Yes Virginia, There is a Free Lunch

“Some of the best things in life are free.” Is that true? I’ve discovered that we, as humans, have a problem. Well, we have a whole bunch of problems, but the particular problem that is on my mind at the moment is the idea that we, at least me, have trouble accepting anything that is “free”. The whole concept of “free” has an unusual reputation. We are all drawn to the concept of “free”. “Free checking”, “free drinks”, “buy one get one free”. Even though we see the word “free”, I think it’s safe to say that most of us expect a catch. The catch may be something as simple as expecting our “free reward” to be of inferior quality or perhaps downright cheap. Maybe the word “free” is just a straight lie?

Years ago the Judds recorded a song called “Why Not Me?”. The song is callout of sorts by a “Kentucky girl” who has been waiting patiently for her love interest to return from “lookin’ for love all around the world”. The song is innocent enough, but for years I misinterpreted one of the lines. In a very backwards way I am going to try and illustrate my point using my incorrect understanding of a line in the song. The line is this: “baby don’t you know this country girl’s still free?”. The singer is simply stating that she is still available. However, in my “infinite wisdom”, I heard the line this way: “don’t you know, in this country girls are still free”. For years I took exception to this song as nothing but false advertising and it, in my mind, only served to further tarnish the concept of “free”.

If you’re a man and you’ve ever dated, or much more been married, you will be able to convincingly state that indeed, girls are NOT FREE! Please don’t misinterpret this last statement. I don’t want to be misconstrued as saying that you have to “pay a girl” but at the same time she will cost you…maybe I should stop now. Of course I won’t though. This next example is being included against my better judgment. The editing committee voted, by a narrow margin I might add, to include this next bit. It’s perhaps my favorite, if inappropriate, example that the world is indeed very skeptical of the idea of “free”.

In any episode of my favorite television show “Night Court” two men are fighting over custody of a cat. Yes, a cat. The original owner of the cat is a hapless single guy who has evidently lived with this cat for some time. At some point the cat escapes the confines of the man’s apartment in Queens and is now wandering the streets of New York City. The cat is found by another man. I won’t complicate the story too much with other standard issue sit-com fare, but suffice to say this second man has really deep pockets and really wants this cat. The two men are in court now and in an effort to take ownership of the cat the wealthy, second man, starts to offer money for the cat. In the auction style scene that ensues the wealthy man starts the bidding only to be rebuffed at every increased dollar amount. The original owner loves the cat too.

“I am prepared to offer $5,000 for the cat.”

“No.”

“$7,500.”

“No.”

“$10,000.”

The exasperated hapless man, looking at the floor, shakes his head, takes a deep breath and says,“I just want my cat back.”

$25,000 is then offered by the wealthy man. The hapless man then poignantly says, “You can’t put a price on love.”

It’s a tender moment and the silence is broken by a court official saying, “He must be from out of town.”

I know, it’s a low brow joke about prostitution, but admittedly, at lease for me, kind of funny. Many, many years have passed since I’ve heard that line and as I’ve gotten older it’s made me think of the idea that all humor is only funny if there is a grain of truth in it. So why is this line funny? I believe it’s because it’s true. But what’s the truth? I believe it is this. Since this TV show was decidedly “of the world” it’s illustrating that nothing the world ever offers is free. Not even “love”. Our brains like to trick us though.

I recently read an article in USA Today, Valentine’s Day 2018 to be precise, by columnist Jeff Stibel. For the record, I really like his columns. The article was about an experiment he was part of concerning advertising practices. The experiment essentially went like this: Group “A” was given the opportunity to buy a laser point for $5.00. Straight up, no strings attached. The overwhelming majority of people simply said “no”. They didn’t want or need a laser pointer. Evidently none of them were cat owners. Group “B” was asked to fill out a survey, which would of course take some of their time and they (group “B”) would be “rewarded” with the opportunity to buy a laser pointer for….you guessed it….$5.00.

