If-then is a favorite game. It begins with childhood bribery: if you clean your plate, you can have dessert; If you mow the yard you can borrow the car. It’s in childhood that we learn the rules of transaction in which if and then become implied obligations rooted deep in social norms that influence behavior in subliminal ways. Years ago Robert Cialdini wrote a popular book (Influence, 1984) in which he described the excess to which if-then transactions can go when a “gift” of small value can subtly impose a social obligation to return the favor with something of much greater value. He called it the principle of reciprocity. Fund raisers play on it when they send out dimes and quarters attached to fundraising letters, knowing it will significantly increase the likelihood of a contribution. One of the most popular and sleaziest forms is the oft repeated scheme: If I buy dinner and a movie, you owe me sex.
Prayer is another popular setting for if-then transactions in which we try to employ the principle of reciprocity, but to make it seem less manipulative, we reverse the terms and hope God won’t notice. Instead of offering a small gift to obligate God to respond with something big, we ask for the big thing, and offer something small in return. It comes out like this: If God will grant my petition, I will do something for God, like go to church more often, be nicer to someone, work harder, or stop doing the thing I should never have done in the first place. It’s not new. It’s almost the entire theme of the book of Judges, and the Psalms are filled with if-then bargaining with God: “Save us from the Assyrians and we will quit worshiping idols,” that sort of thing.
God is not fooled and can play the if-then game as well as anybody. I was reminded of it by the lectionary’s offering of a portion of chapter 58 in Isaiah: “If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong, and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water whose waters never fail.”
It’s pretty straight forward. If you, as one of God’s people, do what you can to create conditions in which the least among you have what they need for life and opportunity, God will lead you on the path to an abundant life.
It raises several problematic questions. For one, it turns out that an abundant life is not necessarily a life of wealth, nor is it free from the usual troubles affecting us all. Yet, it will be a life of great abundance. Most of us would prefer a more definitive offer, and have difficulty accepting it on faith alone. But that’s the offer, and those who have accepted it have known the true meaning of abundance.
It also makes some of the politically conservative among the faithful nervous that God leans too far to the left for them. As morally good as personal charity is, it cannot atone for a society that won’t address systemic inequities. God, it seems, expects both generous personal charity and social righteousness in communities from towns to empires.
Then there’s the question about non-believers who dedicate their lives to feeding the hungry and satisfying the needs of the afflicted. Are they to be among those blessed with abundant life too? Jesus said he came to redeem the world, and we who claim to follow Jesus are expected to be agents of reconciliation in the world. At the same time, whether righteous unbelievers might also receive God’s blessings is none of our business, not our place to judge. That doesn’t stop us from making it our business and declaring our judgments.
Questions such as these set the negotiating agenda we present to God, and brandish as defensive shields in conversations with others. God, it appears, is not open to negotiation, at least not on matters such as these. There are times, however, that make us wonder. Consider Abraham’s bartering with God over how many righteous people in Sodom would be needed to prevent its destruction. God respected the deal making because it was about the possibility of saving the afflicted. Or consider the man who negotiated with Jesus for the healing of his son: “I believe, help my unbelief.” It was about the possibility of healing, not of the son but of the father. When God appears open to deal making, it always goes in the direction of making us more aware of how important it is to feed the hungry and meet the needs of the afflicted.
In other words, don’t get the idea that there’s a more foolproof strategy for negotiating with God to get one’s way at little cost.