One of the central themes repeated in Scripture is the call for us to seek God. When we seek God simply to know Him and draw closer to Him, our faith becomes transformational. But when we do it in a misguided attempt to earn something or try to get God to DO something, our faith becomes transactional. That may seem a bit technical at first glance, but hang in there with me, and I’ll try to explain why this difference is so crucial to how we percieve God, our relationships, and even ourselves.
Let’s start with a favorite passage of many churches, including mine: Ephesians 3:20. The Message version is printed on our bulletins every week. It begins:
God can do anything, you know—far more than you could ever imagine or guess or request in your wildest dreams! (Ephesians 3:20a MSG)
When I read that passage – even the very first part of it – where is my focus? Is it that GOD can do anything? Or that God can DO ANYTHING? The difference probably sounds subtle, right? But that simple shift in emphasis can make all the difference in the quality of our faith – and our spiritual lives.
When you look at that passage from Ephesians, what draws your eye? Is it the action, what God can DO? Or is it the subject, God Himself?
Think of it like the difference between talking to someone only to complete a task … maybe to make a sale, or win an argument, or order something to eat … that’s transactional. I need someone’s help to accomplish something. There are times and places for transactional encounters, but there’s no depth, no foundation for a relationship.
To make the move from transactional to transformational means changing our focus from what God can DO (which we know from Ephesians is, literally, anything), to just … GOD. And that one change in focus means everything.
Frustration or Fulfillment…
That difference is perhaps the basis for Cain’s frustration with his offerings before he murdered his own brother in the book of Genesis. The first-born human was hoping for something from God, and he didn’t get it. The Bible does not tell us the exact reason God rejected the offering, but Cain’s reaction to not getting what he wanted indicates his relationship – his faith, if you will – was transactional.
Transformational faith is perhaps the major component King David had that King Saul did not. In 1 Samuel 13, Saul loses his kingdom for … get this … presenting an offering to God. WHAT? Well, there’s more to it. We read in First Samuel about a battle involving Saul’s armies. They were vastly outnumbered and in deep trouble. They fled, hiding in caves and pits … wherever they could. Saul waited for the prophet Samuel to arrive to invoke God’s favor …
He waited seven days, the time set by Samuel. Samuel failed to show up at Gilgal, and the soldiers were slipping away, right and left.
So Saul took charge: “Bring me the burnt offering and the peace offerings!” He went ahead and sacrificed the burnt offering. No sooner had he done it than Samuel showed up! Saul greeted him.
Samuel said, “What on earth are you doing?”
Saul answered, “When I saw I was losing my army from under me, and that you hadn’t come when you said you would, and that the Philistines were poised at Micmash, I said, ‘The Philistines are about to come down on me in Gilgal, and I haven’t yet come before God asking for his help.’ So I took things into my own hands, and sacrificed the burnt offering.” (1 Samuel 13:6-12 MSG)
Saul’s action was based on fear; it was transactional. He approached God not as a Father, but as a vending machine – offerings go in; blessings come out.
But God took the kingdom from Saul and gave it to David, who – even after all his shortcomings – was labeled a man after God’s own heart. We see that type of transformational faith throughout David’s story, epitomized even in this little statement in the Psalms, where David writes:
When You said, “Seek My face,”
My heart said to You, “Your face, LORD, I will seek.” (Psalm 27:8)
That’s the difference between seeking God’s face, and seeking His hands;
between seeking a deeper relationship, and looking for a task to be completed;
between seeking God Himself, and seeking just what God can do for you;
between looking for a Father, and looking for a hired servant.
When we look at God transactionally, we think “If I pay my tithe, if I do this, or if I do that, God will bless me.” And if that’s our truth, our way of looking at things, then we will naturally extrapolate that to “If I DON’T pay my tithe, or if I DON’T do these good works, then God will curse me – and I better repent or I’ll go to hell.”
But by focusing on God’s face instead of His hands, we don’t get caught up in the task-based, fear-based worry.
Jesus talks about these two types of faith in that famous story we know as the Parable of the Prodigal Son. In that story, the youngest son starts from a transactional relationship with his father.
“The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.” (Luke 15:12-13)
Are you seeing it?
Transactional faith asks “What can you DO for me?”
But the same kind of shallowness also manifests in the oldest son, who refuses to participate in the welcome back party his father throws after the prodigal one returns.
“The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’ ” (Luke 15:28-30)
Transactional belief tries to earn God’s love and rewards. It compares, controls and condemns.
But the father’s view – like our heavenly Father’s – is transformational. When the youngest boy returns simply to ask for a job, the father doesn’t hire him. He welcomes him home to his place in the family. And he even reminds the oldest son that everything the father has, the son has access to – because of their relationship, not because of the work he was doing.
