Why we're tempted to use God to get our way (and why it doesn't work).
I hung up the phone in disbelief. A two-minute conversation had just wiped out my prospects for the future.
Internships are a big deal for journalism students. It's common knowledge that those who go on to be most successful in the field complete at least one before graduation.
When I met with the editor of my hometown's daily newspaper the summer between my sophomore and junior years, he practically handed me an internship for the following summer.
"Give us a call in the spring!" he said with a vigorous handshake.
Everything had seemed to just fall into place. My dad happened to know the editor, which had favored me with the interview. The editor liked me and assured me I was a perfect candidate for the position. Not to mention, the internship would allow me to live at home and work a second job, earning money for school. It was clearly an answer to prayer.
For the next six months, I planned and prepared for my upcoming stint in the newsroom. On a sunny afternoon in March, I made the call.
"I'm sorry," the editor said, after I reminded him who I was. "We just filled that position yesterday."
I felt numb. God had provided for this opportunity every step of the way. And suddenly, without warning, I had nothing.
Good for Good
Disappointments come in many varieties. The end of a once-promising relationship. The loss of something you believed was an answer to prayer. A dramatic event that renders future hopes impossible. The disappointments that hurt the most are those we see as the breach of a divine agreement.
I recently suffered such a disappointment and found myself questioning God's goodness. I had been seeking Him all along and felt sure He was leading me a certain direction. But in a day everything changed; what I had hoped for was gone.
I felt the frustration David expressed in Psalm 73: "Surely in vain have I kept my heart pure; in vain have I washed my hands in innocence. All day long I have been plagued; I have been punished every morning" (vv. 13-14).
Though I was striving to do things right and be obedient, "the plan" just didn't work out. And I felt that God was being a little unfair — even mean. I did everything right, I pouted. How could You let things turn out this way?
In his book, God's Plans for You, J.I. Packer observes Christians sometimes perceive God is playing a game of cat and mouse with them — a game in which a player, in this case God, defeats his opponent by tricking him into making a mistake.
This misunderstanding of God leads to the following logic: If I can ascertain the correct moves, I can win the game and get what I desire. Conversely, if the desired object ends up being yanked away, I must have made a mistake.
Maybe that's why I felt cheated when something good I was pursuing with integrity didn't pan out. It seemed as if God didn't live up to His end of the bargain.
Let's Make a Deal
Jewish talk show host Dennis Prager addresses the issue of deal making in his book Think a Second Time:
I have come to realize that many religious people, of all faiths, believe that they should be able to avoid the calamities that afflict the less pious. They believe, in effect, that they can make a deal with God — 'I'll do what You want so that You do what I want.'
The problem is not merely that of reconciling the terrible injustices of this world with a just Creator — a problem that I and many others have. For countless religious people, this issue is compounded by their belief that God has reneged on a deal with them.
If I'm really honest with myself, I realize I'm guilty of making unspoken deals with God. My favorite is "the formula." I assume that if I figure out the way God would have me go about things and follow the steps precisely, I can achieve — or at least expect — a certain result.
We're all constantly trying to decipher various formulas: the secret recipe for finding a spouse; the five steps to succeeding at work; the blueprint for turning out godly children. These formulas make us feel safe, like we have a little control over our lives — over God.
I've even caught myself considering how to best word my prayers in order to convince Him of a friend's need for salvation or persuade Him to resolve a particular circumstance. I know it's ridiculous, but I still do it.
The more I search Scripture, the less I see that God promises me a certain result for my obedience. There are general positive consequences, such as peace and confidence in doing what I know is right. There are also rules of thumb for success, such as the Proverbs (e.g., if you do something stupid, something bad will probably happen). But the specific outcome of obedience is impossible to call.
My recent anger toward God reminds me of Jonah. The wayward prophet wasn't too thrilled to be obeying God in the first place. He disagreed, on principle, with God's order to inform the Ninevites of their impending doom. As a cranky Jonah watched the wicked nation repent, a vine grew up and provided him with shade.
The next day a worm ate the vine, the sun beat down and Jonah wanted to die. God told the irritated prophet that he had no right to be angry since he had nothing to do with the vine's existence.
Jonah had attached a spiritual significance to the vine. Perhaps he felt it was the least God could do for him under the circumstances. But Jonah was mistaken. True, God had shown him mercy by providing the vine, but it was actually an object lesson to demonstrate Jonah's lack of mercy (Jonah 4:6-11).
Your Plan or Mine?
Many times I'll make a "good" plan and then expect God to bless it. I remember trying this tactic as a kid with my mom. "If I eat all my dinner I can have a bowl of ice cream, right?" I knew my mother could not possibly object to my plan since ice cream is clearly a proper reward for eating one's dinner (particularly when lima beans are involved). And my logic fared pretty well.
But such deals cannot be made with God. My mother's purposes — that I receive proper nutrition — were evident to me. Many times God's are not.
Deuteronomy 29:29 says: "The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law."
Thanks to Scripture, we know what we are supposed to do. And there is intrinsic worth and reward in obeying God. But often the reasons for things are only known to Him, and if we attempt to define what He is doing along the way, we may be disappointed with the outcome.
So how is one to escape a deal-making mentality? Part of the solution lies in possessing an insatiable tenacity for God's will. This is the desire that Jesus modeled when He said, "Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven." If the will of the Father is our highest value, we will be more accepting of a change in plans.
We must also focus on doing things purely out of a love for God and a desire to see Him glorified instead of for a specific reward we might secure. If our only expectation is to abide in Christ's love, the details will become inconsequential.
Finally, we must realize that it is not, in fact, possible to make deals with God, except perhaps in special cases where deal making is part of God's teaching process (think Hannah asking for a son or Abraham begging mercy for Sodom). If I think I can somehow manipulate God into doing things my way by following a certain set of rules, I am deceived.
The day I lost the internship I questioned God pretty severely. As something of a last resort, I spent the summer taking an in-depth children's ministry course — education that gave me an edge when I applied for a job as a children's magazine editor after graduation.
God knew I didn't need that internship. Like Jonah's vine, its purpose wasn't what I thought. And in the end, I was thankful I didn't get what I had bargained for. God's deal was better.
Copyright 2007 Suzanne Hadley Gosselin. All rights reserved.