For a long time, I was confused about something. The pastors and ministers in my life would tell these stories about how because they lived life a certain way, God brought blessings into their lives – like maybe they left a lucrative job to plant a church and at first they were worried but now they’re super stoked about it. And then they would share stories from other people’s lives about how something similar thing happened. These examples were supposed to illustrate a truth from the Bible – that God will make X, Y, and Z happen when Christians do A, B, and C.
Let me give you a concrete example of this. In my earlier years in church, I got a lot of this sort of formulaic theology in regards to dating. I once described their teaching this way:
IF you set aside your filthy, carnal urges; IF you worry less about finding the right person and worry more about being the right person; IF you spend diligent, consistent, considerable time in prayer and study of God’s word THEN (and only then) God will bring an amazing woman into your life. Just like that. Happily ever after.
Of course that sounds ridiculous now, but here’s the thing. At the time, the people who were teaching me this had lived what they preached. They had lived sexually pure lives, they focused on being the right person, and they devoted considerable time to prayer and Bible study. And then, as they put it, God brought someone amazing into their life.
Back then, I was a scrawny, geeky kid who had no idea how to date. I was fascinated by women and desperately wanted a relationship but I had no idea how to approach or talk to them, let alone ask them out. And so here were these Christian leaders talking about how they (and other Christians that they spoke about) had met their significant others and so I took note and believed the same would happen in my own life.
Tithing and Transactions
Dating is just one example of this selective way of talking about the Christian life. Another common example is tithing. Often, in sermons that talked about tithing, I’d hear the idea that according to Malachi 3:10, God seems to be saying, “test me on this – if you tithe, I will bless you.” See how that works? If you do this thing (tithe) then God will do this other thing (bless). It gets preached as a transaction and it’s supposed to be bulletproof, a sure thing, quid pro quo.
Whenever I heard these sermons, the preacher would go on to share miraculous stories about how people in the congregation had decided to begin tithing to the church at a time when they couldn’t afford to do so. Their story would often go something like, “we looked at our finances and knew that we couldn’t afford to tithe because there just wasn’t enough room in our budget. But we decided to step out in faith anyway and give, knowing that at the end of the month, we wouldn’t have enough to pay all of our bills. But then the end of the month came and some how, we ended up with a surplus!” Sometimes this surplus came in the form of a rebate check they had forgotten about or a refund from a utility that had over billed them or sometimes just from another congregant (“God told me that you needed this money”). So the message was, everyone needs to tithe because when you do, God blesses you. Always. And the proof of this was in the personal testimonies they shared.
Dating and tithing are just two examples, but this sort of message was pretty common. If you do A, B, and C then God will do X, Y, and Z.
Unfortunately, these were all another example of false church narratives (or at best, highly selective church narratives). The truth of the matter was far more complicated.
The God Machine
Let me close by saying a bit about the theology underlying this message. Whether they mean to or not (they probably don’t), messages like this paint God out to be nothing more than a machine – one that gives out based on what you put in. Seen from the other end, it’s a machine where if you don’t put in, you won’t get out.
But here’s the thing. God really does seem to come through for some people – they do receive the blessings they prayed/worked/gave for. However, for others, the hoped for blessing never appears, and this can be devastating. This formulaic theology can paint God as a cosmic lottery. People plug in various inputs (more purity, more tithing, more prayer, more Bible study, etc.) and hope for the promised blessing. And the bigger the buy in, the bigger the hoped for pay off. And when the church keeps putting forward stories from people who “won,” it perpetuates the belief that the “losers” need to just keep being faithful, keep doing their part.
And that can lead to tremendous disappointment and harm.
…and I’ll get to that bit in the next post