Pay It Forward
Have you ever heard of International Pay It Forward Day? Every April 28, in an attempt to transform the world for the better, a global movement encourages people to perform acts of kindness. The hope is that such goodwill toward others might grow and spread throughout the year. The movement arose in 2007, inspired by an earlier book and movie by the same name.
The idea behind paying it forward is simple: When you receive an act of kindness or help from someone, instead of trying to pay it back, you pay it forward by doing something nice for someone else.
The concept supposedly goes back to ancient times. Instead of repaying the lender for a monetary loan or gift, the borrower would forward the payment to someone else by way of a service, monetary exchange, or even another loan with the same “pay it forward” requirement. Benjamin Franklin was known to lend money in this manner in the late 1700s.
Paying it forward can help spread some civility and kindness. But random acts of impersonal politeness can only go so far.
A Deeper Level
For the Christian community, Jesus and the apostles taught a more profound level of this concept: doing good from a grateful heart that recognizes the magnitude of blessings received.
Jesus told His followers to love one another as He loved them: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another” (Jn. 13:34; cf. 15:12). When Jesus washed the disciples’ feet, He modeled humble service toward others and told them, “You should do as I have done to you” (13:15).
He also taught that doing good for others is not about keeping score or being repaid: “Love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return” (Lk. 6:35).
In his letters to the churches, the apostle Paul gave similar commands, urging believers in Ephesus and Colossae to forgive others as Christ forgave them (Eph. 4:32; Col. 3:13). Husbands were told to love their wives as Christ loved the church (Eph. 5:25).
Directly and indirectly throughout Scripture, God’s people are told to accept God’s blessings gratefully and, in a sense, pay them forward by treating others with the same grace and mercy the Lord has shown them. Rather than being a divine plan to build a kinder and gentler world, such godly behavior demonstrates what it means to be a true disciple of Christ: “By this all will know that you are My disciples” (Jn. 13:35).
A Living Example
Paul embodied this attitude when dealing with his friend Philemon and Philemon’s runaway slave, Onesimus. After coming to know Christ under Paul’s ministry while Paul was imprisoned in Rome, Onesimus was sent home to Philemon in Colossae. In an attempt to reconcile slave and master, Paul sent a letter encouraging Philemon to receive Onesimus and treat him not as a worthless runaway but, rather, as a valuable new brother in Christ.
Paul’s petition on Onesimus’ behalf is preserved in its entirety in the 25 verses of the book of Philemon. Although brief, the letter discloses much about the lives and characters of both Philemon and Onesimus, as well as opening a window to the apostle’s heart and passions.
Now that Onesimus was a brother in the faith, Paul appealed to his friend, “Receive him as you would me” (Phile. 17). The word receive has the sense of receiving someone warmly and is used of welcoming someone into your home with kindness. Since Philemon no doubt considered himself a close friend of Paul’s, Paul encouraged him to welcome Onesimus as if he were the apostle himself.
How could Paul expect Philemon to accept a slave who had wronged him in the same way he would receive the great teacher and evangelist? This act would go deeper than simply paying it forward.
In a letter Paul wrote to the church at Rome, he prodded them, “Receive one another, just as Christ also received us, to the glory of God” (Rom. 15:7). They were also instructed to “receive one who is weak in the faith” willingly (14:1).
Paul lived in gratitude for the way Jesus loved, reached out, and accepted him, even though he was an enemy who had persecuted the church. In the same way, Paul reached out and welcomed those who came to know Christ, regardless of their backgrounds. He then encouraged those who were received by Christ to pay it forward to others.
Accordingly, Paul intentionally reminded Philemon that it was through the apostle’s ministry that Philemon himself had come to be accepted in the Savior (Phile. 19). Paul, Philemon, and now Onesimus had tasted the grace of God by which they were all “accepted in the Beloved” (Eph. 1:6).
Paul did not tell Philemon to ignore Onesimus’ wrongs or disregard the debt he had incurred. The phrase but if he has wronged you or owes anything assumes a positive response (Phile. 18). Paul was not being coy by saying, “if.” He probably knew the facts but not the full extent of the harm Onesimus had caused his friend. The Greek word for “wronged” conveys the idea of sinning against God or others.
Fully recognizing the slave’s sins against his master had created a debt the slave could not pay, Paul declared, “Put that on my account….I will repay” (vv. 18–19). This was Paul’s personal promise to his friend and partner in the gospel. His guarantee was as good as his word, signed and sealed in his own handwriting. Paul was saying, “Charge it to me. I will pay it back. You have my word and signature on it.”
As a scholar of the Hebrew Scriptures, Paul knew what it meant for someone to pay a debt that never could be repaid. He was well acquainted with the Messianic blessing of
He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement for our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned, every one, to his own way; and the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.
God could not simply overlook sin; the debt had to be paid. There was no doubt in Paul’s mind who paid the debt for his sins: “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3).
Paul also declared, “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23). His overflowing thankfulness and gratitude for the payment Jesus made on his behalf can be seen throughout his biblical writings. Paul owed more to Jesus than he could ever begin to repay. Compared to what Jesus paid on his behalf, the simple act of assuming a brother’s debt was inconsequential. Paul also reminded Philemon how much he had received from and owed to others for their part in the forgiveness his friend had received from the Lord.
Paul not only encouraged others to forgive as they had been forgiven, he lived those words. As the Lord led, he challenged and directed the forgiven, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you” (Eph. 4:32).
In light of the indescribable gift we have in Christ, it may seem insignificant to pay it forward with the limited love, acceptance, and forgiveness we are able to offer to others from our sin-scarred hearts. But paying it forward from a heart filled with gratitude for the blessings we have received bears testimony to our faith in Jesus and glorifies our Father in heaven.
“Therefore be imitators of God as dear children. And walk in love, as Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma” (5:1–2).