I once meant a woman on a flight in Australia who told me this story. She had a companion who was traveling with another woman. It was back in the days when full meals were served on domestic flights and when real silverware was used to eat the meals. At the conclusion of the meal one of the women said to the other: “Do you suppose they would mind if I took this silverware?” The second woman commented that she was sure that the airline would indeed care. But the other woman took the silverware, wrapped it in a napkin and carefully put it into her purse. In a little while the plane entered a thunderstorm area and there was considerable bumping and moving about, the plane going up and down – many of you know the feeling. A few minutes into the storm the woman with the silverware reached into her purse, put the silverware on the tray table and remarked, “Now I am right with God.” After a little while the plane left the storm area and broke into the clear with smooth flying once again. And at this point the woman quietly put the silverware back into her purse again.
The story can be understood as a metaphor of how we sometimes bargain with God. On the one hand, we believe that he is all powerful, that he controls even the elements, that even the winds and the waves obey him. And we believe that he or his angels watch us, at least some of the time. But on the other hand, we believe that we can bargain with him, that we can influence his decisions in some ways and at some times. Otherwise we would simply pray, “OK for today Lord,” instead of “Give us today the food that we need,” a prayer incidentally that many Christians in the world must pray every day.
It would be interesting, yet futile, to speculate how long the woman with the silverware would have stolen and retracted the silverware if the airplane had continued to pass in and out of storms over the next hour or so. That too could be a metaphor of our life. We promise God certain things, somewhat conditional upon his meeting our requests.
Some examples. Gideon’s fleece is a familiar and favorite story. Gideon was puzzled as to why the Lord had abandoned the Israelites when he had been so powerful to bring them out of Egypt. The Lord had promised to be with Gideon and strike down all the Midianites. Gideon wasn’t so sure. He wanted the angel of the Lord to wait while he prepared an offering. Later the offering was consumed and Gideon realized that it had been the angel of the Lord. Still later in the story Gideon bargains with God. He wants to be sure that the Lord will be with him so that the Israelites will be saved from their enemies. He makes a proposal, “Look, I will place a wool fleece on the threshing floor. If there is dew only on the fleece and all the ground is dry, then I will know that you will save Israel by my hand, as you have said.” (Judges 6:36ff.) And that is what happened. But Gideon wanted to be sure so he asked the Lord to reverse the process: dry fleece and dew on the ground. And that is what happened.
Now it is interesting that it doesn’t seem to offend the Lord that Gideon wants to bargain with him. In fact, we read in Judges 7 that the Lord now does some bargaining with Gideon. “You have too many warriors,” the Lord says. “The Israelites will not realize that it is the Lord that delivered them and will think they have done it by their own power.” Then an interesting member reduction process takes place. The Lord says to have the men drink by the stream and to separate those that drink like dogs from those who use their hands as a cup to drink. And it is the 300 that lap like a dog who are chosen to fight for the Israelites.
So Gideon bargains with the Lord, who in turn bargains with Gideon. But the bargaining is for a purpose: the power of God is being revealed and illustrated, not the power of Gideon. The lesson seems quite clear: God is not offended when we want to see his power displayed. But he is the one in charge and does not operate by means of formulae: I have never heard of Gideon’s experiment being repeated successful by anyone seeking to know God’s will about a particular matter. Gideon’s fleece has become a well-worn metaphor for throwing out something difficult as a test for God. If he answers, then we “know” that it is God’s will.
When we turn to the NT and look at the life of Jesus, he does not seem to operate in the same way. “Show us a miracle and then we will believe,” exclaimed the unbelievers. But Jesus performed many miracles and there were still many who did not believe. Jesus healed out of compassion and he performed miracles to give glory to the Father. Nothing was done to draw attention to himself. It was the same with John the Baptist: his mission was to draw attention to Jesus, who was to follow.
In a more modern setting, I have read that certain evangelists have had gold dust come down while they are preaching, and that people should come and see it falling from the sky, or at least the stage. Or in another context, we hear that the statue of the Virgin Mary in a particular church has been weeping. These scenes are said to be signs (and wonders) that demonstrate unusual varieties of God’s power – come and see God at work. I once read a book about a national evangelist in a particular country who reported that every mighty act that Jesus did in the NT, including walking on water, had been replicated in his ministry.
The point is, of course, that anyone with such seemingly unusual powers is certainly in a position to bargain with God. In the light of such “power” we may be left with the feeling that our relationship with God is pretty puny. We don’t seem to command God very well, not only to tell him what to do, but when and how to do it. The Scriptural response is that we have been told to test the spirits to see whether they are from God. We are told also to recognize the spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood. (1 Jn. 4:6).
Satisfying God with our Actions. The silverware woman was trying to satisfy God by means of her actions. The miracle worker demonstrates the power of God by means of his actions. That in and of itself may not be a bad thing. God makes it clear that he is interested in the way that we act, namely that we obey his commandments. Of course the woman wanted the silverware (stolen) and the blessing or protection of God at the same time. The evangelist wants to demonstrate the power of God and appeal to the curiosity and interests of people at the same time. We may feel that the actions of the silverware woman and the resulting weather are absurd or that gold dust and laughter bear no relationship to the power of God.
