The Personalist Project

If there’s a cardinal sin against personalism, it might be manipulation. Treating a person as a tool rather than a subject is just what we’re all about not doing.

So what to make of the attempt to manipulate God? Maybe that sounds implausible. We think at least we know better than that. We’re not like some pagan tribesman, trying to appease the deity of rain by doing a particular kind of dance. We’re beyond that.

Or are we?

In Jacques Philippe’s latest book, Thirsting for Prayer, there’s a helpful section called “When God does not seem to hear us.”  There I found this:

God does not always answer us in the way we would like, since sometimes we need to realize...that we cannot manipulate God. That is what all pagan forms of worship attempt to do.

I would include in “pagan forms” the prosperity gospel, too, the “name it and claim it” people, with their stunted idea of God as a force to tap into, or a vending machine to serve us, rather than a Person to know, love and serve. A prosperity-gospel mentality, though, can slip into the minds of believers of all stripes—not just the disciples of Joel Osteen.

Even if your theology doesn’t begin and end with “What’s in it for me?” it’s surprisingly easy to imagine you're safely immune to that approach.

Fr. Jacques explains:

We can obtain everything from God by trust and prayer, but God remains the absolute master of his gifts, and they are always totally gratuitous—unmerited and given at his choosing, not outs.…God does not lend himself to any kind of manipulation, blackmail, human mode of calculation, or claim.

Human beings, on the other hand, are calculating creatures--susceptible to manipulation and blackmail ourselves, and constantly tempted to engage in them (though not always in obvious ways).  If we rationalize treating other human persons that way, we become perfectly capable of treating God that way, too. We become the kind of person who does that. We can't turn it on and off, magically transformed into someone who wouldn't do such a thing when the target is someone we care about, or even God Himself.

Fr. Jacques again:

Here is one of the paradoxes of Christian life: we are called to live with God in a tender familiarity that gives us full power over his fatherly heart; but we can only enter into that familiar relationship with absolute, sometimes agonizing, respect for his sovereign transcendence and freedom.

…It is salutary for us to maintain a lively awareness of the absolute gratuity of God’s gifts at all times. Otherwise our relationship with him, as well as with other people, can get on the wrong track that leads the logic of love to deteriorate into the logic of human calculation.

If our calculations were truly logical, they wouldn't lead us to try to manipulate Someone all-powerful and all-loving, anyway. We'd see how silly that is. But we keep losing sight of it. So resisting the impulse to manipulate our fellow clueless would-be puppeteers is good practice.

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