hopefully, at an early age and continue to practice our entire lives. And living selflessly is at the core of what Jesus did by washing his disciples’ feet (John 13) and dying on the cross to take away the sins of the world (Matthew 20:25-28).
But there’s a problem with “paying it forward”: it can be done outside the context of relationship. If you pay for a stranger’s coffee at Starbuck’s, that’s great, but what have you done except help that person feel good and save them a few dollars? If you leave an encouraging Post-It note in a library book, that’s great, but how does that strengthen your connectedness to other people?
In Christian circles, we frequently talk about “outreach” as a primary goal for our lives. We want to share the good news of Jesus Christ with others, because it really is good news. But if we only pass tracts to strangers or put bumper stickers on our cars, then we may be missing something. Reaching out to others requires a connection between people.
Do you remember watching the movie E.T. (1982)? The quintessentially memorable moment in that movie occurs when the extra-terrestrial “E.T.” reaches out his shining finger and touches – and heals – Elliot’s injured finger. (“Ouch!”)
Making an impact on someone’s life means we have to risk making personal contact with him or her.
So, pay it forward, Jayden style or Jesus style. Live a life that is beneficial to those around you. Do nice things; say nice things; help those in need. But don’t do it impersonally. Take the extra risk of learning a name, making a friend, asking a question.
Pay for the person behind you in line, and introduce yourself to her. Learn her name. Ask her if there is any other way you can help her today.
Do a random act of kindness for a stranger, and learn his name too. Ask him about his story, sit down for a cup of coffee with him, and listen to his life experiences.
Say hello to your neighbors, and take over a plate of cookies. Invite them over for dinner. Give generously to meet their needs, and remind them that God loves them too.
Build relationships with those whom you bless. If you never see them again, at least you are becoming more selfless, more sensitive to the needs of others. But who knows? Perhaps your paths will cross again in the future. Maybe you can become an encouragement, a spiritual asset, a praying friend for your neighbor.
After all, wouldn’t you like to have more friends like that in your life?