Bargaining with God

Written by admin on September 27th, 2010

[This is one of a series of entries from my unpublished book, Desperate Devotion, which details my experience with the words of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew during a crisis of faith and calling.]

I’ve had a lifetime of opportunity to get beyond primitive notions of faith. So I have found it humbling to recognize the continuing strength of these primitive impulses in me. I can “know” better all I want at an intellectual level, but that doesn’t mean I have truly internalized all I know.

As is true of various kinds of crisis, a spiritual crisis throws us back on our faith’s most primitive level. At crunch time we really get to see what we believe and how deeply-rooted we have gotten in the characteristics that the Apostle Paul defines as the fruit of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.[1]

 Take the matter of bargaining with God. As a preacher and teacher I have confronted this tendency for years. I don’t remember exactly when I came to recognize the fruitlessness of it, but it struck me years ago that New Testament faith puts us beyond the pattern of quid pro quo.

 Quid pro quo. It’s a legal term, from the Latin, meaning “something for something.” Behind it lies the idea of fair exchange. We practice this principle on a daily basis when we purchase something or sign a contract or return a favor. It’s the principle of “tit for tat.” It’s the idea of “you scratch my back; I’ll scratch yours.” It finds application in blessings and curses, rewards and punishment.

 How does the principle of quid pro quo work with God? Well, at a certain level we have biblical precedents for striking up a bargain with God. We see Abraham negotiating over the fate of Sodom.[2] We see Jacob promising lifetime loyalty to God in exchange for God’s blessing and protection.[3] We see Moses resisting the command to lead the tribes of Israel farther into the wilderness until he has assurances that God will go with them.[4]

Furthermore, God actually encourages us to put God to the test. Consider, for instance, God’s challenge on tithing. “‘Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,’ says the Lord Almighty, ‘and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it.’”[5] What is this if not an invitation to hold God to a bargain? God makes a promise and dares us to trust. God encourages us to put our money, our things, our very lives on the line and suggests, in so many words, that we hold God accountable to keep God’s side of the bargain.

On the face of it, the pattern of quid pro quo lies at the heart of covenanting, which is one of the foundational dimensions of biblical faith. To establish a lasting, loving relationship with us, God makes promises and demands, creating expectations from our side and from God’s. God calls for obedience and trust on our part and promises blessings or curses, depending on our response.[6]

I’ve used Old Testament texts so far, but this pattern of covenanting, of promise making and promise keeping, this “if-then” of faith (“If you’ll do this, then I’ll do that”) carries over into the New Testament (“Testament” literally means “covenant”). Jesus calls for obedience and trust and promises eternal life, the kingdom of God, the presence and power and peace of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in exchange.[7]

It’s not a mere coincidence that you can find books of biblical promises on the bestsellers’ list. Promise-making plays a prominent role in God’s ongoing relationship with us. From Genesis to Revelation, God makes promises. “You can bank on it,” God is saying. “I’ll be true to my word.”

  • “If you seek me, you will find me, when you search for me with all your heart.”[8]
  • “I will not fail you or forsake you.”[9]
  • “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.”[10]
  • “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will direct your paths.” [11]
  • “If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”[12]
  • “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come into to you and eat with you, and you with me.”[13]
  • “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”[14]
  • “…And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”[15]

At a certain level, then, I was justified when I took God to task for what seemed to me like failed promises. God had said my prayers would be honored. God promised finding at the end of my seeking.

So, what’s the problem with quid pro quo?

Actually, there’s more than one problem. For one thing, this mindset is legalistic, holding God to a standard of fairness that really isn’t in our best interest. Were God actually fair, giving us what we have coming to us, we wouldn’t like the outcome. The Apostle Paul reminds us that the wages of sin is death[16] and that all of us have sinned.[17] Do we really want God to be fair? I think not. What we really want is the unmerited gift of God: eternal life in Jesus Christ our Lord.[18]

For another thing, when things aren’t going as we prefer, we can’t honestly say with certainty that God isn’t being true to God’s promise. Look at my situation during my dark night of the soul. I felt God’s absence but couldn’t say for sure that God actually had deserted me. And though I had the impression that God wasn’t responding to my request for clarity, I couldn’t say for sure that God was ignoring my request. I had to allow for the mystery of God’s method and timing. I had to allow for the fact of my impatience and the ways God had to ready me and my circumstances before lifting the fog across the landscape ahead.

Still further, the quid pro quo mindset quite easily becomes an attitude God condemns. Jesus, when tempted by Satan to put God to the test, recited words from the book of Deuteronomy. “You shall not put God to the test …”[19] God is not a genie who comes to us saying, “Your wish is my command.” God’s generosity as a promise-maker should never lull us into thinking that we can manipulate God. God is Lord; we are not. We dare never forget this.

How easy it is to turn the promises of God into presumption, to act like religious consumers, becoming demanding, insistent, transactional. The essential elements of a covenantal relationship—love, trust, and mutual self-giving—get lost in the exchange. Empowered by God’s promises we treat God as if God were our cosmic butler, doing our bidding, rather than the other way around. We forget our place.

We also forget our limits—the limits of our insight, our patience, our perspective. We jump to conclusions about what we simply must have, forgetting the difference between wants and needs. We jump to conclusions about how and when God must deliver on the things we expect. And frustrated when our assumptions, presumptions, expectations, and demands aren’t satisfied we work up a stew of righteous indignation.

Despite having cautioned Christians against this for years, I still succumbed to these very reactions when, after years of waiting for clarity, I found myself seriously wondering if God’s promises could be trusted. I felt like I was holding up my side of the bargain. I wondered why God wasn’t holding up the other side of the bargain. I can admit now that I wasn’t being fair.

Where does this leave us? It leaves us with wonderful promises from God and the challenge to trust and obey God. It leaves us with a reminder to be grateful rather than presumptuous, seeing the good that comes to us from God’s hand rather than focusing on the ways we don’t think God has yet delivered.

Quid pro quo makes our relationship with God a utilitarian thing rather than a relationship rooted in love. If we’ve got a contract in hand every time we come to God, we thwart the experience of intimate oneness that Jesus, the Son enjoyed with his heavenly Father and that he extends as a possibility to us.[20]

“Claiming God’s promises” isn’t an invitation to call God to task. It’s an invitation to relax in faith-filled confidence, trusting that whether God’s promise-keeping is conspicuous or currently hidden, it’s happening either way.

I know this at a certain level, by faith. I simply find it difficult to remember when times of testing come.

[1] Gal. 5:22-23.

[2] Gen. 18:16-33.

[3] Gen. 28:20-22.

[4] Ex. 35:15-17.

[5] Malachi 3:10.

[6] Dt. 30:11-20.

[7] Jn. 14:23-27.

[8] Jer. 29:13.

[9] Joshua 1:5.

[10] Ps.37:4.

[11] Prov. 3:5-6.

[12] Rom. 10:9.

[13] Rev. 3:20 (NRSV).

[14] Mt. 6:33.

[15] Mt. 28:20.

[16] Rom. 6:23a.

[17] Rom. 3:23.

[18] Rom. 6:23b.

[19] Mt. 4:7 (Dt. 6:16).

[20] Jn. 14:23.


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