The “Law” of Reciprocity

We will begin the longer practice periods today with a short review of the different kinds of “laws” we have believed we must obey….You believe in the “laws” of friendship, of “good” relationships and reciprocity. (W-pI.76.8)

This quote is an excerpt from Lesson 76, “I am under now laws but God’s.” The practice period for that lesson begins by asking you to reflect on various pseudo-laws you believe in. It then mentions three kinds: laws of health, laws of relationships, and laws of religion. In describing the middle one, the laws of relationship, it then mentions our topic for tonight: the “law” of reciprocity.

What is reciprocity? My dictionary defines “reciprocate” as follows: “to return in kind or degree.” This usually refers to responding to positive things in kind or degree. When we are given a gift, for instance, we are expected to reciprocate in some way at some point in time. This extends to very small and subtle levels. When someone smiles at us, we feel we should reciprocate. When someone carries a positive mood toward us, we feel we should reciprocate.

Can you imagine society without reciprocity? Can you imagine having no ability to expect that when you are kind to someone, you’ll be treated decently by that person? Society would break down. There would be chaos in the streets—although there would probably be no streets, because paving streets would require cooperation and co-operation—operating together—requires reciprocity.

So reciprocity is a fundamental part of the glue that hold society together. Yet I would like to expand on the term to include not only responding in kind to positive behaviors, but also responding in kind to negative behaviors. Retaliation, in other words, is a kind of reciprocity. After all, what is retaliation but “to return in kind or degree”? The shared meaning between these two terms is apparent in my dictionary’s list of synonyms for “reciprocate”:

syn reciprocate, retaliate, requite, return shared meaning element: to give back, usually in kind or quantity. reciprocate is likely to imply mutuality and a reasonably equivalent exchange or a paying back of what one has received <the love of Lavinia for the hero, most correctly reciprocated by him —H.O. Taylor> <few men reciprocate evil for good> retaliate usually applies to a paying back of injury in exact measure and kind by way of revenge….requite can imply a simple reciprocation or a paying back in terms of what one consider the merits of the case without regard to mutual satisfaction”…RETURN stresses a paying back of whatever has been given, sometimes in kind, sometimes by way of contrast <he returns my envy with pity —Richard Steele


Question: When someone has given you a gift, why do you think it is important to reciprocate in some fashion? To get in touch with answers, it may help to think of a recent example in your life.

The class responded with: I feel obligated. I feel I’m not worthy of the gift. It’s just fairness. Otherwise, I would seem ungrateful. Otherwise, I would be selfish. Otherwise, I would receive no more gifts. There is social pressure. It rights the balance. It’s the decent thing to do. Otherwise, I’d be a taker.

Question: When someone has treated you harshly or unfairly, what does that voice in your head tell you about why you need to reciprocate—both behaviorally and emotionally? Again, it may help to think of a recent example.

The class responded with: They must be stopped. I want them to know they crossed a boundary. They have become a justifiable target of my anger. I must stand up for myself or get taken to the cleaners. I need to re-inflate myself. I want them to know how I felt. I need to regain my freedom, my value, my power. I can’t approve of something wrong. I need to protect myself. I need to be honest.

Question: If you were to compose a sentence that captures your personal version of the law of reciprocity, what would it be?

Sample sentences from the class:

“I am obligated to respond in a way that fits what they did.”

“In order to feel equal in character (or worth) to someone who gives to me, I must give back.”

“What goes around comes around.”

“I have an insatiable need for people to hear how I am defining myself.”

From these three questions, I hope you get a sense of how much this law of reciprocity dominates our interactions with others. It’s not just about Christmas presents. It’s about our second-by-second mirroring of someone’s feeling toward us, treatment of us, and even facial expressions. We view reciprocity as a law, and for the most part, we obey.

Course images of non-reciprocity

The Course, as you might imagine, is not too big on reciprocity. After all, forgiveness, its central teaching, is a clear case of non-reciprocity: someone attacks you, and you respond with love. Here are some images of non-reciprocity in the Course.

