Commonly when we do things for other people, in whatever ways it might be in, we typically want something back. In light of seeing God’s grace (a free gift that we do not deserve) for us through Jesus Christ, Christians have learnt what loving grace is: it is caring for someone else without expecting anything in return. Whether it be saying something encouraging, giving someone a present, giving someone a lift or spending time for someone, we know that it is real genuine love if we do these things without wanting anything in return. Love is selfless and with the idea of grace permeating the whole of a Christian’s life, the balanced “equation” of receiving what you give out no longer holds. To some degree, the golden rule “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is talking about doing things you “hope” others will do back for you, but they may not necessarily return that favour. The golden rule is about giving than receiving.
When we give, we have a threshold on how much we are comfortable with not receiving back. Using an illustration with numbers, it may be treating your friend for a $5 McDonald’s lunch. How many $5 McDonald’s meals would you be willing to treat your friend before wanting them to treat you back? Using an illustration with God, He is willing to give us His Son to die for our sins, knowing that He will not (or rather cannot) receive anything from us remotely close in value (since we have nothing to offer). But God can sit well with this “imbalance”, and He considers our faith in Jesus as “good enough” (otherwise known as “being justified” in Christ) such that we have an inheritance of eternal life. At the end of the day, because of our limitations as human beings, we cannot indefinitely keep giving and not receiving anything back (it’s also not a good habit either, more on that later); ultimately we will want something in return for the things we do.
Now, taking this concept into the context of helping people, being generous, etc (and also into the context of Christian ministry and discipleship), there are factors that affect much we can give without receiving:
The first is how much you have/own to give. For example, the more money you have, the less significant a $5 McDonald’s meal is going to feel; you’ll be willing to give more money away without wanting anything in return simply because you have more of it. Outside of money, if you have a lot of skill, resources (such as time), maturity (as a Christian), knowledge, etc, then you will be able to contribute more again for the reason that you have more of it.
Second is how much the other person has/owns to give back. If the other person doesn’t have as much money, time, skill, resources, maturity, knowledge, they won’t have much to give in the first place. In comparing with what you have and what the other person has, it makes sense that the person who has more should give more. This is particularly important in Christian ministry and discipleship – knowing that the person you are looking after has less than you (particularly Christian maturity) should be an underlying reason to why you should be giving more and receiving less.
Third is your willingness to give. It might not really matter how much you have to give, if you aren’t willing to actually give it to someone else. Greed and selfishness are things that stop us from giving as much as we would want or “can”, and it varies from person to person but we are all greedy and selfish in our own ways. For the context of relationship building, we will need to give ourselves to the other person and what our hearts feel in order to build a relationship; and our willingness to open and reveal our personal sides will depend on how much trust we have for the other person.
Fourth is their willingness to give. The same principle as above; the only difference is that it may be harder to change someone else’s willingness to give more. We can only control our hearts, not someone else’s. Again with relationship building, if you have not made yourself trustworthy, there should be little expectation that the other person will be willing to open themself up to you.
Fifth is your willingness to receive. How much the other person can give back will be dictated by how much you are comfortable with receiving. Some people aren’t comfortable with receiving something back – they may be happy with their actions being “gracious” and don’t want the other person to nullify that grace. It may also be that you want to receive something back in a different form to what you gave to the other person. For example, if your parents help you (as a child) with your homework, they won’t expect you to help them with their full-time work – you could try to help but cause more trouble than good. Your parents may probably be happy if you respond with obedience instead.
Lastly (for now) is their willingness to receive. Along the same ideas as above, you also cannot force a gift onto other people if they really don’t want it (maybe they are uncomfortable with receiving certain things from you). Forcing something onto someone else is not loving, and as such if they are not willing to receive certain things from you, you cannot give it to them, out of love.
I suppose from the above six points, if there’s anything missing from that pattern it would be your/their capacity to receive (the opposites to 1 and 2). Generally there is no limit on how much people can receive, except apart from the physical space to place tangible objects. This point probably plays into the “willingness to receive” since if you feel like you receiving too much, you simply won’t feel like receiving any more, as opposed to being unable to receive more.
It Starts With One Thing
In any scenario, starting any sort of relationship should always entail thinking about what you can give as opposed to what you can get out. It’s not an easy mindset to work around but it’s much preferable to the opposite – if your objective in a relationship was to take as much out for yourself as you can, how likely would the other person want to give something for your benefit? Or worse, what if they had the same attitude of wanting to take for themself too; where would such a relationship go then? Rhetorically speaking, nowhere I would expect.
To get something out of a relationship, the first step is put something into it. For the person who is older in the relationship, for church leaders and for the more mature Christian in a discipleship relationship (age is a factor beyond the scope of this article for now), they are the people who will need to give more initially. To encourage the other person to give, one must first lead by example. How long/much this initial “giving” looks like will vary on the six factors listed above; every person is different, and every combination of people will create a unique relationship. Starting up a relationship will be a time to gauge at the six factors above, and this can take a while to establish – sometimes you may be giving too little or too much, or sometimes giving the wrong thing entirely, and you’ll need to try again at the next opportunity.
