Is it proper to treat God as our heavenly Genie-in-a-bottle? As in, “Lord, I ask you to . . . .” Or, “Please, dear God, we need you to . . . .” Always asking, always seeking, always knocking.
We all do it. When we pray we commonly ask for benefits or we tell God what we want him to do for us, for our family, or for our friends. So much so that some people measure his care and goodness by their perceptions of having prayers answered.
But doesn’t God ask for it? The invitation to ask, seek, and knock came from Jesus himself, and he meant it. In his last conversation with the apostles before he was crucified Jesus underscored the invitation: “Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full” (John 16:24).
So it is true: God wants us to come to him not only with our needs but our wants. He is a gracious, merciful, gift-giving God. This remarkable disposition reveals God’s heart as loving and self-offering. The bond between God as our creator and ourselves as his beloved creatures is one of utter, complete dependence on our part: apart from him we can do nothing. Every breath, every step, every aspiration that we have as humans exists within the realm of God’s sustaining word.
Yet some have taken this reality to be a lever, a way to pry benefits out of God. This is the concern we must consider. Is there a proper and an improper way to come to the God whose limitless capacity of love and giving is before us?
The answer is yes. We are meant to approach him in love—as those beloved—so that our requests are familial, asked as children delighted with their father. As children whose ambition it is to please, to delight, to draw near to the one on whom we depend.
Sin has spoiled this intended mutuality of joyful giving, receiving, and returning care. The greatest gift between God and the male-female “man” was the bond of love, with the particular gifts shared among us serving as signals of that bond. God’s very being—as one who exists eternally in the triune communion of mutual love—was the basis for our own creation: “Let us make man in our image . . . male and female.” Our very being is relationally defined by God’s own image of mutual love.
And so it is that the reciprocity of giving and receiving is divinely inspired in all who turn to God in faith. The life of faith is to participate in Christ’s life as branches grafted back into the vine of our original creation purpose: to bear the fruit of his presence. To share with others what we have been given. To love as we have been loved. And to use gifts as signs of our love.
Yet whenever and wherever fruitful branches offer their produce some will gather who see vines, branches, and fruit in selfish terms. Where is this from? From the serpent, whose chief characteristic is to gather wealth to himself. In Ezekiel 28 and Revelation 18 we find a creature who rejects reciprocity, despises mutuality, and who insists that it is better to receive than to give. He denies his dependence and invites us to be “like God” yet without ever telling us that the God he has in mind is unloving, selfish, self-seeking, dissipated. In other words, he offers a status of god-ness created in his own image—an utter corruption of God’s true being. Thus Satan is the ultimate consumer, and all who follow him are themselves consumed by him and by his ambitions.
So the Bible regularly warns us against those who have outward forms of religion but who lack any power. What power? The power to love others selflessly. To receive gifts in order to give them away again. To find delight in mutuality and reciprocity.
The Satanic alternative to the true God can still appear religious in many ways. The deceiver’s main device is the offer of contractual mutuality. That is, a religion that expects a quid pro quo benefit for any gift that is given: God, if you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. If you want my tithe, okay, but I expect blessings in return. If you need to be glorified then I want a cut of glory for myself.
The real object of this charade is self-advancement and God himself is reduced to the status of a warehouseman—with his powers as the ultimate commodity. It is like a cancer that can betray our well-meaning prayers. Even as genuine believers we can slip back from our salvation delight in Christ to the old days of seeking our personal security and advancement as if God is obligated to make this life into our own heaven.
My heart was moved to write this entry after reading Revelation 2:4 yesterday morning. The church in Ephesus was among the most dramatic centers of God’s working in the first century. Paul had taken the church from infancy to maturity; John had ministered there as well. It was a church that was noted for its orthodoxy—it had all the right answers. But it was a church that was beginning to treat God as a resource. He was no longer their greatest delight: “I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.”
I am a bachelor, never married, but I can still imagine what it must be like for a married man or woman to realize that their spouse has a competing love that has displaced them. This is God’s own grief. He made us as lovers, to receive and to reciprocate his love; and to share that love with others by finding—after his own heart—that there is greater joy in giving than in receiving. And for his part he refuses to be a commodity. For that we can give thanks, and respond to him as our ultimate love.