One day a young man named Martin Luther found himself in the middle of a terrifying storm. As the rain poured and the lightning crashed, young Luther was convinced that he was about to die. He instinctively cried out to St. Anne, the patron saint of protection from storms. "St. Anne," he said, "I will become a monk!"
Although the details of his arrangement with St. Anne were not clearly articulated, Luther was attempting to make a bargain with God. St. Anne's part of the bargain would be to make sure that Luther survived the storm. In return, Luther would enter the monastery and devote his life to God. In Luther's mind, it was a good bargain. Being a monk was certainly better than death.
In the middle of World War II, my Dad made a similar bargain with God. Serving as a second class electrician on the sub-chaser U.S.S. Roy O. Hale in the South Pacific, my Dad found himself overwhelmed with the perils of war. He was very young at the time, having lied about his age to enlist in the navy. In truth, he hadn't even graduated from high school. But there he was serving on a ship. To hear my Dad tell the story, he was terrified.
Saints weren't needed in my Dad's religious world, so he cried out directly to God: "God, if you get me through this, I'll become a preacher!" And sure enough, my Dad survived the war - and he then kept his word and became a preacher. As far as my Dad was concerned, it was a good bargain. Being a preacher was certainly better than death.
It is probably purer and more commendable simply to submit to the call of God (without placing conditions on that call), but there is something about crisis that brings out our tendency to bargain. When we are helpless, we are fully aware that we will not make it without God's intervention. And we will offer almost anything to get God's help.
I suspect that there's some bargaining going on these days. Life today may not feel exactly like a terrible lightning storm or like war in the South Pacific, but we are living in crisis nonetheless. And it is quite possible that some of us are offering some things to God . . . if he will only allow us to make it through this mess.
If that is what we're doing, we are in good company.
One of the founders of our faith is a man named Jacob. Running from his brother Esau (who had vowed to kill him), Jacob made a bargain with God.
If God will be with me
and will watch over me on this journey I am taking
and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear
so that I return safely to my father's house,
then the Lord will be my God.
This was no simple submission to God; it was clearly a bargain. Jacob's request demanded God's presence, God's watch care, God's provision of food and clothing, and a safe return home one day. In exchange for all of that, Jacob would . . . let God be his God! (There's a little more to the bargain that you can read about in Genesis 28:22, but this is really the heart of the matter.) Jacob was a shrewd man; he was quite certain that this was a good bargain.
Honestly, I would be happier if Jacob had simply submitted to God without conditions. But Jacob wasn't the sort to do that kind of thing. What's more, Jacob was in crisis. He needed something from God, and he did not hesitate to say so.
What I find amazing is that God seems fine with that. God doesn't reject Jacob's offer. God doesn't laugh at Jacob's demands. God doesn't tell Jacob that he's asking for too much. God doesn't tell Jacob that he's in no position to bargain. In fact, God proceeds to do exactly what Jacob has laid out. And by the time Jacob returns home many, many years later, it is clear that God really has become Jacob's God.
We might think that God would be offended by our tendency to bargain. But he is not.
God must really understand what human beings are like. And God must also understand how desperate we can be when life falls apart.
I'm not really suggesting that you bargain with God these days. But if you happen to do that, I think God will understand.