It was disgusting and altogether expected when a visible, if not influential, Christian leader this week connected the events of Haiti with a “pact with the Devil” this the country has supposedly made. The implication here is that the 7.0 magnitude quake that leveled the city of Port-au-Prince was beckoned from the depths of the earth by the people themselves and their actions. It further implies that because much of the western world enjoys unprecedented wealth our actions mean we have built up enough credit to receive showers of blessing from the banker in the sky.
(For an interesting take on this, see this link from NPR’s Two-Way Blog. NOTE: I don’t agree with 100% of the contents of the post at this link, but find the concept incredibly relevant. Donald Miller has also written a response to the aforementioned comments at his blog.)
This concept – that God reinforces good behavior and punishes bad – is deeply damaging to people and to faith.
On the one hand, you have people who begin to subconsciously view themselves on a level akin to rats in a lab.
In college, I had one such rat, named Gilligan. My goal for him was to increase a behavior (namely, pressing a button in his cage) by using positive reinforcement (i.e. small pellets of food). The progression was interesting to watch. Once he discovered the button, and began to press it, it was important to reward his behavior every time – this “charged” the button and let little Gilligan know that if He was faithful in pressing, the Button would be faithful and deliver food from the pellet chute in the sky.
If you’ve never read anything on this, you may think that this approach would be the most effective at achieving an increase in a behavior. Interestingly enough, once the Button was “charged” what really cranked up Gilligan’s Button-zeal was when we switched to an uncertain, variable reward system. Now instead of getting a ration every time, Gilligan had to wait on the Button’s judgement (aka the software that determined if “now was the time for chow”). This transformed my little rat from casual worshipper to religious radical.
I imagine him crying out when his prayers did not solicit a reward, “Button, why have you forsaken me, Button?” or “”What have I done to deserve this? I have no food with which to satisfy my hunger” or “squeaky squeak squeak squeaketh” (untranslated, due to use of explicit language).
When we make God’s providence or punishment contingent on our day to day behaviors, we are engaging a most primitive component of our existence. We had developed wiring like this to increase our survival skills thousands and thousands of years ago. And while it’s still useful when studying rats and pigeons, our abilities to reason, decipher, and decide should probably take more of a leading role.
Otherwise, we begin to develop a deep-seeded sense of entitlement; that we deserve to be rewarded for the good work that we’ve done. The work itself, the satisfaction of helping others, the benefits inherent in a job well done will not be enough. We do good, we expect good to be done to us. We expect blessing. Frankly, we expect money, and vehicles, and houses and trips and health. If all good things come from heaven above then we start to wonder why our good would not be rewarded while others have so much.
This view is unhealthy and yet seems to be rampant in communities of faith.
Often, I hear (more realistically, I read on Facebook) people say things like, “I know that if I do this (e.g. pray faithfully, read the Bible, love people), then God will provide for my needs.” There is an incredibly sarcastic (though incredibly funny) side of me that wants to say in response, “I know that if you don’t, God will still provide for your needs.”
For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike.
In Button world, church and faith become about a series of behaviors that are reinforced when we, usually mistakenly, connect them with reward-“gifts” from above. These gifts can be any kind of reinforcement, from money to a “feeling” to a sense of God’s “presence”. We act to get rewarded. We act to avoid punishment. The reasons are steeped in selfishness. Our attempts to represent selfless love and compassion are voided – they become transactional instead of transformational. Instead of being an extension of God showing relentless love in all circumstances, we become a relentless prospector showing love to others when our investments show promising returns for ourselves.
Button faith attracts the “worst” of the faithful (those who are “in it for themselves”) and the “best” of the critics (those who say “you don’t do anything without it being selfish”). It introduces handcuffs and restraints to lives intended to be lived free.
One thing is for certain: the people of Haiti did not call destruction on themselves. We can choose to make this disaster about us, attempting to carve out our own rewared, or about helping people because it’s the right thing to do. Be the extension of God’s unselfish love. Make unconditional love truly unconditional.
Pray for the people of Haiti, and those that are there to provide some sort of relief. The scale of this tragedy is unimaginable. There are stories that can never be told. Support them by providing relief agencies with the money they need to rebuild Haiti.