People signed up in droves to fill out a survey for the chance to buy a $5.00 laser pointer. “how many?” you ask. As Jeff Stibel noted in his article: “A whole U.P.S. truckload” of laser pointers were bought by survey participants. Really? Yes, really. People were, or are, willing to pay MORE, in terms of money AND time for something that, illustrated by group “A”, they didn’t want in the first place!

There is a whole lot going on inside our heads for something like this to occur, but boiled down, what the experiment shows is this:

People will pay more money and perceive a higher value if they do “something” to earn “something”.

If you already know my worldview is Christian, here is the point where I say, “Don’t get ahead of me.”

Let me talk about some other things in life that are considered free. How about that prize at the bottom of a box of cereal? Do cereal companies still do that? I don’t get out much anymore……anyway, nothing like polishing off an entire box of “frosted neon nuggets” just to get to the free whistle….”one in every box!” I’m not going to sleep for three days because of this insane sugar high, but fortunately for me neither will anyone else thanks to the noise I’m going to make with my new free whistle!

Perhaps this is not such a good example of “free” either because somebody had to BUY the box of cereal in the first place. Somebody who wasn’t thinking ahead, no doubt.

Let me change gears a bit. What about “free” things money can’t buy? This is where I could talk about the gift of a nice day. A long walk in the park, an unexpected visit from a dear friend. The love of a parent or spouse or perhaps a dog. But that would be way too sappy so I won’t go there. So what about blood?

[“I’m sorry…..what did you say?”]

Seriously, think about it. We pay for our healthcare, one way or the other, but if you’re in an accident or you cut off a hand with your new table saw because you didn’t read the directions, you may need some blood. Blood doesn’t go to the highest bidder, which is good for you because, at the moment, you don’t have a hand to place a bid with; but I digress. Frankly, I’m not exactly sure how they decide who gets blood but I do know you can’t buy it. It’s free. At least for the sake of this essay it’s free. Don’t write me a letter telling me what the actual cost of blood really is because of medical equipment overhead, refrigeration and red cross cookie expenditures….just stay with me here and assume it’s “free”. In short….blood is “good” and it’s free. What about transplant organs?

[“Okay, now you’re just getting creepy.”]

From what I understand there is a waiting list that potential recipients are on in order to receive donor organs. The point here is that money cannot buy you an organ. I think it’s illegal to sell organs. If it’s not I just found an easy way to make a quick buck. Hold on for a sec……..

…..Yeah, I just checked. Evidently the authorities frown on that sort of thing.

Anyway, my point is that we can indeed receive some very valuable stuff that is free.

As Jeff Stibel poined out in his experiment we are genetically inclined to put more value into something that we can work for….instead of something that we receive for free. This is a stumbling block for many people when it comes to our salvation, or lack thereof. It was certainly true for me.

“How can the gift of eternal life be free?” The answer in my head, and also in my heart was this: It can’t be free. I must work to prove myself worthy. My number one problem was my sinfulness. I had a huge hole that I would need to “work” my way out of.

No, you don’t understand. A HUGE hole. BIG. DEEP. Really, really big….and deep. I’m going to have to do a lot of work to prove myself worthy.

When God sees how much “good” work I’m doing he’s going to be so pleased with me. Maybe I can do a lot of “good” work, so much so, that I can continue in sin and God won’t care, because, look!……Good work! I can go on for the rest of my life and if my good works outweigh my bad works I’m gold!

WRONG!

Think about that for a minute, even if that were the case and your “good” works did outweigh your sin, wouldn’t the motivation to “do good” be for a bad reason? Look at it this way, if I help an old lady across the street (good capital) I can then spend some of that on me, doing something I like (nudge nudge, wink wink) thereby turning it into bad capital. If I help a whole bunch of old ladies cross the street I can then do a whole bunch of “some things” for me. I just need to make sure to leave enough capital in the “good” account.

The problem with this is that I’m not motivated to help old ladies cross the street for their safety. My motivation is my own flesh. When you break it down, all of our motivation to do anything good will be tinged with some degree of fleshly evil.

