“Pay It Forward” (And The Rest Of The Story)


A Tale Of Two Movies

The concept of doing good and of “paying it forward” is not new. No, not even in the 2000 movie starring Kevin Spacey, Helen Hunt and Haley Joel Osment. And therein lies a story worth telling. Perhaps you remember the name, Lloyd C. Douglas. If not, allow me to fill in the blank spaces. Lloyd Cassel Douglas (August 27, 1877 – FeLCDouglasbruary 13, 1951) was a Lutheran pastor and one of the most popular American authors of his time, although he did not write his first novel until he was 50 (see, there’s still hope for the rest of us “late bloomers”!). He is, perhaps, best remembered for his book, and the 1953 movie adaptation, “The Robe.”  That book sold more than 2 million copies, making it a publishing blockbuster. But The_RobeDouglas’ first book was a novel entitled Magnificent Obsession, published in 1929. The book was an immediate and sensational success and was twice made into a major movie ( in 1935 and again in 1954). The title comes from “the magnificent obsession that grows from doing good deeds” which author Lloyd Douglas based upon Jesus’ teachings in the gospels concerning good deeds done quietly and anonymously. At the time of their respective releases, both movies were well received by the public and were regarded as spiritual and reflective of biblical truths.

Magnificent_ObsessionAnd there stands the profound difference between Pay It Forward on the one hand and Magnificent Obsession on the other. One is rooted and grounded in Postmodern (i.e., post-WW2) Existentialism, while the other is rooted and grounded in timeless biblical truth as taught by Jesus and the early Church. Standing on its own, the philosophy of “Pay It Forward” represents good deeds divorced from any “greater meaning” beyond the individual performing the deed, the act itself and the moment (at this point you might want to refer to my article “And That’s Why Harvard Can’t Teach Ethics”). Pay It Forward is the name of a sailing ship populated by a well intentioned crew which desires to do good. But it is a ship which possesses no sail to move it along, no compass to give it direction and no rudder with which to steer. One of the frequent points made by movie critics concerning Pay It Forward was the blatant attempt by the movie-makers to keep people engaged with the plot by means of emotional manipulation. Any movement driven by adrenaline, feelings and emotional manipulation is doomed to long-term exhaustion and irrelevance, in spite of any good intentions on the part of its promoters and a myriad of internet websites.

Unless . . .

A Kingdom Perspective

“So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 7:12)

In a very real sense, the concept of “pay it forward” in its secular form mirrors a simple-but-biblical truth taught to children in Sunday School for 200 years (Sunday Schools were a product of the Evangelical Awakening in England, but that’s story for another day), best known as “The Golden Rule”: do to others as you would have them do to you. Treat others as you would want to be treated if your situations were reversed. From a biblical perspective, “pay it forward” potentially embodies the teaching of Jesus in Luke 6 where Jesus tells His disciples, “. . . love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:35-36) What is missing in the secular world of “pay it forward” is a sustainable underlying philosophy which roots “good” in an objective reality greater than personal existential decision making based on what makes us “feel good” about “doing good.”

In a biblical worldview, good deeds are neither random nor emotion-driven. Rather, they are personal and intentional, representing the outward expression of an inward transformation, driven by clear biblical instruction and reinforced by the inward conviction of the Holy Spirit. And, yes, that kind of “doing good” for the right reasons can also make one “feel good” about doing the right thing. But, as Christians, our worldview sustains us in doing good during those times when doing good is the harder choice and the more difficult path. We are commanded to do good to all men (Galatians 6:10. Please note that this is a command, not a pay-it-forward suggestion). We are expected to forgive others in the same way that we have been forgiven (i.e., unconditionally, Ephesians 4:32). We are encouraged to not give up in doing good, even when we are weary in the doing (2 Thessalonians 3:13; Galatians 6:9). And we are reminded that there are eternal consequences to our obedience in doing good (Matthew 25:31ff). We are not “altruists” who engage in good-for-good’s-sake, especially since, in a Naturalistic worldview there is no such thing as objective, identifiable “good” (Again see my article, “And That’s Why Harvard Can’t Teach Ethics”). We are “disciples of the Kingdom” who do good-for-God’s-sake.

A Kingdom Conspiracy Of Intentional Kindness

“. . . love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:35-36)

What do we mean by a conspiracy of kindness and compassion? The Hebrew idea of a “conspiracy” envisions people who bind themselves together for a common purpose (expressed by the Hebrew root qashar). To me, this suggests both intentionality and unity of purpose. I believe it is time to move beyond “random acts” and “paying it forward.” It is time to embrace a Kingdom conspiracy which embodies a unity of purpose along with intentional kindness and good deeds, and which reflects the goodness of God and the values of His Kingdom. It is a conspiracy of inward and outward good. In other words, it both LOOKS good outwardly and IS good intrinsically, which mirroring both the intrinsic goodness of God and the outward beauty of His holiness. It is a conspiracy of genuine kindness which reflects the kindness and graciousness of God. It is a conspiracy which embodies the mercy and compassion of God. It is a conspiracy to intentionally love and do good in a manner which reflects our relationship with the God Who is kind and compassionate toward the needs of others. Isn’t it time you joined the conspiracy?

MBK Conspiracy Card - Front