“What have you done for me lately?”
It is a question that sometimes finds its way into relationships, often near the end of those relationships, reflective of a transactional approach to interactions with others. The premise goes something like this: I will do for you in equal measure to how you do to me. If you are kind to me, then I will be kind to you. If you give to me, then I will give back to you something of equal value. If you fail to provide what I want, then I will leave the relationship. Such thinking affects relationships of all sorts, from marriages to friendships to interactions with neighbors.
It is thinking, that though common in the world at large, should be uncommon in the lives of those who are disciples of Jesus Christ. In fact, it is thinking that runs directly counter to the commands of Christ. It is a prime example of the difference between the received wisdom of the world, and the “foolish” ways of God (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:18-25).
Without getting into the basic point that such thinking actually weakens relationships and makes them short-lived, let’s look at three Scriptural reasons why a transactional approach to relationships is not the approach of Christ.
Firstly, such transactional thinking directly contravenes the “Golden Rule,” taught by Christ. “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them… (Matthew 7:12a; ESV) In every situation, at every time, Jesus directed that His followers treat others as they wished to be treated. That is, instead of treating others similar to how they treat you, or in retaliation to how they treat you, God wants us to proactively be doing good. This includes even those circumstances when we might be treated poorly.
“See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone (1 Thessalonians 5:15; ESV).” This principle is taught in repeated and emphasized in multiple places in the Bible (cf. Proverbs 25:21-22; Romans 12:14-21, 1 Peter 3:9, etc.), reflective of God’s earnest desire for us to put it into practice. If others are not behaving as they should, followers of Christ are not excused to retaliate, but are expected by Christ to rise above and be good and kind anyway.
Secondly, and closely related to the first point, such transactional thinking is inherently selfish, self-centered and unloving. Christ taught us to love others even as He had loved us (cf. John 13:34-35). If we fail in this, we fail in our discipleship to Him. Concerning the proper attitude, reflective of a Christ-like love, it is explained, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves (Philippians 2:3; ESV).” It is impossible to love like Christ, who died for those who were persecuting Him, if we are focused primarily on ourselves and our own interests. Such selflessness should inform every aspect of our lives: how we treat our spouses, how we treat our children and family members, how we interact with our coworkers, how we interact with our community. Love cannot be compartmentalized and be the love that Christ taught. Jesus pointedly told us, “If you love those who love you, what reward do you have (Matthew 5:46a; ESV)?”
Thirdly, transactional thinking in terms of our relationship with others, as Christians, overlooks the very real truth that all Christians are in debt in terms of what they owe others and it is a debt that we can never repay. Therefore, if we wish to look at such things transactionally, we are obligated, by reason of debt, to be as kind and merciful and loving to others as is humanly possible, at all times and in all ways.
Simply explained, Christ died for us, out of love, offering us the opportunity for forgiveness and salvation. In return, as we cannot repay Him directly, He expects us to do the same to others, teaching, “in as much as you did it for the least of these my brethren, you did it for me (Matthew 25:40).” Therefore, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you (Ephesians 4:32; ESV).”
The Bible also has a warning for us in this regard: if we will not extend His love to others, He will, in anger, retract His mercy. This is the lesson of the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (cf. Matthew 18:21-35) and was the point Jesus made countless times when He said, “if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses (Matthew 6:15; ESV).”
This debt to God, in Christ, was the reason why the apostle Paul declared, “ I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish (Romans 1:14; ESV).” It was not because the Greeks, or any others, had done so much for Paul. In point of fact, the various peoples of the world imprisoned Paul, beat him, stoned him, starved him and in other ways, with frequency, mistreated him. Paul did not feel a debt to the world because of what the world had done for him. But he did feel a debt to Christ because Christ had died for him, placing an obligation upon Him to love others with the same selflessness, seeking always their good and salvation.
Still today, as if as Christians are tempted to ask others, “what have you done for me lately,” we are well advised to stop and remember what Christ did for us, and the debt that we can never repay.
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Jonathan McAnulty is minister of Chapel Hill Church of Christ. Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author.