In his book Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace, Miroslav Volf points out two ways we can tend to treat God as a superstition.
God the Negotiator
Volf first says that many people treat God like a negotiator. We can think of him like some kind of businessman who loves to make a deal. When we think of God this way, we tend to turn our prayers into bargains. “I promise to give so much money to your church if you will…” or “I promise to give up [insert personal vice] for the rest of my life if only you will get me out of this situation or solve this problem.” Our internal sense that God wants something from us makes us try to offer God good behavior in exchange for divine favors, thinking all he cares about is the best deal in the moment.
God the Santa Claus
An alternative is treating God like Santa Claus. We expect God to give us wonderful and beneficial gifts if we give him our best efforts. Rather than making a deal with an otherwise disinterested businessman (God the Negotiator), we treat God as the smiling and benevolent big-bearded gift giver. Like the boy in the movie Polar Express who just has to believe in order to see Santa Claus, we think if we believe in God and try to do our best to be good, we too will be able to see Santa Claus’s face beaming down on us.
God as Santa Claus showers the world with gifts and love while asking very little in return. Miroslav Volf describes it as, “God [as Santa Claus] solves our problems, fulfills our desires, and makes us feel good” (27). We send him lists of what we want, expect them all to show up, and eagerly take them while Santa Claus conveniently rides away and out of our lives until the next time.
God the Redeemer
God the Negotiator and God the Santa Claus are two ways we can get God wrong. God is neither a salesman nor a jolly Santa. First, God doesn’t need anything from us. God is fully and completely self-sufficient and independent of his creation (Rom. 11:34-35). His power and self-sufficiency make negotiations with God a fruitless effort.
Second, our sin and corruption prevent us from obeying God and earning his divine favor. We have nothing to offer God in a deal. Neither are our efforts at being generally good enough to get us on the “nice list” with Santa Claus. God is not a God who simply smiles “in blissful affirmation of who we are and what we do no matter who we happen to be and what we happen to do” (Volf, 28). We were created to image God’s good and perfect character in “true righteousness and holiness” (Eph. 4:24), but sin corrupted that and resulted in a debt we could never pay.
Thankfully God redeemed us from that debt and from our enslavement to sin and death. God the redeemer is a holy and just God but also a loving and lavishly-gracious God. Because we couldn’t negotiate with God, God negotiated with himself for our release from the prison of sin and corruption. He gave us his Son, Jesus Christ, to pay the ransom debt with his own life (Rom. 3:23-25). God’s giving is not dependent upon anything we do; we have only to receive Christ in faith and gratitude to receive salvation.
God is a generous and giving God, the source of “every good and perfect gift” (Jm. 1:17). However, God isn’t a divine Santa Claus as evidenced when suffering hits our lives. But as Michael Horton writes, “God didn’t promise any of us health, wealth, and happiness.” Not in this life anyway. We are told that as we will share in Christ’s glory, we will also share in Christ’s suffering (Rom. 8:17; 1 Pet. 4:13).
Yet through the trials of this life, Christ remains our faithful mediator and advocate with the Father. He is even now interceding for you along with the Holy Spirit who helps us pray. He is faithful to bring us through this life to the end and bring us into his eternal and perfect kingdom in the new creation (Phil. 1:6; Heb. 2:10).