03 March 2020

The bargain with God.

Probably the most common form of prayer is the bargain with God. It takes the form of, “God, if you do this for me, I’ll [something I may do; no guarantees though].”

We fill in the blank with all sorts of things. We promise we’ll reform our behavior: We’ll stop sinning, start some religious practice—or do one of ’em more regularly, be more charitable, perform some act of penance, or pathetically that we’ll even believe in God. ’Cause we don’t really, and this bargain with God is, to completely confound metaphors, our Hail Mary pass.

I’ve heard a lot of Christians dismiss, mock, or discourage the bargain with God. They believe it encourages the wrong attitude about prayer: Prayer’s about putting God’s will before ours. Not about working out an exchange of goods and services.

True. But the whole putting-God’s-will-first idea? That’s something devout believers know and practice. The bargain-with-God idea? We find it more among pagans, unbelievers, not-yet-believers, and newbies. (And the desperate, who revert back to this old behavior whenever doubt overwhelms ’em.) When we’re talking mature Christians, of course I’m gonna discourage them from trying to cut deals with the Almighty, ’cause we’re supposed to be tighter with him than that.

But when we’re talking newbies, I don’t mind when they bargain with God. And y’know, God doesn’t mind if they bargain with him either. Sometimes he actually accepts their deals.

No, really. It’s in the bible.

Genesis 28.20-22 KWL
20 Jacob vowed a vow, saying, “God, if you’re with me on the way I’m going,
you’ll give me bread to eat and clothes to wear, 21 and I’ll return in peace to my father’s house.
LORD, be God to me.
22 This stone, which I set up as a marker, is God’s house.
Everything you give me, I tithe you a tenth of it.”

God actually went along with that one. He watched over Jacob, despite the trickery of his uncle/father-in-law Laban, and despite some of Jacob’s own trickery. Jacob did eventually return to Canaan in peace.

1 Samuel 1.11 KWL
Hanna vowed a vow, saying, “LORD of War, if you see me,
see your maidservant’s affliction. Remember me. Don’t forget your maidservant.
Give your maidservant offspring, a man,
and I give him to the LORD all the days of his life.
A razor will never go upon his head.”

God went along with that one too. Hanna’s offspring was the prophet Samuel, and his mother dedicated him to God. Hence the whole no-razor thing; those under a Nazirite vow of holiness never cut their hair. Nu 6.5 Samuel was even sent to live at tabernacle, where he first heard God’s voice.

Judges 11.30-31 KWL
30 Jefta vowed a vow to the LORD. He said, “If you give answers to prayer,
give the sons of Ammon into my hand.
31 My offering will be whatever goes out the door of my house to meet me on my return,
in peace after battling the sons of Ammon.
It’s for the LORD; it goes up in the fire.”

And God did indeed help Jefta defeat the Ammonites. Unfortunately Jefta’s story has a nasty ending. See, the first thing out of Jefta’s house—the thing which Jefta promised to go up in the fire—was his only daughter. Jg 11.34

Yeah, are we sure this was part of the bargain?

Jefta’s first, understandable response was to freak out. Jg 11.35 Because while he knew he couldn’t break his vows to God, Nu 30.2 he didn’t know God well enough to know human sacrifice opened up a huge exception to his promise: God forbade that! Dt 18.10 But all the pagan gods permitted human sacrifice, so Jefta assumed why wouldn’t the real God?

So he gave his daughter two months to mourn, then “did to her as he vowed.” Jg 11.34-39 Which lots of Christians much prefer to imagine was send her to live as some kind of pre-Christianity nun, but they had no such things back then. So… eww. Just eww.

Because of the horrible outcome of the Jefta story, there are plenty of Christians who insist there’s no such thing as a bargain with God. Jefta thought God gave him victory because of his vow, but this is a case of the post hoc ergo propter hoc error: Just because one event follows another, it doesn’t mean one’s a cause and the other’s an effect. God was gonna let Jefta defeat the Ammonites anyway. He didn’t have to vow to burn the first thing out of his door. Arguably he might’ve just been showing off, just to demonstrate how devout he was.

Anyway, these Christians get downright deterministic: The Almighty’s gonna do what the Almighty’s gonna do. Making promises isn’t gonna sway him one way or the other, once his mind’s made up. So if our promises are irrelevant, they’re therefore invalid. So what if I promised God I’d go to church if he’d heal my kid? He was gonna heal my kid either way. To hell with church.

Sounds all reasonable and logical… till we get to the rotten fruit.

Look, obviously God has his own ideas and plans in a lot of situations. Sometimes, especially when we’re following Jesus, we’re gonna want the same things he does, and pray for the same outcomes he wants. Even when we’re not following Jesus, sometimes we’re gonna coincidentally want the same things: Pagans don’t want their neighbors to throw noisy orgies every weekend, any more than God does, though for different reasons. Sometimes the bargain with God isn’t necessary, ’cause we’re on the very same page: He wants what we want.

