In the outstanding PBS documentary series “God in America,” researchers provide compelling evidence to suggest that the United States was founded in large part on the concept of a national “contract with God.” That is, the underlying belief that we as a nation were called out by God to form a “more perfect union,” a union founded on certain commitments we would make to God, and as long as we held to those agreements, God’s blessing and favor would always remain on us.
The researchers go on to suggest that our national belief in that contract remains strong even today, in spite of the country’s ever-increasing secularization. It’s a fascinating exploration of our national story, one that I encourage every American to watch (regardless of your belief system). I especially recommend it to Christian faith leaders, as I think it provides great insight into the national narrative of the United States (i.e. who we tell ourselves we are), and how that works both for and against the work of God’s Spirit among us.
But nations aren’t the only ones to believe they have a contract with God. Most individuals I know do as well. It’s subtle, and we don’t often look at it directly, but for almost all of us, the contract is there, buried deep in our psyche. And once we really see it, it quickly becomes clear that it runs almost everything we do.
The terms may differ depending on the person, but all of them go something like this: God, if I do (fill in the blank), then You will keep my family well and safe, You will keep us financially prosperous, and You will keep our lives relatively free of serious difficulty or suffering.
It’s a performance-based contract, and for untold millions of Americans and other Westerners, it’s become their foundational understanding of what it means to be a Christian. If I profess these beliefs, and agree to regularly do these behaviors (and avoid those behaviors), then I will be “in.” I will be under the umbrella of God’s good graces, and He will prosper me and protect me from the evil in the world.
The problem of course is that this is not the gospel. It is a horrible, false gospel. It is a contract that God never signed.
As Eldredge & Curtis wrote in The Sacred Romance:
“The Religious Man or Woman is a popular story option in which we try to reduce the wildness of life by constructing a system of promises and rewards, a contract that will obligate God to grant us exemption from the Arrows. It really doesn’t matter what the particular group bargain is—doctrinal adherence, moral living, or some sort of spiritual experience—the desire is the same: taming God in order to tame life. Never mind those deep yearnings of the soul; never mind the nagging awareness that God is not cooperating. If the system isn’t working, it’s because we’re not doing it right. There’s always something to work on, with the promise of abundant life just around the corner. Plenty of churches and leaders are ready to show you how to cut a deal.”
The American Dream is in no way the same thing as the Abundant Life that Jesus promised (John 10:10) to those who follow Him. Yet we fight so hard to make it so. We want to believe that God is Something we can control, and that if we just push the right religious buttons we can make Him dance to our tune, do exactly what we want Him to do for us and those we love, and hold at bay all the evil we secretly fear around us.
Jesus saw this same tendency in the religious leaders of his day:
“To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others:
“‘We played the pipe for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.’
“For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by her deeds.” ~ John 11:16-18
The gospel is not primarily a gospel of protection. Just ask Paul or David or James or Stephen or Esther or Joseph or Jesus himself.
The gospel is primarily a gospel of transformation. And if you’re not in it to be transformed, then you’re not really in it at all.
So…what is your contract with God? How do you complete the sentence:
“If I ___________, God will always _______________.”
Whatever it is, write it out. Put it out on paper where you can see it clearly.
And then, test it against Scripture. What does Jesus actually command for those who follow Him? What does He actually promise will happen to those who do?
Imaginary contracts with God will not keep you safe. More importantly, they will not bring you real, abundant Life.
But Jesus can.
The real One, I mean.