The public conversation in America commonly includes statements by people who announce that they want to “give back.” The first time I heard this phrase, I wasn’t sure what they meant. Now I understand that it is a way of saying that someone feels he (or she) owes the community or the country something. It is an admirable attitude to recognize blessings and obligations but I have found the phrase and the conversation troubling on several points.
Most of us feel blessed to live in our communities, and many of us feel blessed to live in the USA. Still, the phrase “give back” has come to sound a bit hollow, because the person who uses it really doesn’t say to whom or what he feels obligated and he doesn’t say why he feels obligated. Does it mean that he (or she) is giving something to community or government in return for something received? I think that is the point of it, but nobody is saying. The term also implies a transaction we need to examine. It points our attention to the person who says he will do the giving and invites us to come back and praise him if he actually does it. The phrase “give back” has no focal point except the speaker.
I feel much the same way about the phrase “give back” as I feel when the new liturgy directs the congregation to say, “It is right to give our thanks and praise.” To whom shall we give our thanks? To what? For what reason? The recipient of the thanks and praise ought to be named. (Here is where I confess that no matter what the printed liturgy says, I say, “It is right to give God thanks and praise.”) Likewise, when someone says that he is going to “give back” I really want to know what he will give and to whom and why.
If the motivation for giving back truly is a sense of obligation to community or to government, then that is one thing. If the reason for giving back is to give community and government thanks and praise, then I would disagree with the motivation. I guess my real quarrel is with the language. I certainly won’t quarrel with the behavior. Maybe I question the motives.
Christian teaching sends us in a different direction. At baptism, Christians receive the Holy Spirit, which is the Spirit of Truth, who teaches us that our blessings come from God, not from people or the government, and that good government is itself a blessing from God, ordained to be our servant, not our master. Christians, therefore, serve others as an act of grateful stewardship of God’s blessings, not as an act of payback to community or to government. We are taught to serve in a way that points to God, not to ourselves.
The central difference between a secular choice to “give back” and a Christian choice to serve, however, is this: A Christian truly cannot serve human objectives alone no matter what sort of service he engages in. A Christian is called to share the good news and make disciples no matter what he is doing. He lives as a testimony to God’s active blessing, and his work is a testimony to that blessing. He can no more fail to praise God in word and deed, even if the deed is digging a ditch, than he can stop breathing. As Henry Nouwen says, “One cannot be a little bit for Christ, give him some attention, or make him one of many concerns.”
Ultimately, this discussion is about where our loyalties lie. If our first loyalty is to God, we are called to serve him and to serve people as Christ’s hands and feet in our community. There is no “payback” or “give back” involved, because there is no accounting. The credit for the good services and the outcome of those services goes to God, not to the people who serve.
It sounds harsh, but the truth is that when someone acts on the principle of “give back” that person is denying God. Christians who borrow the term for their own service to God should stop using it. When anyone says clearly or by implication that blessings come from anywhere but God he is rejecting God. Many people use the term as a substitute for saying “good works” or even “volunteer service.” Ultimately, however, to say that any act “gives back” to some human what was received from God, is wrong.
Here is what Jesus said about our service and our good works.
“Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16)
When Christians do anything good, when Christians serve their neighbors, or their country, or anybody at all, they serve with every intention of pointing people to God, not themselves. They do not “give back” to society or to the nation. They serve God Most High, Who in His infinite mercy sent Christ to die for the sins of the world. When Christians serve any person, they are serving Christ, and when they perform any service, it is the ultimate failure if their service inspires only reward for themselves.
Any Christian who lives his faith with any integrity is always a servant. He helps people and works for what is right in government and in the culture. He prays for people in need and gives them personal help as well. He wants prosperity, happiness, and peace for all people. He engages in grateful stewardship of God’s blessings and in faithful service to God and man. But he does not “give back.”
 Nouwen, Henry The Selfless Way of Christ, © 2007 by the estate of Henry Nouwen, (Orbis Books, Maryknoll, NY 10545-0308)