A couple of months ago, my wife and I got disgusted with our cell phone carrier’s bad service and decided to go with a different company. Both of us also got new phones. Mine came with a $50 rebate, which would be paid with a gift card.

Sure enough, the prepaid Visa card arrived, and sooner that I expected. Right away, we used it for lunch out. A couple of weeks later, we tried to use it again in another restaurant. It was rejected, despite multiple attempts. The manager of the place, though, was able to get a special code from his home office that enabled the card to go through, and we got another lunch on our cell phone carrier.

Knowing that the card balance was getting pretty low by now, we decided to check how much was left. What a surprise I got when I saw that the company had charged not only the actual amount of our lunches to the card, but also had authorized a 20% tip, which was deducted from the card whether we put a tip on it or not!

Disturbed and puzzled by this, I called the 800 number on the back of the card and was told that I should not use it in restaurants, hotels, and salons because of the deduction of the tip. That practice had in fact sent the card over its value in our second attempt to use it, and thus it had been rejected. The excess charge, if unused, was not added back to the card for two weeks or so.

The “gift” had come with strings attached. It was fine for groceries or a movie or a prescription purchase, but not for what we most wanted to use it for. The devil was in the details, the fine print on the back of the sheet on which the card had come.

I guess that’s always the way it is in the world. Gifts aren’t really gifts. They come with some sort of fine print, obligation, catch, some expectation (no matter how much denied) of reciprocation. As they say, there is no such thing as a free lunch.

Only the gifts of God are unconditional, given freely and solely out of love with no expectation of anything in return from us. Fortunately, he doesn’t send us something ephemeral, like money, in whatever form. He gives us himself. And that sustains us when everything else is gone.

© 2011 Tom Cheatham