“Pay every debt as if God wrote the bill.” So goes the counsel of Ralph Waldo Emerson, which is worth considering, perhaps particularly in the season of gift giving. Do you feel pressure to reciprocate when someone treats you to lunch? Do you find yourself repaying kindness for kindness, compliment for compliment, present for present and so on? You are far from alone if you do. According to sociologists, this sense of obligation, which they refer to as the “Rule of Reciprocation,” is present in every single known human society. And it is as powerful as it is prevalent. Professor of psychology Robert Cialdini notes, “So typical is it for indebtedness to accompany the receipt of [favors, gifts, and the like] that a phrase like ‘much obliged’ has become a synonym for ‘thank you.’”(1)
The implications of that etymological statement perhaps unveil our haste in responding to debt. Indebtedness is uncomfortable, after all; to be rid of it is liberating. Gratitude, on the contrary, asks much more of us. Our sense of indebtedness is not removed, but lingers in a state of being thankful.
Of course, you can return a favor and still experience gratitude for the favor given you. But you can also return a favor simply to reciprocate, to mindlessly remove that feeling of indebtedness. One psychology class carried out a revealing experiment on this subject. The professor sent Christmas cards to a large list of complete strangers to test the Rule of Reciprocation. He found response astounding. Cards came pouring back to him, all from people he had never met, the vast majority never even inquiring into the identity of the unknown sender! They simply received his card, and automatically sent one in return.
The experiment merits inquiry into our own lives. How do we respond to the sense of obligation? Are we uncomfortable with indebtedness? It is worth asking if for no other reason than that there will be times in life for which there is no fitting response to indebtedness. What happens when we discover there is no appropriate response to the gift or the giver? What will happen when we simply cannot reciprocate?
One simple option is that we respond with gratitude. We come into the presence of the giver with thanksgiving and we are changed by the gift.
It is an option favored by the historical church. Faith in some ways is an invitation into the life of gratitude. For when the giver is the human Son of God, approaching humanity as one of us, freely mediating our case before God, submitting to death and sorrow in innocence, holding the world in heart, how then do we respond? The old hymn perhaps offers much wisdom:
Alas! and did my Savior bleed,
And did my Sovereign die?
Would He devote that sacred head,
For such a worm as I?
Thus might I hide my blushing face,
While His dear cross appears,
Dissolve my heart in thankfulness,
And melt my eyes to tears.
But drops of grief can ne’er repay,
The debt of love I owe:
Here, Lord, I give my self away,
‘Tis all that I can do.(2)
It is gratitude that sees this sacred debt for which there is no reciprocating and with devotion says, “Come, Lord Jesus. Here I am.”
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) Robert Cialdini, Influence: Science and Practice (Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 2001), 20.
(2) Isaac Watts, “Alas and Did my Savior Bleed?“