Wheelin’ & Dealin’ With God

Thanks to Dianne for this question regarding a variation on yesterday’s gambling topic.  I’m just going to quote her note to me before responding.

This guy was at a basketball game and he was selected to participate in a half time on-court contest.  Three guys were chosen.  The guy who wrote the article drew his location from a hat and it was “Half Court” which meant he had to sink the ball from there in order to win the $2500.00 prize. When the time came, he took his place and prayed, “Okay , God, if I hit this shot, I’ll give you half the money.”  Of course, he won.  He and his wife attended mass in a church that had recently had a fire in the sacristy.  He donated half the prize which covered the repairs.  Now I’m sure you’re wondering where I’m going with this……………I don’t believe it’s right to make a bargain with God.  I tried, unsuccessfully, to contact Guideposts to express my opinion.  What’s yours?
Thanks for the question, Dianne!
I guess the best place to start is by defining terms and clarifying the setting a bit.  If I understand your concern correctly, it centers around the issue of bargaining with God, which I’ll define here as trying to strike a deal with God in order to ensure a desired outcome.  It might be represented as the formula: If you do this, then I will do this.  
This can take lots of forms, and many of us have probably engaged in this sort of thing at one point or another, often in times of distress and fear.  The story is told of Martin Luther that, being caught in a particularly frightening storm, he promised God that he would become a monk if he survived the storm.  He survived, and much to the chagrin of his parents (who had put him on the track to become a lawyer), he fulfilled his vow and became a monk.  For a while
Biblically, we have some interesting precedents for this kind of behavior as well.  There’s Abraham’s bargaining with God in Genesis 18.  Abraham isn’t seeking his own personal benefit (though he has relatives in Sodom), yet would this qualify as an example of bargaining with God?  It’s sort of tricky because Abraham is not promising anything on his part in exchange for God’s actions.  More accurately, Abraham is reminding God of God’s own nature – the nature that is more ready to forgive and to show mercy rather than to distribute wrath and destruction.  I still tend to think that this counts as an example of bargaining though, even though Abraham isn’t promising something on his own part.  
Then there’s the curious event in Genesis 32 where Jacob has a wrestling match with the Lord, and refuses to cede the fight unless he receives a blessing.  Certainly seems like some strong-arming going on there (sorry for the bad pun).  It fits the formula cited earlier better:  If you bless me, then I will let you go.  
An important distinction in these two examples is what is being asked of God.  In both cases, God is being asked/bargained with to act consistently with his nature.  The desired outcome is that God would bless rather than curse, spare rather than smite.  As well, the desired outcome for those involved is God’s blessing – Jacob to be directly blessed by God, the citizens of Sodom to be blessed that God does not execute the immediate judgment that their evil merits.  
So if we’re going to use Scripture to justify bargaining with God (and we clearly can, given these two examples), we need to recognize that at least in these two examples (can you think of others in Scripture?), the outcome being sought is consistent for both God and the requestor (or those being requested for) – God blesses and his creation is blessed.  Not just any sort of bargaining is engaged in, but a particular bargaining that asks for God to do what He is naturally inclined to do, for the outcome that is appropriate to a creature/creation of God’s.  I suspect that this is an important distinction for the discussion that follows.
Back to the example above.  Is this the equivalent of bargaining with God as we’ve defined and Scripture has illustrated?  It’s hard to tell on the surface, as I’m not sure exactly of what this person thought or prayed before letting the basketball fly.  But it seems at the very least to imply a form of bargaining.  The conditional first statement – the ‘if you do this’ statement – would be: If you let me make this basket.  The second statement is explicitly stated: then I will give you half the winnings.
We could pick this bargain apart based on semantics and other criteria.  God doesn’t need $1250, for example.  Others would argue that God’s church needed the money, which is somewhat similar – or at least similar enough.  But those arguments ultimately sidetrack us.  
First off, we need to recognize the primary problem in the equation for bargaining.  We don’t really have anything to offer God.  It’s not truly a bargain.   Any time I offer God something, all I’m doing is offering him what is already his.  Nothing I have or am can truly be said to be exclusively mine in the sense that I could reasonably deny it to God if for some reason He were to demand it of me.  Not my life, my family, nothing.  In that sense, it’s impossible to bargain with God.
