There’s a brand of Christianity I’ve often come across in churches and around the interwebs. I’m going to call it Transactional Christianity.
When you enter into a transaction, you pay an agreed amount and receive a predetermined item or service in return. It’s a fixed equation, backed by terms and conditions: if you pay A, you get B. And if what you get isn’t to your satisfaction, you can usually get your money back.
Many people apply this kind of formula-based thinking to God.
- If I pray the sinner’s prayer, I’m home free for all eternity.
- If I read the Bible dutifully and have regular “quiet times”, I can expect God to look after me.
- If I attend church regularly, I’ll feel like I’m right with God.
- If I give my ten percent, I’ll reap a harvest of material blessing.
- If I regularly pray for protection over my family, I can expect perfect health.
Now this is all well and good when everything’s going according to plan and all the transactions are proceeding smoothly. But this kind of thinking has a flip side: when things don’t work out the way they’re supposed to – when something goes wrong with the transaction – we’re forced to look for an explanation. When we pray fervently for a friend to be healed but they still succumb to cancer, we’re left with questions like “Did I pray hard enough?” or “Did I have enough faith?” Or when, in spite of our efforts to spend regular time in prayer and Bible study, we still find ourselves dry and thirsty and unable to hear God, we begin to wonder what we’ve done wrong, what sin or issue in our life is blocking our direct line to heaven.
And so it is that this very common breed of Christianity often leads to guilt and an unspoken feeling that we must be missing the mark and somehow need to do better. We know that God can be relied upon to keep his part of the bargain – that’s what it says in the terms and conditions, right? – so the problem must lie with us.
The basic problem with a transactional approach to Christianity is this: God does not conform to our notions of how He should behave, who He should bless and how, and what He should do to reward us for honouring our end of the deal. If you’re not convinced of this, read the book of Job. Allow me to summarise: in a kind of cosmic bet, God allows satan to afflict his faithful servant Job, destroying his livelihood, his family and his health. This is surely enough to cause anyone to question what they’ve done to deserve such an accumulation of ill fortune. While Job sits in the dust lamenting his fate, three of His friends attempt to comfort him by offering explanations as to why all this has happened. They become increasingly insistent that Job must have sinned, and that he needs to identify and confess his sin – for in their transactional view of the world, God always punishes the sinful and rewards the righteous, no exceptions allowed. Job remains perplexed; he’s confident that he hasn’t sinned, and he can’t understand why God would punish him so.
After 35 chapters of questions and attempted explanations, God finally answers Job “from the whirlwind”:
“Who is this that questions my wisdom with such ignorant words? Brace yourself like a man, because I have some questions for you, and you must answer them.
Where were you when I lay the foundations of the earth? Tell me, if you know so much.”
(Job 38:2-4, New Living Translation)
For the next two chapters (and, following a brief response from Job, another chapter after that), God continues with a spectacular account of His unfathomable power and wisdom, all in the form of pointed questions directed at Job. At the end of this divine onslaught, and with the benefit of all the well-intentioned advice from his friends, what conclusion does Job reach?
“I am nothing – how could I ever find the answers? I will cover my mouth with my hand. I have said too much already. I have nothing more to say.” (Job 40:4-5)
Simply put, our attempts to fit God into a transactional mould will not work. The God who spoke the universe into being, who knows the stars and the sparrows by name, and who upholds the universe by the word of His power will not be reduced to an equation or a formula. If your concept of God tells you that He will always deliver A as long as you do B, then I humbly suggest you need to go back to the Bible with an open mind and ask yourself whether the magnificent, untameable God you find in its pages is really so easy to fit into such a small, well-constructed and tidy box.
I think C. S. Lewis says it best in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. Mr. Beaver is telling young Lucy and Susan about Aslan, the great lion:
“Ooh” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he — quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”
“Safe?” said Mr Beaver. […] “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
I don’t want a God who is at my beck and call and who can safely be relied upon to return the right result as long as I keep my part of the bargain. I want the lion, the great “I am”, the alpha and the omega, the God who is wild and free and who does whatever He pleases. That’s the God I find in the pages of the Bible. When I try to force God into a box, the god I end up with is no greater than my own logic. No: give me the God who can’t be pinned down. He may not always feel safe, but I certainly know I can trust in His goodness.
What do you think?