Once all six factors are gauged for both people, generally I reckon this should result in both people giving “relatively” the same amount as each other. It is clear that each person’s capacity to give will not be identically the same – everyone has different life circumstances which permit them to do more than the other person in some areas, and less in other areas. However, there is good reason to suggest that people should be prepared to give the same “fraction” as what they have – “pulling their own weight” in that sense. In say a group assignment, the absolute productivity of each person is not the most important thing, but rather it’s the fact that every group member is “giving it their all”, regardless of how much productivity it tangibly turns into. It’s not a very good application of Scripture for this topic, but the widow who gives two copper coins as an offering at the temple was considered by Jesus to have given “relatively” more than the rich people who offered a lot:
43 Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. 44 They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.” (Mark 12:43-44)
The widow had nearly no capacity to give money because she was poor, and yet she gave all of it. What we (hopefully) desire in our relationships (groups or one to one) is that each person is giving the same share as everyone else. It’s much harder to do this in a group setting since there’s more people, but one way a group, for example church, could try to get everyone to be giving the same would be the commitment to attend service/Bible Study/youth group at a common time. If everyone can learn to value church time, small group time in the same way, then everyone going to that activity at the agreed upon time are in fact all giving the same – it’s the same amount of time with the same level of importance (everyone hopefully sees it as “church time”). This just takes into account attending church rather than serving and contributing at church, that’s something a bit beyond this current topic.
If the above paragraphs were not clear, my notion is that of the six points I mentioned earlier, everyone should recognise that there is a difference between 1 and 2 (how much you have to give is different from how much I have to give), but that 3 and 4 should be the same, as well as 5 and 6 – how much “relatively” we’re willing to give and receive should be the same for all people in that relationship. Now this could mean that the leader/older/more mature person gives “fractionally” less to match the level at which the person under their care is giving (maybe they’re not comfortable with giving and receiving much yet), or the younger/less mature person gives “fractionally” more to follow in the example of their leader/older brother or sister in Christ (they want to reciprocate the “relative” amount of love shown them).
A healthy relationship, in my opinion, is one where the people involved are giving the same “fraction” as everybody else. We can recognise that everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses but we want to know that everyone’s “heart” is on the same page – everyone has the same ambition and feels the same way about something. We should all continue to encourage and grow each other in how much we have to give (“getting our lives in order” sort of thing) but this should come after the heart issue of wanting to give the same “fraction” as everybody else.
When It Doesn’t Add Up
At the end of the day, it’s very hard to work out if someone is pulling their weight or not. You can’t slap a number value to something that someone gives and then add everything up to see how much “fractionally” they are contributing. How much effort someone is giving is made by our judgement and we need to be prepared for mistakes in our judgement. But when someone doesn’t look like they’re contributing the same level of effort into a relationship, it does make things unfair for everyone. In one way it’s clearly unfair to the person(s) giving more because they can see there is the option to give less since someone is in fact giving less – “if you are giving less, why shouldn’t I?” In another way it also creates a bad habit for the person(s) giving less because they get the feeling that giving less is okay and so will be encouraged to continue giving less (when there are no immediate consequences). The apostle Paul did not appreciate people not pulling their weight and being idle, especially when he wasn’t being idle:
6 In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers and sisters, to keep away from every believer who is idle and disruptive and does not live according to the teaching you received from us. 7 For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example. We were not idle when we were with you, 8 nor did we eat anyone’s food without paying for it. On the contrary, we worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you. (2 Thessalonians 3:6-8)
When we find the other person(s) not giving “fractionally” as much as we are, we can get frustrated at them, but at the same time are reminded that we are to do things out of grace, we shouldn’t be expecting anything at all in return. So on one hand we can keep giving to someone without wanting anything in return because of the grace Jesus has shown us, but on the other hand we want the other person to contribute back to make things fair and to give us something for our efforts.
Rather than find a silver bullet that fits every circumstance that anyone could find themselves in, here are some arguments for and against letting go of a relationship when it becomes frustrating that members in the relationship are not contributing equally. Note that this is taking the perspective of the person who is giving more (generally because they are the ones who will feel hurt, rather than the other), and this does not cover the context of marriage (in marriage, you do not have the option to break that relationship – divorce is “generally” not an acceptable outcome).
Having taken a break from writing this article, please note that the sections after this utilise the word “love” more – this is synonymous to giving our time, energy, resources because it comes out of a heart that loves. So from here on in, “love” simply encapsulates all the different forms of giving things to people mentioned above.
When the other person is not giving as much as you are, it is good to let go because:
It is hurting you emotionally, and hurting your resources such as time and money, when the other person does not reciprocate your feelings and efforts. If it is hurting you too much (hopefully if you are being reasonable) then you will find it hard to be loving in that relationship, and you will be tempted to hurt the other person back, possibly in regrettable ways.
