Five Signs You’re in a Contract Relationship with God
So much of our spiritual unrest comes from having a “contract” mentality with God—believing that God owes us something and wanting him to give us what we deserve.
To illustrate this, Jesus told a parable about a master who hired workers at different times of the day to work his field (Matthew 20:1-16). The first workers started early in the day and were the only ones who had a contract with the ruler. They expected to be paid a denarius and were shocked at the end of day when all the workers were paid a denarius—no matter how long they had worked.
The master in this parable could have avoided what the workers deemed as an injustice by simply giving the first workers their denarius and sending them on their way. Instead, he insists on paying them in reverse so that the first guys, who worked 12 hours, see that the guys who only worked one hour are getting the same amount.
Is the master trying to pick a fight? No—Jesus is simply making a point: You don’t want to be in a contract relationship with God. You don’t want to receive what you deserve! Better to follow the Master and trust in his grace like the 11th hour guys did, because it will work out a whole lot better for you.
Here are five signs that you are in a contract relationship with God, most of which we see right here in this story:
Here’s a diagnostic question to ask: Am I bitter because God has withheld some blessing from me that I think I deserve?
In this story, the 12-hour workers are bitter at not getting more because they think they deserve more. To which Jesus would say, “Really? Everything good you receive in life beyond death and hell is a gift.”
When we say, “God, you owe me this,” we are trying to go back to a contract relationship with him. Maybe we don’t use that language, but it comes through more like this: “Lord, why is this bad thing happening to me?” We talk about the problem of evil as if we do not deserve any bad thing ever happening to us.
Jesus presented a different perspective: In Jerusalem, there had been a tower that collapsed and killed 18 people. So people asked Jesus, “Were those people just more wicked than everybody else?” Jesus answers with one of the most politically incorrect statements in the entire New Testament: “But I tell you the truth: Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:5 ESV). In other words, the question is not, Why did that tower fall on all those people? The question is, Why did that tower not fall on you?
We get mad that the tower fell on us. But the fact that it didn’t fall on us yesterday is grace. Every day we get up with breath in our lungs is more than we deserve. Any life and blessing—and certainly salvation—is more than we deserve.
Ask: Am I jealous of good things others have that I want?
In this story the first workers are jealous of what the late workers got because they think they are more deserving than them.
We’re the same way, aren’t we? We look around and say, “Why did he get that opportunity? Why did she get married? Why did they have kids so quickly? Why are their bodies good looking and healthy?” Implicit in our jealousy is a sneaking suspicion that we deserved all that more than them.
The fruit of jealousy springs from two evil roots: the foolish pride that assumes God owes us and unbelief in the goodness of the God who has promised to take care of us.
Those promises are not hard to find: “Let not your heart envy sinners …. Surely there is a future, and your hope will not be cut off” (Proverbs 23:17-18). “I have been young, and now am old, yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken or his children begging for bread” (Psalm 37:25).
Like the master said to the late-day workers, Jesus has said to us, “Just trust and follow me! I’ll take care of you.”
3. Anger (specifically over unanswered prayer)
Ask: Do I get angry when God doesn’t answer my prayers the way I think he should?
R.A. Torrey once told a story about a man who wrote him complaining that God had not answered his prayer, even though the man had served God faithfully for 30 years. Torrey said, “If you are asking God to do something for you because you have served him faithfully for 30 years, you are not praying in Jesus’ name, but in your own.”
When we realize that God only responds to us now based on what Jesus deserves, we can trust that even the bad things in our lives—those times when God doesn’t answer a prayer the way we thought he should—are done for a good purpose. God does not withhold any good from his children, so if he answers your prayer with a “No,” it is wise to remember that God sees more than you do.
God does not withhold any good from his children, so if he answers your prayer with a “No,” remember that God sees more than you do.
Ask: Do I feel uncertain about where I stand with God or insecure about my future?
If you have a contract mentality with God and assume that what God gives you is in direct response to what you deserve, you live in a constant state of insecurity. You constantly ask, Have I been good enough to earn his blessing? I know, because I’ve seen it a thousand times in my church. I know, because I’ve been there myself.
If this is you, every time a bad thing happens to you, you ask, Am I being paid back for something? It’s cosmic karma (whether we use the term or not).
The idea of karma is pretty simple: If you do bad, it will be returned to you. On the surface, this may seem compelling. But dig a little deeper and you’ll see that karma only reinforces fear. Every bad event, whether a result of your foolishness or not, makes you wonder, What did I do that is causing this?
The gospel, however, offers a vastly superior peace and on an entirely different basis.
Jesus tells us to trust in his goodness and grace—to believe that he has removed all threat of punishment from our lives, so that he will use every bad thing in our lives for good—and that he will take care of us and supply all our needs, just like he promised.
Believing that promise is immeasurably better than the false promises of cosmic karma. And it is the only promise that will settle your restless soul.
Ask: Am I moved to action by the suffering of others?
When you believe that the good things you are experiencing are the sole result of your hard work, you tend to be calloused toward those who have less. Your attitude says, “Well, if you had worked harder (like me), your life could be better, too.”
That’s what we see in this parable. The first workers aren’t thinking about the guys who were late additions—about the reasons they might have been overlooked at first, or about the hardships their families may be going through. They were just thinking, “You didn’t work like I did. You don’t deserve the good things like I do!”
Jesus’ story challenges their mindset in a very subtle but very fundamental way. Notice that when the landowner says to the 11th hour guys, “Why aren’t you working?” They answer, “No one has hired us” (vs. 7).
I used to think that this last group represented really lazy people—a group of millennials that played Fortnite all night, woke up at noon, and sauntered out around 4 p.m. to see if there was any work, only to complain, “There is not a single job in this town!” while another one responded, “Yeah, not unless you want to work 40 hours a week.”
But nothing in Jesus’ story indicates these 11th hour guys are lazy. They were just as eager as the first guys; they just hadn’t been given the opportunity.
Most of the blessings I have experienced in my life—financial, spiritual, familial, or otherwise—are the result of graces in my life that I had nothing to do with. I wasn’t born in this country (rather than an Indian slum), to my loving parents (rather than in an abusive home), with abundant opportunities to hear the gospel (rather than in a non-Christian environment) because I was worthier than others. How absurd to even imply it! God in his grace gave me privileges. And that puts me under obligation to those without those same privileges, to use any position of privilege I have to empower others.
You see, when you understand that you don’t deserve salvation and blessing—that Jesus did all the work and you got the blessing—it will produce in you a generous spirit toward others and redefine your concept of justice. It will make you the sort of person who lays down your privilege, gladly, in an attempt to lift others up.
Understanding that you don’t deserve salvation and blessing makes you gladly lay down your privilege in an attempt to lift others up.
So get rid your contract. In humility, embrace the grace of God, and trust in the goodness of the Master who called you to follow him.
When you do, your bitterness will be replaced by gratitude, your jealousy with contentment, your anger with peace, your insecurity with assurance, and your indifference with compassion.