One of the things that I find most odious about the state of American politics these days is the way in which a politician’s favorability ratings are his/her primary stock in trade. High favorability ratings are like currency that a politician can spend in order to get things done, while low favorability ratings seem to be an invitation to say anything or do anything that might have the effect of elevating one’s standing in the eyes of his/her constituents. Living according to this political economy determined by how much people like you, produces a strange kind of leader. Leaders operating in this economy tend to look over their shoulders before they act rather than make decisions based on their own convictions and conscience.
Yet it’s not just in politics that people play this game. Religious life is also a sphere where the idea of our favorability ratings can deeply influence the way we live our lives. It is pretty easy to fall into the thought that our primary work with God is to make sure that he thinks we’re OK. History reveals the stories of all sorts of religious products and practices that promise good favorability ratings with God. Offer this sacrifice, perform this ritual, say this incantation, keep these rules, cut your hair (or DON’T cut your hair), eat this food (and NOT that food), wear these clothes (and NOT those clothes). You name it, over the centuries religion has been primed and ready to sell us a variety of products that purport to secure our good graces in the eyes of the Creator.
When this is the case religion degrades into the work of merely striving to do things for God. Religion of this kind promises us an insurance policy which guarantees us a good life if we do the things that supposedly keep God happy with us. And of course, that means religion also advises us about how to avoid the mis-steps that might cause our favorability with God rating to slip. A whole ecclesiastical industry springs up around these quests and people like myself (pastors, priests, rabbis, mullahs, monks, medicine men, shamans etc.) can become merely the purveyors of goods and services sold to assure people that God likes them.
Yet when I read the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, especially the Old Testament prophets, I hear a message that calls us away from this religion where we are preoccupied with doing things for God in order to impress God. In fact, in more than one place the prophets deliver a message from God that in essence says: “Stop trying to impress me, stop doing things that you think are for my benefit. They don’t impress me; actually they just make me tired.”
Over and over the prophets delivered the message: “Your God is too small. Why do you think that he can fit in the little box of your religion?” Isaiah starts right off with this message when he delivers the word in which God asks: “What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts. When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? (Is. 1:11-12)” Psalm 50 offers a similar perspective when God reminds his people: “every wild animal of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills. If I were hungry I would not tell you, for the world and all that is in it is mine.”
Psalm 50 then goes on to offer an alternative to these ostentatious religious displays. “Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving…. Call on me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you and you shall glorify me (Ps. 50:14-15).” In other words, “Stop thinking that you can impress me and try just relating to me.” God doesn’t need to be impressed; we can’t really do anything that will get God to pay more attention to us. What we can do however, is to say “Thanks.” And we do this every time we act out of the rich resource of God’s grace that has been lavished upon us and engage in acts that reflect God’s love for the world.
God doesn’t send us out with the commission: “Go prove your love for me; clean up that mess over there and maybe then I’ll notice you.” His commission begins with a very different invitation: “Follow me. Come be a part of what I am up to in this world. I don’t need you to do things for me as much as I invite you to participate with me in a ministry of reconciliation that is putting things right and remaking the world.”
Dave Rohrer, 10/10/16