Recognize what does not matter, and if your brothers ask you for something “outrageous,” do it because it does not matter. (T-12.III.4:1)

Here, someone demands that you do something outrageous. To reciprocate would be to respond with outrage, right? Yet instead, you happily comply, not out of fear, but out of love.

The psychotherapist, then, has a tremendous responsibility. He must meet attack without attack, and therefore without defense. It is his task to demonstrate that defenses are not necessary, and that defenselessness is strength. (P-2.IV.10:1-4)

It is expected that a patient in Course-based therapy will at times feel that his insane thought system is threatened by the light of sanity. He will view the therapist as the source of this threat, and will therefore attack him. The therapist’s job is to “meet attack without attack”—a case of non-reciprocity if there ever was one.

…a child who is not looking where he is going running into an adult “by chance.” Each [encounter] has the potential for becoming a teaching-learning situation….Perhaps the adult will not scold the child for bumping into him. (M-3.2:2)

Here, the adult is fully in his “rights” to scold the child, at least according to the law of reciprocity. But he doesn’t. He responds with kindness.

A shadow figure who attacks becomes a brother giving you a chance to help. (T-29.IV.5:6)

We discussed shadow figures recently. They are the mental images we carry of people from our past who didn’t give us what we wanted. We then project these images onto people in the present. So when someone is being unkind in the present, we experience it as if it is really Mom doing it to us all over again. But here in this passage, we step out of that perception. We see a brother (not Mom) in the present (not the past) giving us a chance to help (not attacking us). And seeing it as a chance to help, we respond with help. We have met attack with a sincere desire to help.

When a brother acts insanely, he is offering you an opportunity to bless him. (T-7.VII.2:1)

This is essentially the same as the previous one. Rather than returning insanity for insanity, you see his insanity as a chance to bless him.

Listen to the story of the prodigal son, and learn what God’s treasure is and yours:

This son of a loving father left his home and thought he had squandered everything for nothing of any value, although he had not understood its worthlessness at the time. He was ashamed to return to his father, because he thought he had hurt him. Yet when he came home the father welcomed him with joy, because the son himself was his father’s treasure. He wanted nothing else. (T-8.VI.4:1-4)

This is the Course’s retelling of the parable of the prodigal son. It assumes that we know the outer events of the story, so it focuses on the emotional dimension. The son thought he had hurt his father by squandering his treasure, but what he discovered when he actually returned to his father was that he was his father’s treasure. The father had every right to respond as if he had been violated, to respond in kind, but instead he responded with love. The prodigal son story is one of the world’s great stories of non-reciprocity. That’s what makes the story so beautiful.

I elected, for your sake and mine, to demonstrate that the most outrageous assault, as judged by the ego, does not matter. (T-6.I.9:1)

Most Course students will recognize that what Jesus is talking about here is his crucifixion. In this light, the message of the crucifixion was a demonstration of non-reciprocity: They assaulted him; he responded with forgiveness and defenselessness. Notice the parallels between this passage and our first one above:

If your brothers ask you for something “outrageous,” do it because it does not matter.
I elected…to demonstrate that the most outrageous assault, as judged by the ego, does not matter.

Someone in class pointed out how much we have distorted the crucifixion, if this is true. For we have turned it into a story of reciprocity—God needed to balance the books; He needed someone to pay for mankind’s sins. How ironic this would be if Jesus intended it all along as a demonstration of non-reciprocity.

Gospel images of non-reciprocity

The last two quotes were from the Course, but were really, in a sense, from the gospels. They were about Jesus’ life and teachings 2,000 years ago. The following quotes are drawn directly from his teachings in the gospels. Those teachings are full of radical images of non-reciprocity.

