Sonship versus transactionalism

Husband: Sweetie, are you okay?
Wife: Yes, sir. I’m fine.
Husband: You look tired. Come sit with me for a bit.
Wife: Yes, sir. {sits rigidly on the couch beside her spouse.}
Husband puts his arm around her and she continue to sit rigidly.
Husband: You’re very tense.
Wife: I’m fine, sir.
Husband: Are you angry at me?
Wife: No, sir. I love you dearly.
Husband kisses her, and she turns to him. “Would you like me to perform my wifely duty now, sir?”

Would you say the above is a solid marriage? What about a similar relationship between God and a human soul?

If you recall, on Wednesday we talked about the younger son from the prodigal son parable, and whether he accepted his father’s forgiveness. On Thursday, we talked about forgiving yourself.

When I whirl those two ideas together in my cuisinart brain, I end up with two models of service to God. The first is the sonship model, the one we hear about most often. It looks like this:

Person: Father, I love you, and I need some help.
God: Tell me all about it. I love you too and I want what’s best for you.
Person: {proceeds to lay out the details of his concerns.}

Then there’s this model:

Person: Father, I love you, and I need some help. My son is having problems at school, so what I’m going to do is speak to the teacher, spend dedicated time with him doing his homework, and get him a new organizer. And what I want you to do is {blah blah blah}.
God: Hello?

This model I’ve taken to calling “transactionalism,” and I’d gotten trapped in it. What I’d done was emulate a business model.

In business, relations are supposed to be transactional. A good administrative assistant would say, “Pat, the copier stopped working. I looked for paper jams, changed the toner, restarted it, and checked all the connections. It won’t work on manual or automatic feed. I’d like permission to call the copier repairguy.”

God, I’ve discovered, doesn’t like that so much. He wants you to come into His office and say, “It says paper jam when there is no paper jam.” And then wait.

It feels irresponsible of me not to come to God with the solution in hand to the problem. But of course, God knows how to solve our problems. He wants us to be sons and daughters, not direct reports.

I think sometimes that’s why we get answers to prayers that then don’t work out. Because God wants us to see that we had a good idea, but we shouldn’t dictate what He does.

I also had quite a bit of the model at the top: I show up and do what God wants and sit rigid, trying to anticipate whatever He wants next, and keeping it in terms of what I should do for Him. Again, not good. It not only keeps God at arm’s length, but it’s the full realization of the “hired hand” mentality. It’s the assumption that God doesn’t want us to get close to Him. Or that God can’t stand getting close to us.

Even more, it’s the assumption that I can repay God for what He’s given me, or at the very least stay out of debt. That’s a kind of autonomy that’s impossible to maintain, and it’s an impediment. I’m trying to deserve what I have.

I’ve recently changed my model of requesting-prayer (and it’s tough to keep with it) to just telling God what the problem is. And waiting. Because sometimes I’ve felt pushed a bit to keep talking about why I think something is a problem, or what I’m afraid of. And when I’ve outlined it (in list form) I’ve felt God answering in some instances that what I thought was a problem wasn’t as big as I thought.

(Mental prayer, for some reason, is all waiting and listening. I can do that fine. But I can’t ask for help without the impulse to tell God what He needs to do.)

It’s hard to let go of the transaction-based mentality: I give you this and you give me that. Or even, I’m going to just sit here, small and terrified, and wait for the rejection. Instead God likes it as “You spend time with me, and I spend time with you.” For me, this is a paradigm shift, and it’s tough to stick with it.


  1. leasa

    So i stumbled on your website a few months back when i googled ‘why have 3 kids’ or something like that and since then have found your posts pretty interesting so i keep coming back. This post hit me b/c I’ve been struggling with praying and the ‘right way’ to pray (always been a stickler for rules). I like this…”It feels irresponsible of me not to come to God with the solution in hand to the problem.” b/c I have felt this way too. He gave me a brain – shouldn’t I use it to fix my problems? Isn’t it ‘lazy’ of me not to? It’s difficult for my brain to let go, stop making lists and problem solving things i can’t really control. I’m going to try though b/c my way isn’t really working for me. thanks for the insight(s). 🙂

  2. Spots

    Just don’t pray for patience…

    He’ll quickly give you a lot of practice to work on that one!

  3. philangelus

    There’s an entire chapter in my romantic comedy about what happens if you pray for patience. That’s why my book got held up in process for six months before getting rejected from the last place. 🙂

  4. Jenni

    It’s the “God helps those who helps themselves” mentality that has tainted a lot of our relationship with God.

    A story:
    Once a woman was caught in her home as it began to flood. She prayed for God to rescue her. A man in a huge pick up came by and offered to take her to higher ground but she refused, stating that she was trusting in God to rescue her. The water kept rising and eventually she had to climb onto her roof. A boat came along but she refused to get in. “Nope, I’m trusting in God and He is going to rescue me.” The water kept rising. A helicopter came along but she still refused, stating that she knew God was going to answer her and rescue her in a mighty way.
    She drowned.
    And asked God why He hadn’t rescued her. He responded that He’d sent a truck, a boat and a helicopter for her…

  5. philangelus

    See, there are two sides to things. One is that we *must* “work as if everything depends on us” but simultaneously “pray as if everything depends on God.”

    In my own household, I want my children to set the table and clear the table. I do not expect them to cook dinner or buy the food or earn the money to pay the grocery store.

    God probably has a similar hierarchy of what He wants us to do. THe problem is that the transactional mentality has us sending our four-year-old selves out to work in order to pay the grocery store, when God only wanted us to set the table for dinner.

  6. CricketB

    “God helps those who help themselves” is one of Dad’s favourite quotes.

    Some say that means you do all the work yourself anyways. I prefer to think that God wants you to work at it yourself for a while. Some of it is earning the solution. Some of it is side effects — your working on one problem helps you learn or do something else which may not be apparent.

    (Lackey’s Obsidian Trilogy was big on this. The magical “price” for what you asked was often related, either directly or indirectly, to what you asked for.)

    I always feel unworthy going to a car mechanic without having tried to solve it myself. I almost apologize for not being able to do it myself, especially when it’s something theoretically simple. What I end up doing is explaining how hard I tried, and showing them that I really do think it’s something that only a skilled mechanic can do, and therefore they can charge me a lot. (I’m lucky — so far they haven’t, except for the “check engine” light, where they plug it into their machine, which says, “charge huge amount to replace tiny sensor and push reset button.”

    (How knowing enough to find a good mechanic and follow his advice makes me unworthy to own a car, I haven’t quite figured out. Must be one of those things Dad taught me as an unwanted side effect of wanting me to be self-reliant.)

    Sometimes going through the list of things considered and done and why something actually is a problem helps give us perspective, or reassure us we have done what we can. Sometimes (for experts who aren’t Divinely Omniscient), they may help the expert troubleshoot.

    Mom’s washing machine broke while we were there. She did some testing and made observations, then reported the problem and the results of the tests. After the first two sentences, Dad knew the problem and stopped listening. Her report was a waste of his time. God’s not like that. He appreciates that you took the time.

    When I notice myself saying to an expert (son’s new teacher, doctor, God) “I need you to …” I try to back off and add “unless you have a better idea.” Have to watch the tone of voice. There’s a good chance they really do have a better idea.

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