Have you developed a transactional relationship with God?
If you’ve ever watched the show about U.S. politics, House of Cards, you’ve seen transactional relationships in action. The protagonist (and I use that word lightly), Frank Underwood, provides a favor for an often unwitting governmental colleague or lobbyist, but later he returns for what he believes he’s owed. There are no favors—every act of seeming benevolence is really the incurring of a debt.
As Christians, we may similarly assume a cynical worldview of scarcity in our relationship with God. There may be multiple reasons—our sin nature or an upbringing where we weren’t loved unconditionally. We see a transactional relationship with God from the beginning of Scripture when Cain is angry that God hasn’t responded with what he thinks he is due and then takes out his rejection on his brother.
Does your faith tend toward transaction? Here are five signs.
You’re busy all the time.
I’m not talking about a season of life here, such as parenting very young children or taking an intensive semester at a university. I’m talking about the norm being always busy doing the good things one believes they ought to do as responsible Christians.
I once joined a church and was told by a pastor that I should attend on Wednesday evenings and Sunday mornings and be involved in a weekly small group and ministry. There were also educational classes on Saturday that I could enroll in. As a single working over forty hours a week, I remember thinking, if four to five chunks of time outside of my regular workweek are already filled, when do I get to know my neighbors? When do I hang out with friends? The thought of one of my friends needing me in a crisis was worrisome. And now as a married woman with children, I find that schedule laughable. But I wondered if I wasn’t a dedicated Christian if I didn’t meet those expectations.
Believing that my dedication to Christ was proven by what I did outside of my so-called “secular” life was a kind of gnosticism, seeing part of the world as spiritual and part as not rather than recognizing that the earth is full of God’s glory whether I was grading quizzes or changing diapers.
Remember the brother of the prodigal son (Luke 15:25-32), who had faithfully served but was more than miffed when his low-life brother came back to be a given a party? If you’re so busy that you’re resentful for the lack of gratitude you receive from those you’re exerting energy to serve, then you’re too busy and subconsciously trying to curry favors with others and God.
Instead, we pray to see all God’s world as bespattered with his glory in whatever we’re doing and trust him in his direction for our Sabbath rest.
You think God demands excellence in all things.
Here’s another reason for exhaustion. All you do you do to the best of your ability because you believe that’s how you glorify God. I’ve lived a life with a kind of perfectionism I thought was to his glory. Somehow being “faithful in the small things” (Luke 16:10) came to mean being faithful in all things. What suffered was my belief in God’s goodness—what a demanding God that is. True wisdom is knowing how to prioritize and praying for the ability to do so. It’s also recognizing that part of faith is accepting mediocrity in some areas of life, such as emails with editing mistakes, peanut butter and jelly for my kids’ lunch, and unmade beds. God’s glory is already available in the earth, and we get to participate in it.
We glorify God by acknowledging our weakness and listening to him to help with our priorities.
You overuse self-conscious spiritual language.
There is a continuum in Christianity where we slide from intentionality—spiritual disciplines—to a self-consciousness about our faith that borders on judgmentalism toward others, including other Christians not as openly devout as we are.
We’re so afraid we’re not being faithful or being transformed by God that we throw in the Jesus-y words, especially the ones with hyphens, whenever we’re talking. Conversation includes words about being “Spirit-filled” and “Christ-oriented.” Have you noticed lately it seems that Christian institutions, including families, must call themselves “Gospel-centered”? We even correct other Christians to use more precise spiritual language—I once said something about luck and was told I should say “providence.” If your believing friends feel like they have to match you in language, you’ve got this problem.
Not only may we be inaccessible to others when we talk in this kind of code, but I wonder if we’re not assuming a detrimental form of gnosticism again—we have to invoke Jesus constantly in conversation for him to be present when he already is. We’re proving to ourselves, to others, and to him how Christian we really are. If we’re proving, we’re earning, and if we’re earning, we’re being transactional in our faith with God.
Instead, we pray for a quiet faith, one that trusts in his presence and grace. We use Jesus-y words as salt that gently flavors but doesn’t embitter.
You wonder if God is punishing you when something bad happens.
I have had situations where I’ve called out to God for justice and vindication. This is modeled in Scripture, but not as healthy is my lurking sense that God is punishing me when things go wrong. I have a morbid tendency to assume that I probably deserve it—that it’s payback time from God for what I could have been doing better. Maybe you’ve applied for numerous jobs, made the top contender, but never received the offer. Maybe you have a jerk of a boss or your child’s become very ill. It’s true that bad things shouldn’t happen to good people. Unfortunately, enough good things happen for others including bad people that we might wonder if we’re at fault.
Instead, we ask for wisdom to remember that the world is affected by sin and thus messy beyond our understanding.
You hide feelings about yourself that you’re afraid to admit to God or close friends.
I don’t know about you, but coming out of a dysfunctional family of origin, I’ve had to fight not to feel like damaged goods. I know others who cannot disclose to themselves, let alone a close friend, a former sin from their past or inappropriate desires, such as a crush on someone other than their spouse. We’re convinced that if people truly knew that part of us, they would reject us, and frankly God would too since we don’t talk about those feelings with him either. You may know the saying, “I believe God loves me, but I don’t believe he likes me.” I’m tempted to live the life of the glossy-looking Christian on the outside, surviving until he finally accepts me after death. It’s a transaction.
Instead, we pray to believe that God loves us and wants us regardless of our past behaviors, current desires, or deep psychological wounds.
My first counselor had me listen to an audio recording of Christian psychologist, Larry Crabb, telling the story of a boy locked in a room, whose father climbed through the window to be with him. They had to wait for a full rescue until later. The gist of the story was that our Father doesn’t always rescue us, but he will be with us—Immanuel, a name for Jesus. Faith in its simplicity is a dependence on the God who is with me. Some basic intentionality with a lot of internal, “I need you. I really need you. Thank you.” Receiving those three words, God with us, begins to dismantle our relationship based on transaction rather than grace.
Along with being a mother to two young and remarkably different daughters, Heather Walker Peterson is a member of Redbud Writers Guild and Chair of the Department of English and Literature at University of Northwestern-Saint Paul.