In the book of Isaiah, Chapter 64, verse 6, we are told that “our works are like filthy rags.” To make matters worse, the Apostle Paul tells us in his letter to the Romans, Chapter 3, Verse 20, “That by our works nobody”…..again, nobody….”is justified in his [God’s] sight.”

So now we are kind of stuck. We cannot “pay” for salvation through work, and we can’t earn it either. If we want to gain salvation we will have to accept it as free.

When I was growing up and I would go to the grocery store with my mom, I was always leery of the people who were handing out free samples. I was too young to realize the marketing genius behind the whole “free sample” thing. So as a young child I had to avoid these people. Like the plague. If they managed to hand me a toothpick with a piece of food on it, I was going to owe them something. I, of course, having an estate valued at just over six cents in my piggy bank at home, had no way to pay them back. I had to steer clear to avoid becoming an indentured servant for the rest of my life.

As I got older I had another thing bother me about these free sample people. They were offering me something different than I was used to. In my mind, my world was perfect just the way it was. I know this sounds stupid, but when I allow somebody to offer me a free sample, in a sense, I’m agreeing to the idea that there may be something better “out there” than what I am currently experiencing. Simply put, if I’ve been enjoying regular hot dogs for my whole life and someone offers me a “nacho cheese infused super dog” that’s made out of real meat, it’s going to upset my current world. In most cases “the nacho cheese infused super dog” is “better” than a regular hot dog when we step back and look at it from an outside objective point of view.

If you’re a doctor and you’re reading this, just don’t! I know what you’re thinking. You’re going to ruin the bit…….so, thank you.

As for me, by admitting that a nacho dog is better, I’ve effectively admitted that my old life was not as good as it could have been. Perhaps this concept bothers you too. Perhaps not. I’m profoundly affected by this phenomenon. I’ve also discovered that it has a clinical definition. It’s called “stubbornness”.

I guess I’m in good company because Jesus dealt with countless numbers of people just like me when he walked the earth. Jesus was dealing with a population who had logged thousands of years of tradition (regular hot dogs) when he brought in the new era (nacho cheese dogs).

Matthew 5:17 tells us that Jesus came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. Jesus came to die as the perfect sacrifice…..once and for all. (Romans 6:10)

If the Jews, and by extension me, were to accept Jesus’ new way of life that would mean that they and I would be admitting that the old life was not the best way….something better was now “out there”.

But now I’ve got to deal with me. Now I’m confronted with the question: Are the best things in life really free? Yes, I submit that they are. The genuine love you receive from friends and family is free. The life you receive from a blood or organ donor is free. I will also contend that the whistle at the bottom of the cereal box is indeed free. Most importantly though, eternal life in Jesus Christ is free. For us anyway. Eternal life had a price, but it has already been paid in full. By Him. No amount of work we do can earn it. We have to accept it as a free gift.

I’ve tried to illustrate that the best things in life are free, but at the end of the day it comes down to this: Do you believe it too? It takes faith. If you don’t have it you’re going to miss out. The Apostle Paul sums it up nicely in his letter to the Ephesian church. Chapter 2, verse 8 says: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not of your own doing, it is the gift of God”.

As for me? Well, I’ve learned to graciously accept the love that family and friends offer me. I’ve learned that it is not the end of “my world” to accept the idea that there are some things out there that will make my life better. I’ve learned that the life changing love of God…..is free.

When I grew up I discovered that my fear of the “free sample lady” at the grocery store was unwarranted. That would prove to be a pivotal lesson for me. Years later I would be walking through the mall food court when….what should appear? It seems to be an Asian looking fellow with some sort of marinated meat on a toothpick. He didn’t even ask me if I wanted it. He just handed it to me. If I hadn’t accepted it I never would have learned of the heavenly, life-changing, God inspired awesomeness that is: bourbon chicken. Like I said, some of the best things in life are free.

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