We live in an age of advertising. Scroll through your social media feed, and you’ll see a slough of products marketed directly to you. The ads are so common that we hardly even notice them anymore.
Some companies catch your eye with the promise of a free or heavily discounted item with the hope that you’ll stop scrolling long enough to click on their link.
And the bait works too often. But once you get to the website, you find that the free item isn’t really free. You need to spend a certain amount of money in order to qualify for the offer. Now the company’s hope is that you’re already emotionally invested enough that you’ll buy their products, despite having just been deceived. And it works more often than a reasonable person would think.
Growing up, my dad used to always tell me, “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” And when it comes to advertising, it’s so true. There’s no such thing as a free lunch.
But what about in our personal relationships? Ought we to be jaded when someone seems to show us too much kindness, or at least a little guarded? Is there always a catch when someone extends generosity to us? Should there be?
While it’s true that some people will be nice to us only to gain some kind of control over us, it’s certainly not always the case. But how do we navigate that?
The idea of reciprocity has been a part of society for as long as society has existed. It’s the principle that every act of kindness is deserving of kindness in return. When done in good faith, the principle of reciprocity helps a community thrive.
Reciprocity in the Bible
We can actually find reciprocity all over the New Testament. And it’s viewed as a very good thing.
Jesus said, “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them” (Matthew 7:12). This kind of attitude fosters good will and mutual benefit. You don’t even have to be a Christian to agree with what Jesus is saying here.
Paul engaged in reciprocity with other believers all the time. In fact, his entire letter to the church in Philippi seems to reflect it. Here’s how Paul starts the letter.
“I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now.” (Philippians 1:3-5)
When Paul talks about partnership, what he’s talking about is money. The church in Philippi had extended some financial support for Paul’s missionary endeavors. And they did this because they felt indebted to Paul for his leadership, his teaching, and his kindness toward them. So in turn, Paul writes a letter back full of gratitude, encouragements, and further teaching.
Paul and this group of believers in Philippi had a reciprocal relationship. They were always returning one kind act for another. Reciprocity builds relationships of trust and support.
The Dangers of Reciprocity
Even with all its benefits and its ability to help us build Jesus-centered relationships, there’s a very real danger of reciprocity being abused.
One person can be kind and generous to another, only with the intent of exacting control over that person. Some people with resources will show kindness to people of influence, with the hopes of controlling that influencer when it benefits them.
Oftentimes, a person doesn’t realize that another person’s kindness was not genuine until they find themselves in an awkward or compromising position. This isn’t what Jesus wants.
What’s in it for You?
Broken reciprocity says, “What’s in it for me? How can I be paid back for the kindness I have shown.” The healthy reciprocity that Jesus wants for us says this: “How can I give even more to another person based on the kindness they have shown me?”
Here’s what Paul says.
“Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor.” (Romans 12:9-10)
The goal isn’t to see how much you can get out of people by being strategically kind to them. The goal is to see how much kindness we can show free of charge, particularly for those to whom we owe a debt of gratitude.
“Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” (Romans 13:8)
4 Tips For Navigating Reciprocity
With all that being said, there are some practical things that will help us navigate the sometimes uncertain waters of giving and receiving gifts and kindness in relationships. Here are a few tips.
1. Not every act of kindness is free.
As the saying goes, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” And while that isn’t always true, it’s true often enough for there to be a saying about it.
Here’s what it says in the Proverbs.
“When you sit down to eat with a ruler, observe carefully what is before you, and put a knife to your throat if you are given to appetite. Do not desire his delicacies, for they are deceptive food.
Do not eat the bread of a man who is stingy; do not desire his delicacies, for he is like one who is inwardly calculating. ‘Eat and drink!’ he says to you, but his heart is not with you.”
(Proverbs 23:1-3; 6-7)
In summary, it would be better to eat instant ramen by yourself than to enjoy the finest delicacies with an influential person who believes they can buy you with their kindness.
We need to be aware of these kinds of people. If you get even a whiff of this, you should run for the hills.
2. It’s not your job to determine every intention of everyone’s heart.
At the same time, it’s not my job to discern everybody’s motives with every act of kindness. Sometimes, when someone shows kindness toward you, you can be a little bit suspicious of it. You can ask, “What do you want, really?”
But sometimes you read the situation wrong. So it’s okay to accept kindness, assuming that it’s genuine, but still watching out for if it’s not.
Who am I to reject someone’s genuine kindness toward me? Some people are genuinely and incredibly generous. To reject their kindness would be to hinder them from using their spiritual gifts.
3. It is your job to watch your own motivations.
You do need to watch yourself and your own motivations. Do you seek to hang out with powerful, influential, and wealthy people simply because they are powerful, influential, or wealthy? Are you tempted to be a social climber?
At some point or another, we are all tempted to show greater kindness to “important” people, because we see something in it for us.
But this kind of attitude runs counter to everything that Jesus stands for.
“My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, ‘You sit here in a good place,’ while you say to the poor man, ‘You stand over there,’ or, ‘Sit down at my feet,’ have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” (James 2:1-4)
God has chosen the poor and weak of this world to be rich in faith. Value them just as much as you do the powerful and influential.
4. Remember not to become jaded.
In our efforts to be alert of people’s intentions, it can be hard not to become jaded. To doubt everyone’s motives, including your own. To view the world in purely utilitarian terms. It’s easy to think that “everyone is just looking out for number 1.”
But Jesus hasn’t done that. And his Spirit is living in the Church. He is making a new way where genuine kindness comes free of charge.
So make your kindness free of charge, and you will begin to see others in your life do the same.