The God of Requirements and Rewards
by Bo Sanchez
When I was a young boy, I used to leave food on my plate. My mother tried all means to make me eat everything on my plate. She’d say, “Bo, think about all the people in Africa and in other parts of the world who are dying of hunger.” No effect.
One day, she changed her strategy. “Bo, the Lord will get mad at you.” Still no effect.
But here’s what hit me. One day, she said, “You know, Bo, when you go to purgatory, you’ll see there all the food that you left on your plate throughout your life — a mountain load of rotten food, with worms and insects feasting on it. You can smell the foul odor miles away.” Eeew!
That did it. From that day on, I cleared my plate of every single morsel.
It might have worked when I was a boy. I obeyed only because I was afraid of the consequence of my disobedience.
If you’re a parent, perhaps you have used the same tactic on your children, right? It could work on small children, but use that on teenagers and they’d say, “God will get angry at me? Then I don’t like Him anymore!”
This is where the problem begins. When we present to a child a God of requirements and rewards, we impress upon him a distorted image of God. He begins to think that if he behaves in a good way, God would reward him; if he behaves otherwise, God would punish him.
Don’t get me wrong. If you are good, you get a reward, and if you are bad, you get punished. But what I am concerned about is people having the notion that God is a god of conditions.
When you ask a Catholic, “Who is God?” what is the common answer? That God is a God of punishments and rewards.
In the Bible, we read many verses that speak of God this way.
“He repays his enemies their deserts, and requites his foes with wrath.”
— Isaiah 59:18
“Understand, then, that the LORD, your God, is God indeed, the faithful God who keeps his merciful covenant down to the thousandth generation toward those who love him and keep his commandments, but who repays with destruction the person who hates him; he does not dally with such a one, but makes him personally pay for it.”
— Deuteronomy 7:9-10
“God is a just judge, who rebukes in anger every day.”
— Psalm 7:12
It’s easy to take such verses as solid truth because they’re in the Bible. But I must point out that we have to look at the circumstances that prompted the writer to fashion such an image of God. Maybe the verse was written by one who at that stage of his life had yet to understand the true image of God. He was like a child, still in the elementary stage of spiritual journey, and thus had not yet experienced God as He truly is: a God without conditions.
So we cannot just get one verse from the Bible and regard it as true, without considering in what context the verse was written.
Common Images of God
1. The God that is primarily the ultimate judge and executioner of justice
If God for you is primarily the ultimate judge and the executioner of justice, you have a problem.
Before students are taken in by a school, they have to pass the school’s entrance exams, right?
Employees, too, are required to pass a series of interviews and exams before they are hired by a company.
That is the world we live in — a world where there are requirements — and if you meet those, you will be rewarded.
And so it’s easy to project that world into the Kingdom of God — that you also have to pass some requirements to enter in.
But is that what the Gospel says?
No, it’s not.
There are circumstances when you don’t have to pass the standards. A mother loves each of her children, even if they have a face that only their own mother could love.
It’s the same with God. He is a God who loves us without condition. We do not have to pass certain standards. We are loved the moment we existed.
2. The God that is obsessed with sin
We think that God is obsessive-compulsive towards sin. He hates sin, I agree, but only because it destroys the people He loves. He loves us, but not the sins we commit.
One time I had a visitor at home. She was somewhat obsessive-compulsive. She didn’t like to see dirt so she always carried a hand sanitizer in her bag. And you know how small my house is and how messy it sometimes is.
When she came in, I extended my arms to shake hands with her. She held my hand with her finger tips, as if I had a communicable skin disease.
Undaunted, I said, “Have a seat.”
I did not expect what I saw next. The woman fished out a hanky from her handbag, wiped the chair, and sat down with only half her butt touching the chair.
You know how I felt? Rejected.
I wondered: What’s more important to this woman — cleanliness or me as her friend?
Many people think God is like this woman — a God who hates dirt. A God who hates sin and His disgust is more important to Him than His love for His people. Truth is, we are the most important to Him!
3. The God that uses threats and fears to make us good
Many people ask, “Bo, if God is that merciful and kind, why would I still bother to be good and avoid sinning? I’ll continue to sin; He’ll forgive me anyway.”
If you think like that, you have an infantile faith.
The more mature ones want to do the right things because they love God and because He loves them — not because they’re afraid of what they think He’d do to them.
The Prodigal Father
Let me go back to the story of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15.
I’d like to change the title of the story — from The Prodigal Son to The Prodigal Father. Do you know what it means to be prodigal? It means extravagant. It is actually the father who is extravagant, not the son.
