In the name of the one, holy and undivided Trinity: Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. Amen.
When was the last time you bargained with God, or even talked back to God? Perhaps, in fact, it was only recently. Perhaps you or someone close to you is dealing with a serious personal or health issue, and you made a promise to God to do something in exchange for some solution to the problem. Perhaps it was as simple as asking for guidance about an important life decision, and, as part of the deal, you agreed to pray more, or do some good deed, or try to get along with someone who rubs you the wrong way. Or perhaps you were simply fed up with something, and decided it was time to give God a piece of your mind. We have all negotiated and bargained with, or tried to lobby God at some point in our lives.
In the history of the Church, there have been periods when bargaining with God was actually quite popular. In the middle ages—at a time when life was quite rough and medicine was unable to deal with a great number of life’s viruses and bugs—fervent Christians would often negotiate with heavenly helpers, most often in the form of saints, to help them cope with life’s trials and tribulations. Some of the great spiritual practices of those times, such as pilgrimages, were often the result of promises being fulfilled in exchange for some heavenly favour. Though the Reformers of the 16th century critiqued such practices on solid theological grounds, we should not underestimate or dismiss their value. They were important, and they provided people who were disenfranchised in several ways with the means to make sense of their lives and their rather chaotic and unfair world. It’s often only the well-off or the well-fed who can afford to call other people superstitious. In our smugness, we sometimes tend to look down upon people who plead or bargain with God, calling their faith childish or immature, as if ours was a purer version of the same faith.
Yet, we have a perfect example of high-powered bargaining with God in today’s reading from the Book of Exodus. The people of Israel are worshipping a golden calf. God is mad and wants to destroy them. Moses intercedes with God—or rather, he lobbies and cajoles, actually, he sweet-talks God—not to do it. It’s an interesting text. Moses confronts God’s anger by reminding God of all that has already been promised to the people of Israel, even going so far as to say that it would look bad in the eyes of the Egyptians if the people who were freed by God were now destroyed by God. You get the distinct impression that God is being rather coy about the whole thing, and that God really wants to hear even more about God’s generous ways. Moses is so persuasive in his flattery that God eventually desists. Moses does not promise God anything in return, but he certainly holds God accountable for all those promises already made. I am reminded of another bargaining story, this one from Islam. Tradition has it that Allah initially wanted believers to pray fifty times a day, a rather unrealistic demand. During his night journey to heaven, the Prophet Mohammed, after a number of repeated requests, negotiates with Allah to bring the divine injunction down to a far more realistic five times a day. Stories such as these underscore the role of the religious leader as the special guardian of the people’s interests. They assert and reaffirm the leader’s legitimate authority. But they also leave us with an important and timely question: Can we really, and should we, bargain with God? After all, it could be argued, Moses and Mohammed did it, so why not us?
I’m afraid that you might be frustrated with my answer: it’s both a yes and a no. Typical preacher response, you might say, so let me explain.
First, the “no” side: it’s a much easier case to lay out. No one can presume on the divine will. God being God, God’s power is absolute. To suppose that one can change the divine will is hubris: a case of excessive pride and self-confidence. The issue here is not so much how God may or may not behave, because we’ll never really know for sure. The issue—or should I say, problem—is rather the human arrogance that believes it has no limits, that believes it can, in fact, force God to alter the divine will. There’s nothing new in this understanding of God’s absolute sovereignty; it’s fairly orthodox theological fodder. Mind you, this does not mean that God is fixed, rigid and uncaring, ever removed from human concerns and human vulnerability. God is not. But God does enjoy autonomy and freedom, just as we do, with the major difference that God’s autonomy and freedom are absolute, while ours are contingent. To claim to bargain with God, therefore, is to refuse our role as a creature of God. In a particularly dramatic way, it is to claim to be God’s equal.
But let’s face it, which one of us, when asking a favour of God, really thinks that they are God’s equal? Hardly anyone, I would think. Our real concern when asking something of God, when praying with an earnest heart, is certainly not to put ourselves in God’s place. On the contrary, it is to recognize that we are quite dependent on God. So this is the “yes” answer to our question. We can, as it were, negotiate or bargain with God because, in truth, God listens, and God can change—alter—the divine will. I say “change,” but it’s really more of a figure of speech. In fact, Christians have no other way of living with hope in this life. What would be the point of praying for a more peaceful and less violent world, as we will shortly, if we did not believe, in our heart of hearts, that God really can make it happen? That things can and will truly be converted, transformed, renewed and rehabilitated through God’s divine will? It’s that simple. Let’s look again at the Exodus text.
This passage is marked by two remarkable motifs: on the one hand, there is a clear sense of intimacy between God and Moses, such that Moses feels free to argue with God, and, on the other, there is the dramatic way in which Moses uses the memory of promises made to convince God to alter God’s own mind. There’s a wonderful phrase in the story where God tells Moses: “Now let me alone…” God needs to let things simmer; God needs to think things over. The imagery is human, of course, but it says something essential about who God is. God is attentive. Moses’ impassioned plea bears this out, as does God’s eventual decision to spare Israel. Note that Moses does not let God be alone; he decides to argue with God. When you study the texts of some of the great Christian saints, for example, you are struck quite forcefully by their insistent clamoring for God’s attention; their bold and almost shameless determination to hold God accountable for what God has promised; their sweet talking God as though God were a being one could sway with the cheapest kind of adulation. I’m reminded of Bob Dylan’s famous song, “Knocking on Heaven’s Door.” But this is more than polite knocking; it’s about wanting to break the door down, about refusing to let God be alone, almost about trying to ‘convert’ God to another way of thinking and doing—stubborn prayerful knocking, as it were. There is something boldly and authentically spiritual about such a strategy. It recognizes, as Moses did, that God and humans are in a mutually beneficial and advantageous relationship, and that an agreement already exists by virtue of the intimacy that we share in Jesus. Was it not Jesus, in fact, who said: “Knock, and it will be opened?” So why not hold each other accountable? Why not trust that both sides will be honourable and just; that both sides will, in fact, live up to the Promise with a capital P? Moses believed this, and his plea to God reflected his resourceful and confident faith.
Though we should remember that there is always a danger of spiritual pride, we need not be fearful of bargaining with God. This is not a “tit-for-tat” sort of relationship, but rather one of deep mutual respect. We honour and revere God’s nature—but so does God, ours. Bargaining with God means trusting that God will come through. Bargaining with God means that we live in constant hope of our prayers, our persistent knocking, being answered. Bargaining with God opens us up to the possibility of our own conversion, because it keeps us honest in God’s eyes, as well as our own. Talking back to God is the way of the saints, the way of Moses, for they surely knew that God was not afraid of being held accountable. Neither should we.