But the main reason people decide, after the fact, that the bargain with God is invalid: They wanna weasel out of the bargain. At that point, they’re perfectly happy when some know-it-all Christian proclaims, “God doesn’t make such deals.” He doesn’t? Great!—it lets ’em off the hook. They don’t have to follow through with their end of the bargain. Heck, some of ’em will quickly jump from “God doesn’t make such deals” to “There’s no God out there to make such deals with.”

The fact is, if God appears to come through in any bargain, we’re on the hook for it. ’Cause we promised God, “If you… then I’ll,” and it doesn’t matter whether he did it specifically for us or not: We promised we would. God holds us to our promises. Don’t make ’em if you won’t follow through with them.

If you don’t really believe there’s a God out there to make such promises to, that’s a whole separate issue. The whole no-atheists-in-foxholes, “If you’re there, God, get me out of this!” situation is a pretty common move of desperation. But be honest with yourself: Did God legitimately come through for you? Did you actually get what you prayed for? You did? Then do a little more investigating. You’ve got some evidence for a real God; it makes sense to find out more. Denial might be convenient, but it’s stupid.

God’s motive: Faith.

The bargain with God isn’t an invalid form of prayer. Immature? Sure. But sometimes we’re immature. And God is willing to meet us where we are.

That’s the point. That’s why God sometimes takes us up on these deals: We don’t know him. We don’t know any better. We doubt he’s there. We don’t know the difference between God’s love and reciprocity: We think we gotta pay him back; that if he does us a favor, we owe him one. And when we do know better, but we’re desperate, we wonder whether offering God something, anything, might just tip the scales in our favor.

The bargain with God means he’s dealing with a person who lacks knowledge and faith. He interacts with these people anyway because he wants to grow their knowledge and faith. He knows answering their prayers will get them to take him seriously, even follow him. In the long run it’ll have a positive outcome. And he’s not gonna be so hung up on “what’s proper” to deny such people. (Besides, who gets to decide what’s proper anyway?)

Hence when we bargain with God, we need to be sincere in what we offer. Too often people tell God, “If you… then I’ll,” but have no follow-through. They might totally mean it in the moment, but they’re flaky. And God knows whether we’re the type of people who will, no matter how ridiculous it might look, how humiliated we might feel, do as we promised. If our promise is likely to bring us into a relationship with him, of course he’ll take us up on those deals. God’s no fool. He knows a good deal when he sees it.

In some cases, we’re not sincere but God still takes us up on our bargains. And then—because we’re not allowed to break our oaths to God Nu 30.2 —lets us suffer the consequences of oath-breaking. Not because God wants us to suffer, but to make us realize a promise is a serious thing. For those people who have a superficial relationship with God, this wakes ’em up: God isn’t to be trifled with.

Maturity: When God stops making deals.

Keep following God, and you’ll invariably find we reach a point where we can’t bargain with him anymore.

About 15 years ago I was really in a bind. I asked God’s help out of it, and in good ol’ desperation I found myself trying to bargain with him a little. “If you do this for me,” I told him, trying to think of anything to bargain with, “then I’ll….”

“You’ll do it anyway,” said the Holy Spirit.

I stopped. Went through a mental inventory, which took a while: Everything I could think of to offer, was stuff I ought to do regardless.

  • Give something up? I should give it up regardless.
  • Pray more? I should pray more regardless.
  • Praise more? Ditto.
  • Give more charity? Also ditto.

Went through everything I could think of, and gradually realized I was screwed. I got nothing.

And as any mature Christian could tell you: Well duh. We’re supposed to surrender everything to God when we first became Christians. We don’t have anything left to bargain with: It’s all surrendered! If we have any bargaining chip, it means we’re inappropriately clinging to something we have no business saving. Gotta give it up too.

When we look back upon our old bargains with God, we’ll often laugh about how immature these bargains were: The stuff we offered him, already belonged to him! Everything was a gift from God; anything that wasn’t, needed to go. And in the End, everything goes into the fire. 1Co 3.10-15 What’s from God, survives. What’s not… well, if we’re still clinging to it, I suppose we’ll stay in the fire with it.

So after a certain point of Christian maturity, the bargain with God can’t work. We’re beyond that. Which is just as well.

By this point, we oughta have way more faith in God to answer prayer. We oughta be way better at hearing him. We shouldn’t have to resort to desperate behavior so often. Okay, sometimes there will be slip-ups, like mine. But we can easily slip right back into place once God snaps us out of our panic. No bargaining necessary.