Why Paying It Forward Is Not Generous

You’ve likely seen the headlines where “Chain Reaction of Kindness Involved Over 900 Vehicles Driving Through a Minnesota Dairy Queen” or “Mystery Woman Picks Up Lunch Tab For Everyone in the Denny’s Restaurant.”

Paying it forward has been a viral act of spontaneous generosity for over a decade. According to the New York Times, “Social scientists have conducted experiments demonstrating that the effect of a single act of kindness can in fact ripple through a social network, setting off chains of generosity.”[1]

But is paying it forward everything it seems? On the surface, it seems like a great thing, but it can easily lead to inflated views about your own generosity—and more.

Here are three reasons why paying it forward is dangerous.

1. You’re Helping Those Who Can Help Themselves

Paying it forward typically means you’re helping someone at the same socioeconomic status. Let’s say I’m at a Michelin star restaurant eating an eight-course meal. When I see a family laughing and having a great time, I call my waiter over and ask, “Can I pay for their dinner?” The waiter says, “Of course!” The family’s shocked! They’re ecstatic! I’ve made their day and helped a family in need—or did I?

The people eating at the same restaurant I’m eating at are not in deep financial need. Many times, the person you’re buying a coffee for or buying breakfast for may be in the same financial standing you are, if not higher. You shouldn’t be patting yourself on the back for paying for someone else’s dinner if you’re just redistributing your wealth from one first-world citizen to another first-world citizen. The poorest of the poor in America likely have access to clean water, shelter, health care, and other social safety nets that would astound third-world citizens.

Jesus said, “Sell your possessions, and give to the needy” (Luke 12:33). This means give to those who need a hand up, not those who are level with you. Because that’s a handshake—not a hand up. The truth is that when you’re paying it forward, you’re not giving to the truly needy, but to make yourself feel good.

2. You’re Not as Anonymous as You Think

One of the reasons paying it forward carries so much weight is that it’s a stranger helping a stranger who can’t repay you. The person you’re buying the meal for or helping usually doesn’t know who you are.

But is your act of generosity really that anonymous? The shift of people working the restaurant or the drive thru know. You know. The person you are donating through knows—whether the cashier, barista, or the server. They know. Jesus said in Matthew, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven” (6.1). Don’t give for the praise of others or for others’ admiration or approval. I’m shocked at the number of people who put their charitable deeds on social media—loving the comments, likes, and attention. Jesus says don’t give for the attention.

What should you do instead? Jesus gives us the clear alternative: Give in secret. Jesus says, “But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:3-4). God rewards the acts of generosity that only he knows about. Why? Because they’re done to please him, not to feed others’ approval, admiration, and acceptance of you.

One way to give in secret is to faithfully tithe, which is giving ten percent to God every paycheck. It’s not glamorous. No one’s going to give you a gold star. But God knows and will reward you. If this seems difficult to do, remember that everything you have, God has given you out of his grace. Only he deserves the credit for your giving.

3. Heroic, One-Time Giving Events Don’t Build a Habit of Generosity

I’ll be straight with you: Paying it forward every once in awhile is not obedient to God’s plan for your finances. In fact, you are actually hijacking and shortcutting your own ability to give. Here’s how: When you pay it forward for someone, you are etching in your conscience this time you gave. Then undoubtedly, weeks, months, and years go by where you aren’t giving or even tithing. Yet if someone were to ask you, “Are you a generous person?” It’s human nature to respond, “Yes, because of that one time when I gave that coffee or doughnut or meal to a stranger long ago.”

The reality is that heroic, one-time giving events don’t build a habit of generosity.

Let’s go back to those verses we read earlier. Notice that Jesus said, “WHEN you give to the needy”—not IF you give, not maybe when you feel like giving. No, when. Christ’s expectation is that his followers are radically generous and sacrificially giving all the time. It’s a habit, a lifestyle, a way of life, not a one-time event.


Don’t fall for the trap of giving outside of the church through paying it forward and saying that you’re generous. Instead, start with your tithe, build a lifestyle of generosity, and give in secret. The Father who sees you in secret will reward you—and his blessing is far more satisfying than any emotional high from buying a stranger’s coffee.

[1] https://www.goodnewsnetwork.org/the-science-of-paying-it-forward-nyt/

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