Coming to God with empty hands. Much as you don’t wanna.

by K.W. Leslie, 16 May

What do we really have to give him, anyway?

God is gracious.

Yeah, you knew this already. (Hope so, anyway.) Problem is, we Christians tend to compartmentalize grace. We imagine it applies to some parts of God; not so much others. It applies to some facets of our Christian life; it really hasn’t sunk in how grace applies to all of it. God’s kingdom runs on grace.

We remember God is gracious when it comes to salvation. He’s gonna save us whether we deserve saving or not. Isn’t this the good news we share with others? But when it comes to prayer, we totally drop the grace idea. We imagine we somehow have to deserve God’s favor before he’ll grant our prayer requests.

Why does this happen? Well, bad examples from fellow Christians. ’Cause for the most part, we’re not living lives of grace. We’re living the way the rest of the world does, and the world runs on reciprocity: If I want something from you, I gotta do something for you first. Quid pro quo, this for that.

So if we wanna get anything out of God, what’re we first gonna give him? And I kid you not: Various Christians actually teach us we need to give God a little something.

Like it goes in Christina Rosetti’s 1872 poem, “In the Bleak Midwinter” (which we sometimes sing at Christmas):

What can I give him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a wise man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give him: give my heart.

So sometimes we’re instructed to give our hearts. Although weren’t we required to do that way back when we said the sinner’s prayer? We gave that already. What else y’got?

Although many of us try to give our hearts all over again. Temporarily, at least. We psyche ourselves into feeling benevolent and holy for a little while; at least till we’re done praying. Then we get distracted by other things, and our hearts are once again our own. As gifts go, our nasty little self-centered hearts make a crummy gift.

But what’s the alternative? Material gifts? Doesn’t make a whole lot of sense with an immaterial God. How’re we expected to give God a car, or jewelry, or electronics?—as if he needs such things. Some Christians suggest we give cash to one of his churches. (Particularly those pastors whose budgets are a little tight.) But what if we’d rather not bother with a middleman?

A lot of us figure we’ll give services instead of goods: Do a lot of good deeds. Rack up a bunch of charitable works which God might appreciate. Point to them as our offering.

The Brownies, a Girl Scout group for younger girls, used to give points to kids who committed good deeds. That’s kinda how we imagine our good deeds work with God: We’re accumulating Brownie points. As if we weren’t already meant to do good deeds; Ep 2.10 as if our additional good deeds count as extra credit, and we can stash ’em in God’s karmic bank and maybe make withdrawals in the form of answered prayer requests.

If all this sounds ridiculous, it should. Yet this is what we Christians unconsciously do whenever we go through the motions to merit God’s favor.

I’ll say it again: God is gracious. Do we need to do any of these things? Or are we already in God’s favor because we’re his kids?

Yep, it’s that second thing.

“But we aren’t to come to God empty-handed!”

Every so often, I hear Christians attempt to teach us how to squeeze more stuff out of God. They never, ever phrase it that way, but listen to ’em long enough and you’ll realize it’s precisely their goal. We want more “Yes!” and “Amen!” answers out of God, so they imply they know a few tricks to get us those yeses.

One of them is this idea, extracted from the Law: We ought never come to God empty-handed. Always have something to bring him. Always have something to give him. (And no, your heart doesn’t count.)

Okay. First of all yes, the Law does say the Hebrews were expected to bring stuff to God.

Exodus 23.15 KWL
“The Feast of Matzot: Keep it seven days. Eat matzot like I commanded you.
Do it at the time of the month of Avív, when you went out of Egypt.
Don’t come before my face carrying nothing.”

The KJV has “None shall appear before me empty,” but the NIV went with “No one is to appear before me empty-handed.” Is that what the LORD meant?—don’t stand before his face with no offering? Well, reyqám means the opposite of “full.” Ru 1.21 It means you got nothing. Probably should have something.

Deuteronomy 16.16 KWL
“Three times a year all your males must be seen before your LORD God in the place he chooses:
At the feasts of Matzót, Shavuót, and Sukkót.
Don’t be seen before the LORD’s face carrying nothing.”