Not that we don’t still try.  Sometimes even when we know better.  We’re willing to grasp at any number of straws in the right situation.  Having God in your corner pretty much trumps any other straw we can imagine.  So our prayers can be laced at times with both explicit and implicit offers for bargaining with God.  If the test results come back negative, I’ll treasure my spouse more.  If the surgery is successful, I’ll start going to Bible study.  If the tornado misses our house, I’ll give up smoking.  
When I’m honest with myself, those moments when I want to bargain with God tend to illustrate my own honesty about what I really ought to be doing.  Honoring my spouse isn’t a bargaining chip – it’s part of my vocation as a Christian and a spouse.  Going to Bible study probably is something I’m already convicted that I ought to do – so offering it as a bargaining chip to God both exposes my realization that I’m not doing something I know I should, and demonstrates that it’s really not a bargaining chip.  
If Luther felt compelled to offer his life to the Church in exchange for living through the storm, I tend to think Luther already had some inclination that perhaps a life in the Church was something he really ought to be pursuing more diligently.  The bargain may have ultimately been a means for him to fulfill an inclination or direction he already knew was right, but wasn’t able on his own to pursue (it would have required an open conflict with his father).  
When I bought my lottery ticket for the big drawing last week, I didn’t promise God to give him half the money if I won.  Giving to God of the blessings He has given me isn’t a bargaining chip – it’s a natural response to the love of God manifest in the blessings I’ve received – and that is defined most honestly ONLY as the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ on my behalf.  Anything else I enjoy in this life is icing on the cake.  If I don’t receive any other blessings in this life, I am still blessed beyond measure in Jesus Christ.
I guess this wraps up my long-winded answer.  When we attempt to bargain with God, we misunderstand our fundamental relationship to, with, and in Him.  We have nothing to offer.  We have already received everything in Jesus Christ.  Therefore we can and should honestly pray Thy will be done, rather than attempting to manipulate God.  
But what about Abraham and Jacob above?  Another interesting thing is that in each case, God appeared to them.  God initiated the contact that provided a context for the bargaining to take place.  Abraham and Jacob didn’t attempt to hunt God down to have him do their will.  He came to them, initiated the exchange, and then responded when they engaged in the exchange as well.  I think that’s probably a key thing to see as well that separates it from the example in the Guideposts article mentioned above.
All that being said, we are called to come to God with our hopes, fears, dreams, desires, joys, sorrows – everything.  It isn’t wrong (and Luther would
say it’s commanded) for us to pray all things to God.  The guy holding the basketball could have prayed to God that he really wanted to make the basket, but thy will be done.  No bargain implied or stated.  If he made the shot, he still ought to know a proper response to his blessing and follow through on it without the verbal contract with God in advance.
Praying thy will be done in all things allows us to be honest with God, and to honestly understand our relationship to him.  It is a relationship of complete dependence upon him for everything, always.  It is a relationship where we acknowledge his wisdom and power as being beyond our best efforts to discern the proper outcome in any given situation.  It reminds us that whether we receive what we specifically ask for or not, we are still his creation that He loves completely – enough to send his Son Jesus to die on our behalf.  
Bargaining may come naturally, but it seems contrary to a proper relationship with our Creator.  While there are times when God may come to us and engage us in a manner that allows for us to place our demands more confidently before him, trying to bribe God with something that is already his, or that we already know should be our natural response is a mistaken effort.  The fact that God grants some prayers that are actually bargaining efforts is his discretion, and the fact that some earnest prayers for specific outcomes without attempts at bargaining are not answered the way we wish them to be ought to drive us back into that trust of God that enabled us to pray thy will be done from the start.  
We don’t need to bribe God into blessing us – He has already blessed us in Jesus Christ.  Everything else is just a matter of being honest with God about where our heart is, and trusting that He is capable and willing to care for us regardless of whether or not it’s the way we’d prefer to be cared for.
Thoughts?  Ideas?  Counter-proposals?  Thanks again for the question, Dianne!

2 Responses to “Wheelin’ & Dealin’ With God”

  1. william b Says:

    This was a great question. And answer! As kind of a related question. What about casting lots? In Acts 1:26 the Eleven used prayer and casting lots to choose the new apostle. Would this be a valid way to make decisions? I would think one would need to emphasize the prayer part along with scripture reading to go along with the rolling of the die or whatever method you would choose.

  2. Paul Nelson Says:

    Thanks for the comment – I’m going to use my response as an updated blog post!

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