Biblical scholars were amazed with the story. They realized that in the Middle Eastern culture, when a son asks his father for his inheritance while the latter is still alive, it is tantamount to slapping his father and saying, “I wish you were dead.” In fact, biblical scholars searched all of Middle Eastern literature of that period and they could not find one story similar to this. This is such a shocking story.
So the son goes off, spends all he has, and then works with the swine. And he starts eating the food of the pigs. When you read this point of the story, you’d think that the son repented and went to his father to ask for forgiveness. This is the interpretation we learned.
I’m going to give you another interpretation from other biblical scholars who have read this passage. They said, “No, no, the son did not repent. He did not go back to his father because of a change of heart. He went back because of a change of diet, because he was hungry.”
The Bible relates that the moment he sees his son from a distance, the father runs to his son. Distance here means not just geographically; it is also the gap between a son’s heart and the father.
In Middle Eastern culture, a father does not run. A father who wants to protect his reputation as head of the family has to walk with dignity. If he sees his son coming, he does not run to him. He walks.
But, as the story goes, the father throws all caution to the wind, forgets his dignity and runs to his son.
Nope, the son does not really show remorse for running away from his family. Still, his father embraces him, puts a ring on his finger, a robe around his shoulders, shoes on his feet. Then he commands his servants, “Let’s celebrate! My son has returned!”
In the first few years of my Christian life, I thought this was how salvation works: I sin, I repent, God loves me.
Recently, after being in the Christian life for many years, this is how I know it works: I sin, God loves me and I repent. And because of that love, I am healed to repentance. Yes, it is the love of God that brings us into repentance.
The God Who Never Abandons Us — Even After Death
One day, when I was in a mall, I witnessed a scene that caused my heart to bleed.
I was sitting on a bench, waiting for my wife who was at the supermarket buying some groceries. Suddenly, a mother with her daughter in tow, stopped right in front of me.
The mother shouted at her daughter who was probably not even six years old. “Will you obey me or not? If you don’t want to obey, I will leave you here,” the mother threatened.
The girl cried some more. Enraged, the mother hissed, “If you don’t want to obey, I will give you away. Would you like that?”
Terrified, the girl screamed, “No, Mommy, please don’t! I will obey you now!”
My heart broke as I watched the scene, but I could not do anything. And you know why I felt so bad? Because what I saw was not an isolated case. It happens almost everywhere. It’s just the way parents deal with children who throw a tantrum.
A child psychologist I talked to said that parents should correct and discipline their children. But then she added, “When you correct your children, you should be 100 percent sure that in your child’s heart, you have planted the truth that you will not leave her — ever. You should be sure there is no threat of abandonment, that no matter what happens, the child is convinced that her mother and father will not abandon her.”
Within that context of certain love, you can do your correction and disciplining.
Many times, we picture God like that mother I saw in the mall. We imagine God saying to us, “So, will you obey the Ten Commandments or not? If you don’t, I will leave you. Is that what you want? Or would you like me to give you to the demon? Or throw you to hell?”
We think God is like that.
In the midst of all these teachings, I am sure at the back of your mind, you’re already asking, “Bro. Bo, is there really hell? If you say God is that merciful, then perhaps there is really no hell!”
There is hell, and one can end up there.
Why? Because of the gift of free will.
You choose hell when you say, “Lord, l don’t like to obey Your commandments.”
But still, God will make last-minute efforts to win you over. When you say, “Lord, sorry, I won’t obey you,” do you think God would say, “You don’t like? OK, it’s up to you!”
No, God is not like that! On the contrary, God will reach out to you and pursue you until His love wins you over.
To what extent will God run after us?
What if you die at the time you have not returned to Him? What do you think God will do?
Our Catholic teaching says that after we die, God still pursues us and gives us a chance. That’s why there is purgatory. The doctrine of purgatory is a doctrine of mercy. God’s healing initiatives continue after we die.
Thank God, I’m Catholic.
(Email the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Bo’s Action Steps:
1. In your prayer time, examine your motivations for doing the things you do, especially your service or ministry work. 2. Be honest with yourself: Is your motivation love or fear of God? 3. Examine also your relationship with your family members. Do you give them your love unconditionally? Or do they have to earn it? 4. Pray for the grace to accept God’s unconditional love for you so that you may have the grace to love others unconditionally, too.
*This article was taken from Kerygma magazine February 2009 issue. If you want to subscribe to K magazine click here or call us at 725-9999.
Photo from pixabay.com