A couple of recent conversations suggest how hard it is to exorcize the quid pro quo god. Quid pro quo is a Latin phrase meaning "something for something." The quid pro quo god is one who does something for us if we do something for him, and the one who refuses to do something for us, or even punishes us, if we fail to do something for him.

Put this way, it seems impossible that anyone in their right mind would believe in such a god. The rub, of course, is that none of us are in our right mind—that's one of the effects of sin. And one reason we're attracted to the quid pro quo god is that he's a god we can get our minds around. He makes sense. He seems reasonable and fair: We do our part, he does his, and all will be well.

The problem is our part, which we tend not to do well at all. And when repeated efforts at doing our part fail, we discover that the quid pro quo god turns out to be a demon. Naturally, we try to exorcise this demon without success.

For example, I received a moving e-mail from a reader who, though she recognizes how distorted her view of God is, cannot shake off the distortion. She says that she suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder; her obsession is a fear that every secular enjoyment is a sin and, she says, "unless I give them up, God will surely discipline me." By "secular enjoyment," she means things like listening to classical and country music, and collecting classic fashion magazines (Vogue, Harper's Bazaar).

Then she writes, "My husband passed away a few years ago and, to this day, I cannot get out of my head that God took him because I could not get rid of the above things. … You cannot imagine how I fear that perhaps God took the most important person in my life to discipline me for idolatry."

In fact, I can imagine it. Because I think we're all disciples of the quid pro quo god to one degree or another.

A friend—with no obsessive-compulsive bone in his body—told me recently that he feels he is stuck in a job he doesn't like because of the quid pro quo god. He likes many parts of the job, but there are some areas he despises, and he simply avoids doing them. He feels a stirring within that he should be doing something else with his professional life. But he feels that the quid pro quo god is not opening up new opportunities for him because of his failure to perform well in those despised responsibilities.

Then there is the pastor friend who feels that his small church will never grow because he battles on and off with pornography.

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And on it goes. Every one of us has a secret sin and a private fear about that sin—that it's the cause of some hardship or the reason we're not being blessed in some way.

Most of the time, we realize this is a demonic lie. As Jesus said, God sends rain on the just and the unjust—that is, whether rain happens to be a blessing or a curse, it has nothing to do with our behavior. This is one of those biblical ideas that daily life verifies.

Think about the megachurch pastors who didn't merely look at pornography but carried on affairs and who nonetheless were blessed with mega-growing churches.

And what about those of us who have gotten promotions or job offers that were a definite step up in the world—and yet we recognized we were not really qualified for the position! And we took it anyway!

And what about the many loving, godly spouses who have lost a partner.

And finally, what about that fellow from first-century Galilee, who by all accounts did everything right and absolutely nothing wrong, who abided by all the dictates of the quid pro quo god and still ended up dead in the prime of life.

Good thing that Galilean didn't believe in the quid pro quo god, otherwise, he would have been in despair as he hung on the cross. Instead, even at the most horrific hour of his life, when all hope seemed lost, when he felt most deserted by his God, he prayed. Not to the quid pro quo god, but to his Father in heaven. Even in a moment when he felt forsaken, he called out, "My God, my God."

The problem with the quid pro quo god is that we can never call him "my God." We never feel that close to him. He's not a god who stands with us but over and against us. He's like a general, a teacher, a boss, a judge. He's the god who holds out a standard we must measure up to. He is a god who punishes when we do wrong. He could never be a father, let alone my father.

And yet we find ourselves praying to him more often than we want, and more often than we care to admit. And this is what's more troubling: our quid pro quo faith has become so instinctual, we hardly notice it sometimes. One friend told me how God was withholding a blessing because my friend was not being faithful in small things. Then he said, "Not that God is mean or vindictive, it's just that he's doing this for my own good."

Let us be clear about this matter: The god who withholds a blessing for our own good is not the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. The Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has withheld nothing from us, not even his own Son, not even his own self. In spite of the fact that we have not been faithful in small or large things, he has gone to extraordinary lengths—dying an unjust death—to give us a blessing of unimaginable proportions. This is not a god who would then turn around and withhold a relatively miniscule blessing, or shower upon us some curse, because we listened to Travis Tritt or spent five minutes on the Playboy website. He is not a quid pro quo god but a God who is recklessly generous with his mercy—"For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life" (Rom. 5:10).

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As theologian Karl Barth put it,

Man is no longer seriously regarded by God as a sinner. Whatever he may be, whatever there is to be said of him, whatever he has to reproach himself with, God no longer takes him seriously as a sinner. He has died to sin; there on the Cross of Golgotha. … The turn has been achieved once and for all.

All this is not to say that we should not be discerning regarding the music we listen to, or the websites we view, or how diligently we do our jobs. But the cardinal rule of the Christian life is not "do this and don't do that," but "all things are lawful but not all things are profitable." The business of the Christian life is not avoiding wrong but discerning and doing what helps us live abundantly in Christ—and that can include everything from corporate worship to a country line dance.

This is also not to deny that God does indeed discipline those whom he loves (Heb. 12)—but he does so not as a quid pro quo god does but only as a Father. That is, the discipline has nothing to do with something we've done or failed to do, but only with the person he wants us to become. It has no relation to our sin, but only a relation to the grace of the One in whose image we are being created, Jesus Christ.

When we find ourselves explaining that God is "doing this for my own good," or secretly striving "to do better," or saying to ourselves that "I deserve my fate," you can be sure we are in the presence of the quid pro quo god, the god of fear and just desserts.

The good news is that it's a rather simple thing to step away from this god and begin conversing with the God who has blessed us with every blessing in Jesus Christ (Eph. 1:3). If we start praying, "My God, my God" and "My Father, who art in heaven," we'll soon find ourselves in the presence of a love of unimaginable proportions.

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Mark Galli is senior managing editor of Christianity Today. He is the author of A Great and Terrible Love: A Spiritual Journey into the Attributes of God (Baker).

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Previous SoulWork columns include:

Should Churches Be as Friendly as a Bar? | Perhaps people are looking for something else. (Feb. 18, 2010)
Are We Transformed Yet? | Why the spiritually mature don't talk about how God has made them spiritually mature. (February 4, 2010)
Point of Crisis, Point of Grace | Why it's crucial to recognize how little we're being transformed. (Jan, 21, 2010)
Long Live Organic Church! | But what do we do if the world isn't transformed? (January 7, 2010)

In "SoulWork," Mark Galli brings news, Christian theology, and spiritual direction together to explore what it means to be formed spiritually in the image of Jesus Christ.
Mark Galli
Mark Galli is former editor in chief of Christianity Today and author, most recently, of Karl Barth: An Introductory Biography for Evangelicals.
Previous SoulWork Columns: