Automatic Gratuity

An Unofficial Guide to Stewardship Season

Sam Bush / 11.7.22

Y ou can white knuckle your way toward obedience, performing the required task through sheer grit and determination. Self-denial can likewise be achieved through willpower. But gratitude is a fickle, if not illusory, ideal. It cannot be self-generated by effort or achieved through proper technique or discipline. One cannot be grateful by simply deciding to be grateful. Gratitude only arises from an outside prompt, something or someone else whose prior generosity, kindness, or benevolence evokes appreciation almost reflexively. Gratitude is the gift given in response. Spontaneous, and therefore unmeasured, such thankfulness can be as simple as a head nod or unimaginably grandiose.

Take, for example, money. What might inspire a miser to become generous? Which is the chief engine of charitable giving: guilt, pity or gratitude? The Bible actually offers plenty of counsel for giving away our money, but it doesn’t seem to empty our wallets any faster. When Jesus tells a man point-blank to give generously, he responds by walking in the opposite direction, never to be heard from again. Other times, Jesus simply extends kindness to someone and they give away half of their wealth or hand over their most treasured possession. 

It is often hard to give money away freely, much less gratefully. When giving away money, we often want to know where it’s going. Is our charitable donation going straight into the CEO’s beach vacation? Is our church pledge being used to feed the hungry or buy the music minister his third new guitar? Truth be told, what counts as giving usually looks more like an investment sent a worthy recipient or a payment for services rendered. 

If money talks, as the saying goes, we tend to use money to send a message. Take America’s tipping system, for instance, which has historically been based on merit. Only excellent service would qualify for a good tip, a concept The Onion once mocked with their story, “Ten-Percent Tip Teaches Waitress Valuable Lesson which quotes a waitress who gratefully accepts a lousy tip given as an incentive to do a better job. “Maybe I was a little short with [my patron] when I told him to ‘hold on a sec,’” she says, “but in the future, I’ll do my best to ensure a situation like that never, ever happens again.” In other words, when gratuity is distributed based on deservedness, it becomes less like a tip and more like a wage.

But the tipping tables have turned these days. As soon as our drip coffee is rung up at the register, a sleek white tablet is spun around and applies a peculiar kind of guilt. We’ll pay an extra $0.73 to help us feel better about ourselves. The options of how much to tip (15, 20 or 25 percent) can feel deeply personal, as if we have been asked to determine the dignity of our barista. If we select “No Tip,” we may as well be spitting in the cashier’s eye. Most of us still succumb to tipping for fear of being seen as stingy.  We may inwardly shake our fist in outrage, but still tap the 25% blue rectangle.

Writing in Vox, Sara Morrison recently provided a helpful answer to our collective “guilt tip”: “Tipping is supposed to be a reward for excellent service, but studies have shown that the vast majority of people are motivated more by social pressure,” she writes, “especially if other people are watching and possibly judging them. You’re forced to declare your level of generosity or cheapness to anyone within eyesight, including your server.” Fifteen percent may have seemed like a reasonable gesture until the person in front of us tipped 25%. Thus, debating whether to tip or not to tip often leads to an ethical failure. Abstaining in the name of thrift feels heartless. Tipping in the name of charity feels extravagant. Guilt may motivate a person to give at first, but, as the Times reported last spring, it may also have led to the spread of “tipping fatigue.”


As suspicious as people may be of automatic gratuity, I’m sure plenty of ministers would be interested in applying the concept to stewardship season. Wouldn’t a 10% direct deposit from everyone’s bank account eliminate the awkwardness of pledge drives? For better or worse, generosity is not something that can be forced. Gratitude (which is derived from the Latin word gratuitus, meaning “done without pay, spontaneous, voluntary”) is something that must come from the heart. The more we try to force its hand, the less grateful we feel.

When used rightly, tips are given as an expression of gratitude. The essence of gratuity is not obligation, but appreciation. It is a return gift to the one who has given first. It is a monetary expression of thankfulness. It is not meant to require a calculator or a weighing of scales. Its purpose is to be an impulsive gesture of love and generosity. Which explains why forcing a tip or a pledge leads many of us into a frustrated conundrum. The practice is an interesting test case for what happens when reciprocity becomes a requirement. The circularity of grace can only occur when the response to God (by way of thanksgiving or faithfulness) is not codified in some way that makes it an expectation.

It’s worth keeping in mind that Jesus is more concerned with people’s hearts than people’s wallets. The Lord does not merely love a giver, but a cheerful giver, as the saying goes. He doesn’t care much for either the indignant tipper or the server who imposes a 30% automatic gratuity. In other words, it’s not about the money, but about the sentiment. 

While a person may want to know where their dollars are being spent, giving is often most satisfying as an expression of losing control rather than a means to obtain more. It’s much better to give in blind trust than with suspicion or strings attached. “Whatever you do,” writes the Apostle Paul, “do it enthusiastically” (Col 3:23). Thus, if you’re feeling a bit moody and particularly disinclined, then don’t bother. If you happen to be feeling generous, however, then don’t hold back. As James Parker once quipped, “If you are inclined to give, then give wholeheartedly. Not for charity, not for empathy, not for any groaning abstraction, but that the divine economy of giving might circulate through you unobstructed.” It’s that divine economy of giving, after all, that got you where you are.

Robin Wall Kimmerer, ecologist and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, touches on how generosity stems from gratitude in her essay “Returning the Gift.” Giving money is not the same as doing taxes because it’s rooted in a relationship. “Giving thanks implies recognition not only of the gift, but of the giver,” she writes. Likewise, it’s not only relinquishing power and handing it over to another, but acknowledging that such power never belonged to you in the first place. “Gratitude is founded on the deep knowing that our very existence relies on the gifts of other beings.”

Picture a child encountering a musician busking on the sidewalk. His mother gives him a dollar bill and, without hesitation, he runs to the open guitar case and drops in the money. The child gives freely because he knows it won’t be the last dollar bill ever given to him, that there will be plenty more to spend elsewhere, whether on ice cream or a new Jellycat. Moreover, he knows the dollar was never his, but (literally) given from above.

As much as I’d like to be that child, the truth is that I often cling to each dollar as if it might be my last. Rather than focus on God’s endless generosity, I focus on my own bottomless need (which, if I’m honest, can easily morph into greed). For that reason, it is key to remember that every generous act and every perfect gift comes from God (Jam 1:17). While I may grip my wallet tightly, God is no penny-pincher. He goes much further than giving a generous donation, but gives his very self. He does not give responsibly, but recklessly as if he can’t get rid of his gifts fast enough. 

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