But in context, these verses are about tabernacle/temple rituals. About going to temple for Passover, Pentecost, and Tents. About giving God a lamb for Passover, grain for Pentecost, and the daily burnt offerings for Tents. They’re all about the sacraments God wanted them to perform—and when they did ’em, they need to bring stuff. Otherwise there couldn’t be any ritual!

It’d be kinda stupid to travel all the way to Jerusalem for Passover, yet not have a lamb. (Or not get in on another family’s lamb, which God permitted for small or needy families.) It’d be all kinds of dumb to make a trip to dedicate your firstborn, yet not ritually sacrifice, at the very least, a pigeon—which was no unreasonable hardship, ’cause anyone could trap pigeons for free.

Now, what’re we talking about again? Traveling to temple for ritual sacrifices?—all of which were rendered moot by Jesus’s once-and-for-all sacrifice, He 10.12 by the fact we’re now God’s temple, ’cause the the Holy Spirit dwells in us 1Co 3.16 —is that it? Not even remotely. We’re talking about prayer. Talking with God. Which, I remind you, the ancient Hebrews did the same as we. Prayed from anywhere and everywhere. Didn’t need to bring ritual sacrifices along with their prayers; never did. Do we? Still no.

The “sacrifices” we bring: He’s not impressed.

Christians needn’t bother with ritual sacrifice, but this hasn’t stopped us from trying to offer God various other things we call sacrifices. The writer of Hebrews mentioned “a sacrifice of praise,” He 13.15 so we try to butter God up with praises. David asked that his prayers count the same as incense and sacrifice, Ps 141.2 so we figure maybe that’s the solution: Extra prayer. Dump long, emotional prayers upon God—and don’t forget to praise him!—and that’ll merit a prayer request or two.

The ancient Hebrews used to make the same mistake. They imagined their sacrifices earned ’em Brownie points with God. Did a whole lot of them. Did extra, just so they could feel like they were coming out ahead on the balance sheet between them and God. Make him extra-receptive to their great and impressive prayers.

All they actually did, by going through these motions, was irritate God.

Isaiah 1.11-15 KWL
11 “What are your many sacrifices to me?” says the LORD.
“I’m full of burnt-up rams and animal fat.
I’m not interested in the blood of bulls, lambs, or goats.
12 When you come before my face, walk in my courtyard, who requested this from your hand?
13 Don’t bring me empty offerings any more! Incense? It disgusts me.
Calling monthly and Sabbath assemblies? I can’t stand wasteful conferences.
14 My soul hates your monthly and special feasts. They’re a burden to me which I tire of carrying.
15 When you spread your hands, I hide my eyes from you.
When you pray ‘great’ prayers, I don’t listen:
Your hands are full of blood!”

Through Isaiah, God’s complaint was the Hebrews offered him loads of sacrifices, festivals, and prayers, but what he really wanted ’em to do was stop sinning. Is 1.16-20 They assumed the worship canceled out the sin. It doesn’t, and never did. It was a case of them taking God’s grace for granted—and because they went through the motions of bonus sacrifices, they still wanted God to bless them and give them stuff. It’s profoundly selfish behavior.

That’s really our motive when we’re trying to get God to owe us one. It’s not gratitude. It’s an attempt to gain the upper hand in our relationship with him. Which, lemme tell you right now, we are never gonna get. Never ever. He’s almighty. We aren’t.

God paid an extremely high price for us. We’re forever in his debt—which he’s already forgiven. We’re still occasionally screwing up—and again and again, he’s forgives us. He’s given us his kingdom. He’s bringing heaven to earth so we can live together with him. We are entirely at a disadvantage when it comes to reciprocity, karma, anything: There’s absolutely no way we can ever get God in a position where he owes us a favor. NONE. To infinity. Any of this sinking in yet?

The only proper position, when we approach God to ask for stuff, is humility. We can stand before him boldly, He 4.16 but only because he’s fine with it. We can ask him for anything, but only because he’s happy to hear our requests. His grace is the entire basis for him even listening to us, and it’s the entire basis for him granting us a thing. Our hands are entirely empty.

And we need to be okay with it. It’s just how things are. The rules of this world don’t apply when we’re dealing with God. We’re working with pure, infinite love here. Stop trying to work an angle and just let your Father bless you.