You need to be loved back. As selfish as that sounds, love is never meant to be a one-way thing. It is not easy to keep giving out love without receiving any; we will run out of love (each person runs “out of love” at a different rate) and it will come to the hurt that the above point mentions. It isn’t healthy to be in a one-sided relationship.
It teaches the other person that they cannot just “use” you. Again, letting someone “use” you creates a bad habit for that person, allowing them to think that the world works by exploiting one another – this is called sin and Christians are called to get rid of it and not implore it.
It gives the other person room to realise how much you were contributing for them. You don’t realise a good thing until it is gone, and perhaps the other person needs a wakeup call to realise what they didn’t see before and hopefully be compelled to change and make amends.
It gives you a chance to evaluate how much you were giving, whether it was too much or not, and what you could do better next time. Reflecting on past relationships, whether good or bad, should help you grow in your ability to love the next person that enters your life. It’s important to realize that not all relationships (aside from marriage) can be expected to be very long-lasting. They may be, but since God is sovereign, He may take people out of your life and place new people into it. And no matter what relationships God places in front of us, we are still called to love those people and serve them as best as we can.
It gives someone else a chance to try and love that person. Freeing up that time and energy that the other person is not receiving may allow someone else to try building a relationship with that person. This again links to the above point in that our relationships between different people are dynamic, just because we lose a friend doesn’t mean we won’t gain one back; God is sovereign and if that other person needs someone to love them, God will send someone to address that person’s needs.
When the other person is not giving as much as you are, it might not be a good idea to end the relationship because:
We need to persevere in loving people. Love hurts, in the sense that if we simply did the easy things for people, how would that be any different than strangers acting out of general kindness to other strangers? Love truly takes form and has a strong effect when it is long-lasting and perhaps the other person just needs to experience it more from you before they understand it.
The source of our love comes from God. Our ability to love and be generous with our resources and gifts comes first from God, who demonstrates what real love is, through Jesus Christ, and this example is the thing that can give us real strength and perseverance in loving others. Coming back to God and the Bible will help us remember His love for us, and allow us to love others.
The other person still needs to be loved. For our parents, they would still continue to love us even if we didn’t love them back as we ought. The same is with God. Now of course, our relationships with friends is not as deep and connected as with our parents or God, and so the “responsibility” to love that person is much less than needing to love our parents back (or our parents having to love us). We are not as obliged to love our friends in the same way, but we still need to love people who we see need to be loved. This is also how we would expect people around us to treat us (aside from that one person) – we want the people around us to love us too.
Sometimes the other person just doesn’t get it and you need to make it more clear and obvious to them. Particularly for youth, and we can strongly relate to them when we were their age, that recognising love and giving back gratitude was not an easy thing (for our parents as an example). We might need to make it plainer to the other that we are giving them more, perhaps gently point out our efforts. This isn’t the same as coercing the other person to give more, it is truthfully communicating your feelings about how much you are giving and how you feel about the fairness of wanting the other person to contribute the same back. If you believe that everyone giving the same “fraction” is fair in a relationship, then there should be no fear in proclaiming what you think is good and true.
We might need to take a different approach in loving the other person. Perhaps we are giving the wrong things, or saying the wrong words. Perhaps we are giving too much that is outside the comfort zone of the other person. Sometimes the way we choose to love and give to others is not necessarily the way they want to receive love and gifts; and we may need to find what they actually appreciate. Loving others is about seeking the best for the other person, it is not simply forcing what you call “love” onto them and making them accept it.
At the end of the day, sin is what keeps relationships from going well. It taints and stops people from loving as they ought, and being loved in the way they want to be. Let those who have the capacity to love, to give, and to serve, continue to do so for those who aren’t as capable for doing these things. As Christians, we are called to be an example to the people around us, not just to Christians, but also to non-Christians. If letting the gospel be heard means us giving more than we ought, and allowing ourselves to be “used” to some degree, then for the sake of the gospel we need to make that step. It may be hard, but God has guarded our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus till the day He returns and gives life to those who rest in Him.
1 Corinthians 9 (the whole chapter) is a good example of Paul facing a situation like those I have discussed above – he preached the gospel with great effort but did not claim anything back as equality. He did it because he was compelled to preach the gospel, even if it meant receiving absolutely nothing in return. It would be wise for you to read it in your own time and think through what Paul was feeling and how he worked through those feelings (the passage is too long to post here), but let me end with a few verses that highlight what Paul felt was his resolution to his problem of not receiving back:
15 But I have not used any of these rights. And I am not writing this in the hope that you will do such things for me, for I would rather die than allow anyone to deprive me of this boast. 16 For when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, since I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! 17 If I preach voluntarily, I have a reward; if not voluntarily, I am simply discharging the trust committed to me. 18 What then is my reward? Just this: that in preaching the gospel I may offer it free of charge, and so not make full use of my rights as a preacher of the gospel. (1 Corinthians 9:15-18)