Don’t react violently against the one who is evil:

when someone slaps you on the right cheek, turn the other as well.
When someone wants to sue you for your shirt, let that person have your coat along with it.
Further, when anyone conscripts you for one mile, go an extra mile. (Mt 5:39-41)

Here, in all three cases, someone tries to take from you your physical well-being and your dignity. Reciprocity would dictate that you try at least to protect your well-being and dignity, and at most try to take his. Yet instead, you freely give what this person tried to take, and then go ahead and give twice as much!

If you have money, don’t lend it at interest. Rather, give it to someone from whom you won’t get it back. (Thomas 95:1-2)

Here, you know that someone is not going to reciprocate by returning the money you lend him, yet you go ahead and give it to him anyway.

Love your enemies.(Lk 6:27, Mt 5:44)

Your enemy is someone who hates you, but you respond to his hate by loving him. This is as radical now as it was when Jesus first uttered it.

If you love those who love you, what merit is there in that? After all, even sinners love those who love them. Tell me, if you love those who love you, why should you be commended for that? Even the toll collectors do as much, don’t they? (Lk 6:32, Mt 5:46)

This last passage is a direct attack on the very principle of reciprocity. Loving those who love you and hating those who hate you—that is how we humans live, but there is nothing to be commended in it.

Comments on the images of non-reciprocity

Huston Smith, the great scholar of world religions, said of the teachings of Jesus, “There is a wind of freedom that blows through these teachings that makes the world want to deflect them by postponement. ‘Not yet! Not yet!'” What is this wind of freedom? Freedom from the law of reciprocity. Freedom from the chains that bind us to the wheel of tit for tat, of an eye for an eye.

We may feel compelled to obey the law of reciprocity, but we long for something more, something more loving, something more sublime. These images have deeply inspired all of us: the prodigal son, turning the other cheek, going the extra mile, loving your enemies. We long to live out a higher law. We feel exalted, called upward, when we see someone doing that—when we see a Mother Teresa or a Gandhi or a Jesus. Some of the most beautiful things our eyes have ever seen are demonstrations of non-reciprocity. And when we see them, we yearn to live like that. We just don’t know if we can do it and survive.

What this says to me is that all of us on the spiritual path feel deeply ambivalent, deeply conflicted about the law of reciprocity, and about non-reciprocity. We are pulled in both directions. We are literally torn in two. One law owns our behavior. The other owns our aspirations.

The thought system of reciprocity

What is the thought system behind reciprocity? The following things, I think, are what we tell ourselves about the importance of reciprocating:

  • When we are attacked, we need to reciprocate in order to retain or regain our dignity, our sense of worth
  • When we are given to, we need to reciprocate in order to retain or regain our sense of innocence, of being a good person
  • When we are attacked, we need to reciprocate in order to keep it from happening again
  • When we are given to, we need to reciprocate in order to make sure it will happen again
  • When we are attacked or given to, we need to reciprocate out of a sense of fairness

In other words, we tell ourselves that we need to reciprocate for the sake of our worth (dignity and innocence), our future (avoiding attack, getting gifts), and fairness. If we want these things, we will have to purchase them through appropriately reciprocating. This, I think, is what locks us into reciprocity with such iron-clad strength. If we are going to have worth, if we are going to have a good future, if we are going to be fair, we must reciprocate. It’s the law. Therefore, we have to respond in kind. Our actions have to mirror the actions of the other. Our life has to be a series of even exchanges. We have no choice.

Not a law

You have probably noticed that in the heading of these notes I put the word “law” in quotes, as the Course itself did in the opening quote I used. The quote marks obviously suggest that reciprocity is not a law. Which means we don’t have to obey it. We do have a choice.

Here is the rest of that passage we began with, the one that asked us to reflect on the “laws” we believe in:

There are no laws but God’s. Dismiss all foolish magical beliefs today, and hold your mind in silent readiness to hear the Voice That speaks the truth to you. You will be listening to One Who says there is no loss under the laws of God. Payment is neither given nor received. Exchange cannot be made; there are no substitutes; and nothing is replaced by something else. God’s laws forever give and never take.

