Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The "quid pro quo" fallacy

For those who may not be familiar with the term quid pro quo- it is an ancient Latin expression meaning that if I do something for you, I expect to get something (of approximately equal value) in return.  It is usually associated with business, but has been used in social situations and relationships (usually business relationships). 

And sadly, it has seeped like e-coli bacteria into the groundwater of Christian doctrine, causing spiritual diarrhea, dehydration, and death.  Let me explain.  

Spiritual quid pro quo is the idea that in order to get something from God, we have to give something to Him. In such a mind-set, faith is no longer an expression of love (as the scriptures say) but currency - spiritual cash - to be used to bribe God into doing what we want Him to do.  

Oo. That sounds harsh, doesn't it?  We don't really do this, do we?  But we do!!! Here is what Joel Osteen said on his FB page recently: "God never promised that life would be fair, but he did promise that if you will stay in faith, He will take what’s meant for your harm and use it to your advantage."  (emphasis mine).  What he said really jumped out at me. Really. And not in a good way. 

Now, I think that what he was talking about was Romans 8:28 - that God causes all things to work for good to those who LOVE Him (remember we love Him because He first loved us!) and who are the called [ones] according to His purpose.  Romans 8:29 goes on to say that the "good" that God works all things together for is that we are conformed (not that we conform ourselves) to the image of His Son.  There is nothing in that passage about "staying in faith" - whatever that is. OR anything about OUR advantage (in the sense that is implied in the Osteen quote). 

Or maybe he was referencing 1 Corinthians 10:13 - you know, God doesn't allow you to be tempted above what you are able, but will with the temptation make a way of escape, so that you are able to bear it.  OOps, well, there is nothing in that passage about "staying in faith" either - or anything about turning bad things to our "advantage". It just promises an escape hatch, a way out.  Because He loves us. And He wants us to succeed. Not so that we will be victorious (that's a fringe benefit) but so that we will know deep inside that He is interested in every single thing that happens to us. Because He is head over heels gaga about us, in the same way that a good daddy is gaga about his little baby, who, by the way, is unable to do anything for itself. (That's another blog post.)

Photo "Hand Holding Dollars" by jannoon028 at

The underlying premise of that Joel Osteen quote - the way it sounds to me - is that if WE keep believing, God will rig the game, and hoist people or circumstances on their own petards and bring them low so that we end up on top. But only if we keep on believing.  The emphasis is on us and our effort, and encourages the "what's in it for ME?" attitude.  The onus (or responsibility for the outcome) is ALSO on US ... and frankly, that seems to go against the love of God, the initiative He took in looking for the first, best, and most inescapable way possible to prove to us that He loved us all along.  It doesn't fit.  The self-centred, quid pro quo way of thinking is more like a transaction than an interaction, more narcissistic than intimate. It's religion and not relationship.

Okay, just so you know, I'm not picking on Joel Osteen.  I'm just using one of the things he said recently, because it seems to reflect and represent a lot of the teaching and thinking in Christian circles ... teaching that has been around ever since I can remember, and not just in one small slice of one denomination.  It's in the whole church.  It's formula-based thinking: A plus B has to equal C.  Put another way, you pray (that's A) and you believe (that's B) and therefore, God is obliged to (HAS TO) deliver on His promise (that's C).  Strange ... that's not what I read in the examples left for us in scripture.

Job prayed for his kids every day. They still died - at a party I'm sure Job wouldn't have approved of.  Sure, he had more kids at the end of his story - but every parent instinctively knows that having another child can NEVER replace, or heal the pain of losing, the first.  It is there. Always.

Moses, Gideon, Samson, Jeremiah, even King David ... these people knew from experience that it doesn't matter how much faith you have or don't have, or how long you pray or don't pray - God does whatever He wishes and chooses whomever He pleases ... because He is God. He is sovereign.

The three Hebrew children in the fiery furnace? Yes, they were delivered. But they didn't believe they WOULD be necessarily. They knew God COULD deliver them - but they were willing to be put to death.  They said to the king, "...even if [our God] does not [deliver us], we still will not bow."  That speaks to me more of passion for the God they loved rather than an "if we - then He" kind of thing.  Doesn't it?  

The same thing happened with Daniel and the lions - Daniel was willing to die rather than stop his relationship with God. God was that important to him. That he was delivered was a bonus.  He didn't expect or demand deliverance; he didn't go around the palace anointing everything with oil for protection before his prayer time.  He just prayed ... as usual.

And let's not forget that the most anguished, heart-felt "deliverance prayer" by the most righteous Person ever ... ended by saying, "Not my will, but Yours be done."

We can slip so easily into self-focused it-all-depends-on-how-hard-we-believe thinking, because it feeds the lie we have swallowed whole ever since the first Lie: that there is something that WE can do to better our lives, to cover our nakedness, to appease His anger (because after all, WE feel inadequate so He must see us as inadequate, right??) or to gain a reward (or keep ourselves from losing a reward - yikes!).  But the simple and amazing truth is that He has loved us the whole time, and continues to love us, and will never STOP loving us NO MATTER WHAT.  Until we begin to grasp how deep and unconditional that love is, all our efforts will have been for the wrong reasons, and we will have missed out on something very special.

The Bible is full of examples of God intervening into the timeline, and something about those interventions that strikes me almost more than anything else is that He never does the same thing the same way twice.  It follows, then, that we cannot expect Him to operate the same way He did last week or last month, or forty years ago.  It doesn't matter how long we pray, what words we say or don't say, what places we go or don't go, what format we use, how much we tithe, how many verses we read, how many Bible studies we attend, how many positions we hold in the church, or how many good deeds we do. There is nothing that WE can do to twist God's arm.  The brownie point system does not work.  In fact, it misses the whole point.

Let's think about how this fallacy translates into what church has become. We chase that elusive "presence" and tweak the song service ("worship time" - as if worship only gets penciled in for maximum 45 minutes once or twice a week) like it depends on US whether God shows up, as if He needs just the right atmosphere ... and as if it is up to us to create it.  Wow ... what arrogance. There is not something "anointed" (read: magical) about this song or that song, this speaker or that worship leader or those flags or that bottle of olive oil.  We can't manipulate the conditions that we think produce the results we want, or even the ones that "worked" the last time. We cannot manipulate God; He won't have it!  He will find a way to break out of the box we have put Him into.  Or (worse yet!) He will withdraw, because (after all) we think we have it all figured out, so why do we need Him?  Either way, He won't play our little self-constructed games designed to prove to each other (or to ourselves) who is His favourite. (Don't we know better than that?)  

Our spiritual disciplines and good deeds are not currency.  We can't treat them like bargaining chips (or bribes) to get what we want. If we do, we have it all backwards.  We have bought into the mammon myth - the I-scratch-your-back-and-you-scratch-mine lie.  This is relationship with God. This isn't the world system. God isn't some CEO to impress, He's the One Person in this whole universe who loves us just the way we are, no strings attached.

God is not about sticking gold stars or "good job!" stickers on our chore charts.  He invites us into His embrace - to clamber with glee onto His lap - and experience His love for ourselves: unfettered, unashamed, unafraid ... like children.  There are no agendas, no conditions.  He is about relationship; there is no need to feel obliged (or required) to add anything of our own to what He has already done to the uttermost.  To do so, in order to qualify for the benefits He has already freely given, would be falling from grace.  All that means (contrary to popular belief) is that we would be missing out on God's highest purpose for our life - intimacy with Him - and settling for what we can (try to) get out of Him.

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