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  • Writer's pictureJay Lowder

Let’s Not Make a Deal!

Updated: Apr 22




Part 1! Why Bargaining in Prayer Belittles God’s Love!


   Believer, do you bargain with God? God wants you to ask, seek, and knock (Matthew 7:7), and when you do, often you will receive, find, and have the door opened (Matthew 7:8). But should we bargain with God? No! That spiritually dishonors God and destroys one’s spiritual health. Think of the nominally religious man in the hospital who vows to God that if God will heal him, then he will serve him for the rest of his now-extended life. Or think of the teenager, perhaps well-intended, who commits in prayer to follow Jesus more faithfully than her peers in exchange for the guarantee that God will someday provide her heart desires: a husband, children, joy, peace, etc. Prayers for healing and a bright future are wonderful, but not with the motive: “I’ll do this for you, Lord, and then you will do this for me!”

On the surface, praying to God in ways that sound like a business negotiation might seem right to you. After all, does not God want us to plead with him for what we need (Luke 18:1-8)? Yes, God invites us to pray, but commercializing prayer crassly reduces your relationship with your all-loving, all-generous heavenly Father into a series of spiritual transactions. Be careful! That deadens the soul and sours the relationship!

Jesus objected to babbling, repetitive prayers for this reason (Matthew 6:7-8), as they come from a view of prayer that does not look to the willing heart of the Father. R.T. France observed the mistake in unbelievers: “Instead of trusting a Father to fulfill their needs, they think they must badger a reluctant Deity into taking notice of them."1 What is more important to God than what we pray for is why we pray. When we bargain in prayer, we act as if he does not love us enough, and we misrepresent his nature, the subject of next week’s blog.

 

Not Praying to Our Father in Contract

Why does bargaining with God “seem” natural? Why do some pastors and leaders encourage this approach? Instead of learning from God the hows and whys of prayer, we bring our assumptions to prayer.  And many of those assumptions come from human relationships. At their best, your closest relationships flow from loving commitments. Because you love, you do good to your spouse, your parents, your children, your friends. Love “does not seek its own” (1 Corinthians 13:5) and does not "merely look out for its own personal interests” (Philippians 2:4). While we appreciate receiving goodness back from others, authentic and godly love cares for others, even if they are unloving in return or ignore your goodness. The godly husband, wife, and child serve others in the family regardless of any reciprocation or lack of it. Let’s call this “covenantal love.”   

In contrast, terrible but all too common personal relationships function commercially.  In the workplace and your business dealings, rightly, you exchange something for another. You give your employer two weeks of hard work, and you receive your compensation. Or you give money to a business and receive nice products in return. But “contractual relationships” do not belong in relationships of love. When that happens, everything becomes "tit for tat." That kind of home is filled with positive and negative negotiations like: “If you do this for me, then I will help you with that” or “If you don’t do this for me, then forget me doing this for you!”  Whether spouses feud with each other over who “owes” what or parents and children argue over who is at fault, this is a dangerous and deadly way to live.

What happens when others repeatedly fail you? Instead of grace and forgiveness, family members begin to long for something better, longing for or even pursuing a “better deal” elsewhere.  Spouses abandon their marriage covenants. Children leave home prematurely, looking for love on their own selfish terms. Likewise, if your primary relationships growing up were “contractual” instead of “covenantal,” you naturally approach God that way. When I help a couple in crisis, I hear this language – a lot! In fact, moving them toward a better future begins when I make them stop talking about past failed expectations and start talking about showing unconditional love in the future. While you might not think about it, your default is to ask God for things in exchange for things. But don’t do that! Begin to try to approach God supernaturally, not naturally!

 

Praying to Our Father in Covenant

How incomprehensible is God, especially his generosity! Job learns this from God: "Who has first given to me, that I should repay him? Whatever is under the whole heaven is mine” (Job 41:11, as Paul quotes in his doxology of Romans 11:33-36). Jesus grounded the requirement to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44) on the imitation of our heavenly Father who “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (verse 45). God is gracious and generous to all, even those who hate him and never pray to him. He keeps giving and giving and giving. Every day, he spreads his “common grace” freely upon all, even on those whom he knows will never love him!

            So much the more, God loves and saves his children by the “blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28). We should not approach God assuming that he does not care and must be motivated on our behalf by some token future promises! No, instead, we should pray on the basis of God’s covenant love, already demonstrated for us while we were yet “sinners” and “enemies” (Romans 5: 8, 10). Coming to God, assuming his desire to bless us, honors Jesus, who paid to establish peace between God and ourselves. Praying to our Father without the fantasy of repayment and trusting that the Holy Spirit will freely empower us to live today, we should lift our eyes off ourselves.       

 

Indebted to Others Instead!

            This healthier view of prayer does not mean that we are free from serving God. In response to God’s goodness to us, we will naturally love him, serve him, praise him, pursue him, and serve others. Having freely received, we can and must freely give (Matthew 10:8), pouring out our lives as acts of service to God for whom no repayment is possible or required.  Further, we give to others because of the free grace toward us that is available to them, too. Think about the grace of salvation. Toward God, we cannot repay, but toward others, we are obligated to share the good news of God’s unconditional gift.

Paul wrote to the Roman Christians, “I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish.” (Romans 1:14). From this passage, John Piper draws an insightful contrast between him to whom we cannot repay and those to whom we are indebted: “When you receive grace from God, you don’t become a debtor to God. Grace cannot and must not be paid back as a debt. Otherwise, grace would no longer be grace. If I give you a free gift and you try to pay me for it, you turn it into a merited purchase, not a free gift. So grace does not create debt in this sense…When you hear good news about how to escape from a common misery, you become a debtor to tell the good news to others so they can escape the misery, too. You owe it to them. Why? Because if you withhold the good news of grace from others, as if you were qualified for it, and they were not, then you show that you have never known grace.”2

 

  3 Better Paths Forward!

Here are tips for your journey ahead to help you rejoice and enjoy God’s truly free grace in and through your life.

1) Begin your prayer time with adoration and praise! Think of and praise God's nature to remind yourself to whom you pray, and you will not think of prayer as negotiation.

2) Daily humble yourself! Remember that your best efforts could have never saved you. This frees you from the performance mentality so common today. If you are still trying or praying to be good enough, then perhaps you have not yet become a true child of God. Receive that offer today.

3) Listen to the prayers of others around you! Do they need to develop a more gracious view of God? If so, then pray for that for them! The prayers of others will inevitably reveal their theology, good or bad. Pray along with them and also for them!


In the next post, we will consider a second theological reason why you should not barter with God in prayer.

  




Here is a helpful, related article:

 

[1]R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publication Co., 2007), 240. The New International Commentary on the New Testament.

[2]John Piper, “The Gospel in the Church for the Obedience of Faith through Spiritual Gifts,” in Sermons from John Piper (1990–1999) (Minneapolis: Desiring God), 2007). Also available online: https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/the-gospel-in-the-church-for-the-obedience-of-faith-through-spiritual-gifts. Emphasis added.

 

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