Hear Him Who tells you this, and realize how foolish are the “laws” you thought upheld the world you thought you saw. (W-pI.76.9-10)

There are no laws but God’s, and God’s laws are not about making an even exchange. They are not about paying out in order to get back. They are not about purchasing worth and fairness and a good future. Yet that’s what reciprocity is all about. Therefore, the law of reciprocity is not a law. We don’t have to live by it. We aren’t accountable to it.

What would it be like to live free of the law of reciprocity? What would we be like? What comes to my mind is that I’d either be a sociopath or a saint.

God’s law: giving is receiving

The Course says, therefore, that reciprocity is not a law. But it also says that in this same arena, the arena of human interaction, there is a law: “By giving you receive.”

There is no way for you to have it except by giving it. This is the law of God, and it has no exceptions. (T-7.VII.2:4-5)

God’s laws are always fair and perfectly consistent. By giving you receive. (T-9.II.11:3-4)

It has well been said that to him who hath shall be given. Because he has, he can give. And because he gives, he shall be given. This is the law of God, and not of the world. (P-3.III.5:1-4)

Three times the Course is saying that God’s law is that giving is receiving. Elsewhere, the Course calls this “the law of love.” Here is my glossary definition for the law of love:

The law that you can only have love by giving it. “What I give my brother is my gift to me” (W-pII.344.Heading). “As you bring him back, so will you return” (T-11.IV.3:6). We should live by this law and see ourselves subject only to it, rather than subject to the laws of time (W-pII.277.1:2-6). For the law of love gives to us, while the laws of time take away.

So the situation is this: We are faced with two laws, one that we think we live under and therefore constantly obey, and that one that we really do live under. One says,

Do unto others as they have done unto you in kind in order to purchase worth, dignity, innocence, a sense of fairness, and a good future.

Under this law, you only give as much as is required—required to reciprocate and thereby purchase the above list of things. There is a cap on your giving, and you try to squeak in under this cap if possible.

The other says,

You receive as much as you give.

Under this law, you will give as much as you can to others, regardless of how they have treated you, because that is how you’ll receive the maximum amount.

The irony is that we are obeying the first law, while actually living under the rule of the second.

Under the first, we are giving just to fulfill our obligations. Not only is our giving capped, but it’s often not even a true gift. Giving to relieve an obligation is not exactly a real gift. The first law, then, automatically limits our giving. This is terrible if we are really living under the second law, for that law says that the less we give, the less we actually receive. Obeying one law while living under another has disastrous effects. While one law dictates what you do, the other dictates what you experience. It’s like driving in England, where the law is that you drive on the left, while obeying the American law, which says you drive on the right. We know what happens in this case.

So here we are, spending our days obeying the “law” of reciprocity, trying to purchase what little we can with our wise and stingy trading, with our carefully gauged fulfillment of obligation, with our cautiously matched “gift” for “gift” and tit for tat. Yet all the while, we are actually under the law of God, the law of love, where we receive only as much as we give, where we only really receive when we remove every barrier and impediment to the free flow of our giving. What if this is actually true? What if this is the real story of our lives?


It may be that for a long time you’ve been trying to unhook yourself from this “law” of reciprocity. You may want to reflect on your personal efforts in this regard. Then try to answer the following questions.

Reflect on how you feel as a slave of the law of reciprocity. How do you feel about having to reciprocate when you are mistreated? How do you feel about reciprocating out of obligation when you are given a gift? How do you feel about wanting to just love and give, yet seeing yourself trading tit for tat? How do you feel about needing others to reciprocate when you give to them?

What are your main fears about giving up obedience to the “law” of reciprocity?

Please write down what you would like to do in terms of breaking free of the law of reciprocity.

What do you think would be the rewards of doing this?


[Please note: ACIM passages quoted in this article reference the Foundation for Inner Peace (FIP) Edition.]