I have never had a “pay it forward” moment at a toll booth. It would be nice. But it would not be nice if the person in the car in front of me who paid the toll then followed me, got me to pull over and roll down my window as he said, “Hi! I’m the one who paid your toll back there!”
Immediately, the context would be shifted. A context in which the joy and freedom of genuine human regard could be celebrated would be transformed into a context in which the slavery of indebtedness rules: The selfless giver now becomes the emotional creditor, and the very act of giving now becomes a source of power and prestige for the person who paid the toll. And that begs the question: What if I do not want to participate in furthering another person’s need for power and prestige, and in particular their manipulation of kindness itself to achieve that power and prestige?
Thankfully, I have never been in such a situation. I can put that down in my gratitude journal. Unfortunately, however, there is a larger reality that does not belong in my gratitude journal: All of us are living in a time of massive-scale manipulation of false charity and mercy.
If each and every one of us was not given a heart designed by our Creator to pump love in and out according to a natural rhythm, then the expansion of false mercy as a societal trend would not be much to worry about. For those who practice false mercy for their own power and prestige could make their moves in this world, and our hearts – which wouldn’t be pumping anything anyway–could remain solidly intact and perfectly “functional” even after being shaken and rocked by the act of false mercy.
But that is not the case of the human heart: We are meant, in the most elemental way, to pump love into and out of our hearts as our most basic means of survival. Thus, people who engage in acts of false mercy are attempting to shake our hearts, knock their natural rhythms into disarray, and all for their own shallow benefit of power and prestige. Tragically, that attempt all too often succeeds, leaving our heart rhythms – our need to give and receive love –in total disarray.
In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus told His disciples, “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Mt 5:14-16)
In the very next chapter of Matthew Jesus said, “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 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. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (Mt 6: 1-4)
I like to think of the pay-it-forward people, be it at an actual toll booth or any other circumstance large or small, who never seek to take credit as God’s comets: the goodness of their deeds lights up the sky and the reality of God, and when we see it, our natural heart rhythms are all a flow, likely spurring us to turn around and do the same the best we can.
The thing about comets, however, is that they are meant to be seen in the sky so we can stand in simple awe of their beauty, and be inspired by their light; comets are not meant to land on top of us.
To me, those who engage in acts of false mercy are like landed comets. After all, providing the chance for all to see the beauty of comets light up the sky and glorify God is never their goal; their goal is to make a forceful impact in the world, for no other reason than to further their own power and prestige through accolades.
Thankfully, there are genuine comet people out there. Yet simultaneously, there are those other comet people, who never light up the sky but are always coming in for a landing.
In this age of false mercy, when standing near works of mercy by people who seek credit, including political and religious figures, it’s best to make like Auntie Em in The Wizard of Oz and head for underground cover.