How do we try to satisfy God with our righteous acts? In Mat. 6:1 we read: “Be careful not to do your acts of righteousness before men, to be seen by them.” The understood information is that we are indeed to do acts of righteousness. And what are such acts? The same chapter in Matthew specifies that one such act is giving to the needy. But giving to the needy seems to have its own set of temptations. The expression “to blow one’s own horn,” captures the essence of what the hypocrites did in the streets and synagogues when they gave to the needy. Sometimes churches and schools publish the names of wealthy benefactors or name buildings after them. Giving to the needy is supposed to be done in a spirit of privacy, so that we are not praised. God will see our act of righteousness and will reward it.
We are to give to the needy because we as Christians are the light of the world (Mt. 5:14). This too is an alarming statement, although made by Jesus. Our light shines before the world, who note our good deeds and praise God, not us. Praising the Father is a concept that is different than praising people. Thinking that God should be pleased that we are not stealing silverware or not committing adultery gets it backward. We act like we should be rewarded for something that we should not be doing in the first place.
Let me give a personal example. Sometimes, years ago, when we lived in the village and were involved in linguistic analysis and translation work, I resented all of the good deeds that I had to do. People needed injections, bandages, pills, and it took up a great deal of time. There were far too many needy people for me to work efficiently and at what I enjoyed the most: linguistics and translation. It is then easy to “keep track” of the good deeds: 25 injections today, 5 burn cases, etc., even if I didn’t really want to do the “good” deeds.
At the other end of the continuum there are people who don’t keep track at all. Here is a case in Matt. 25:37: “Then the righteous will answer [the King], ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?’ Here we have people, righteous people, who do good deeds and it is such a natural part of their lives tat they haven’t thought that much about it. “And the kind will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’” The King puts understands their needs of the brothers and is so pleased that someone has cared for them that he rewards them.
Communicating acts of righteousness. We have adopted a system as a “faith mission” such that we have to report to people and churches that support us. We need to somehow demonstrate to them that their contributions are wisely used by us such that something of benefit to the Kingdom of God results. This is partially subjective: People get to know us and learn about our ministry and they decide to “support” us. But how can they decide (or how do we decide) if the support is commensurate with acts of righteousness?
Some years ago questionnaires to missionaries became quite popular. One church, we learned later, actually took the replies from missionaries and graded them, much like an exam in school. With a passing grade you were kept on, and, with a high grade, your support might even increase. Recently another church decided to “drop” our support. They were reexamining their priorities and our ministry did not fit within their guidelines. Sometimes this simply means that the general budget is getting behind and something needs to be cut.
In the light of this kind of mission policy, any subjectivity that is not guided by the Holy Sprit can produce various non-objective results. The good communicators are more likely to raise their support than those who have an introverted personality.
So do the best story tellers and the most pleasing personalities win the missions committees’ hearts? Perhaps, although all of us would claim that support is not commensurate with acts of righteousness. We all know faithful Christians in many countries that have little in the way of material possessions. And we know missionaries who struggle financially that have very effective ministries. But this is where the real rub often comes. We look around in our mission and we note that some people are much better off than others. They have better houses, cars , clothing, food, etc. It is hard not to compare ourselves with others. However, you quickly declare that material possessions are not necessarily a mark of God’s blessing. There are people who are smarter, get better grades and obviously have a greater intellectual capacity. This does not seem to be any kind of award for their deeds of righteousness. The same is true in a so-called spiritual sense: Bible trivia may roll off your lips like mana from heaven and you may pray with more feeling, raise your hands higher, or sing louder than anyone else. But how does this relate to our contribution to the Kingdom of God?
When we compare ourselves with others we are measuring our acts of righteousness, testing them against our colleagues. It is natural: even the disciples wanted to know which one was the greatest (Mt. 9:46ff.)
Bargaining for the Spirit? We are not all created equal. We don’t even have equal potential or capacity. The point of Romans 12 and 1 Cor. 12 make is that we don’t even have spiritual gifts in the same way, nor should we expect them. And we are not to envy what the other person has. One body, many parts, is the theme. We are not to lord it over anyone when we do have abilities and gifts that seem to be the most sought after.
God gives his gifts to everyone for his own purpose, which is to edify one another and to glorify God by our actions. “All of these [wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miraculous powers, prophecy, distinguishing between spirits, tongues, interpretation of tongues] are the work of the one and the same Spirit, and he gives them to each one, just as he proposes.” (1Cor. 12) For any of these we are not to think of ourselves as more important than someone else, regardless of leadership position, contributing to the needs of others, sharing mercy, prophesying, or even serving. (Rom. 12)
It seems clear to me then that, while we may want to bargain and even if God does not take offense if we do, we are actually in no position to do so. All we have is “freely given,” not earned because of acts of righteousness, gifts of the Spirit, ministries of various sorts, or whatever. Ours is an offering, not a bargaining.
In Pidgin English and in many of the languages of PNG there is a concept for “backing” something, sometimes translated as compensation. It has unusual twists. For example, if I send my child to your school, that is something that you should be thankful for and you should provide the child with some pocket money. If I provide you with some food or clothes, you are under a debt to return some favor in the future. It is unusual, in the cultural matrix, to “freely give.” But this is not always the case. I have had Papua New Guinea men give me large sums of money, expecting nothing in return. That is more like how God does it.
[GIAL Chapel, August 2001]