I have what may be an unpopular opinion about paying for the person behind me in the drive-thru. It’s not the “paying it forward” (or is that backward?) aspect that I have problems with. It’s what the practice has morphed into in the past few years.
Quite a few years ago, our local Christian radio station began encouraging people to “spread joy” during the first week of each month. Many people chose to do this by paying for the person behind them in the drive-thru lane (Starbucks, McDonald’s, wherever). My middle son was a young teen at the time, and we spent more than a little time together in the drive-thru lanes of fast food restaurants. When he heard about this new way to spread joy, he was all over it.
“Let’s do it! Next time we go to McDonald’s, we should do this!” The radio DJs talked up what a blessing we could be to others, to surprise strangers with a message that their bill had already been paid. My 13-year-old was 100% on board with this. Who was I to tell him that no, I didn’t want to bless others?
So we did it. While we waited in line, we talked about how the person behind us would feel and the ways that it might truly bless them. They might be having a really bad day, and this unexpected gift might remind them that someone cares, that they are loved by God. Or they might have just lost their job or be down to their last few dollars, and this unexpected gift might be a more practical blessing, demonstrating how God comes through when we need it most. We talked about sharing the love of Christ with a stranger in a tangible way, believing that God would bring just the right person behind us in the drive-thru for this moment.
I remember the first time we did this, the cashier was a little surprised, then happy to participate. My son was really enthusiastic about what we had done, and that meant at least as much to me as the blessing we had given to the man behind us.
At other times, we were the beneficiary of this type of kindness, once at Baskin-Robbins and once at Chick-fil-A. Both times almost brought tears to my eyes at this unexpected and entirely anonymous generosity. It was also a joy to share this with my children, that complete strangers had done this kind thing for us and wasn’t God good?
In the past few years, though, this “paying it forward” has morphed into something else. Today, quite often, when someone pays it forward in the drive-thru, it starts a chain reaction of everyone in line paying for the person behind them, and so on and so on. Cashiers start counting how many cars are paying for each other (we’re up to 8! now we’re at 15!). Customers realize what’s happening and ask the cashier how much is owed on the receipt behind them before deciding to participate in this game—a long chain of “blessing” from car to car.
But is it a blessing, really?