In the book of Acts, Saul is trying to fight for God by punishing Christians.
Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison. (Acts 8:3)
Saul, consumed with this need to defend God, to defend the “pure faith,” is controlled by a transactional relationship with God. Thankfully, later his own faith is transformed in dramatic fashion on the road to Damascus, and he becomes the prolific writer and first-century apostle Paul.
Transformational faith absorbs God’s blinding love, allowing it to grow and reflect itself naturally in the form of works. Transactional faith rarely taps into that love because it is too busy trying to earn it.
Of course, there ARE some similarities between transactional and transformational faith.
Romans 10:17 states: “Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ.” The Amplified Classic puts it this way: “So faith comes by hearing [what is told], and what is heard comes by the preaching [of the message that came from the lips] of Christ (the Messiah Himself).”
So, the type of faith we reflect is influenced by the messages we feed ourselves. Both types use the Bible; but HOW the Word is applied can also be an indicator of whether we’re accessing transformational faith or just the lousy substitution. The application depends on our personal translation of what we hear.
A weapon or a stepping stone…
After hearing the Word, how do we apply it to our life? Because its meaning depends on the use, and the use depends on the meaning. Let me illustrate….
Perhaps we could think of our own use of the Word and its relationship to either type of faith as something more concrete … like … rock. A rock can be a weapon, like what David used against Goliath. The same weapon can also be used to apply unwarranted judgment, like what was endorsed by Saul to put Stephen and other Christians to death in the New Testament. A rock can be an obstacle, something to trip over or a millstone to weigh you down. If that’s how you feel when contemplating God’s Word to you, then perhaps your faith has become transactional – full of criticism, negativity, and extra weight. But a rock can be a step, to elevate your view and assist with any climb. It can also be a foundation, a cornerstone of a long-lasting, beautiful creation.
During His ministry on earth, Jesus identified the rock foundation for the church:
Simon Peter said, “You’re the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
Jesus came back, “God bless you, Simon, son of Jonah! You didn’t get that answer out of books or from teachers. My Father in heaven, God himself, let you in on this secret of who I really am. And now I’m going to tell you who you are, really are. You are Peter, a rock. This is the rock on which I will put together my church, a church so expansive with energy that not even the gates of hell will be able to keep it out. (Matthew 16:16-18 MSG)
Transactional faith drives us to always be on the attack, throwing our rocks and tying them to others to be sure we can stay ahead of someone else. It views God’s love as something to be measured or weighed.
But transformational faith uses God’s Word as a foundation for growth, and as stepping stones for both ourselves and others.
It affects our relationships …
And the mode of faith we’re operating in is also reflected in how we address our relationships on earth.
In Matthew 10:16, Jesus sends out his 12 main disciples with the caveat: “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves. Therefore be wise as serpents and harmless as doves.”
I often recall the “wise as serpents” part when trying to evaluate the motives of people around me. However, I often forget the “harmless as doves” part when I get wrapped up in trying to defend myself against the ones I perceive as wolves. That launches me out of the transformational focus and back to transactional belief. I notice it in myself by keeping score, becoming defensive, worrying, and many other symptoms.
In fact for me, one shortcut to recognizing the shift into transactional relationships is observing WHERE I place my energy. If I am constantly wondering what other people are DOING to me, for me, or with me, I’m focused on tasks and not on enjoying the relationships God has provided.
In fact, transactional faith is what drives the old method I learned of evangelism. I was taught that to be a good Christian, one must practice evangelism, and that meant handing out Bible tracts, memorizing certain scriptures, scaring people into thinking they are going to hell, then rescuing them from the fiery pit by leading them down the Roman Road into eternal glory. And, of course, recording the quest to be turned in to some church governing body so we could prove just how serious we are about advancing the kingdom of First Church of … oh … I mean … the kingdom of God.
In the name of Christian evangelism, we have seen slavery, segregation, genocide, removal and repression of cultures, violence, homophobia, racism, murder … the list continues …. Obviously, poisonous fruit from a toxic kind of faith.
But I’m now seeing evangelism much differently. Where the old definition includes force, fear, control, and intimidation, the transformational application of evangelism involves sharing a message of acceptance, freedom, compassion, and immeasurable love. And it’s THAT definition of evangelism that should guide the church. It’s THAT definition that also reminds me it’s okay – important, even – to reconsider my own beliefs and how they line up to my evolving understanding and application of the Word.
And that’s really all I want you to do: Just be willing to consider another path, another perception, another viewpoint, another answer, another focal point, another definition, or another angle – especially when it comes to something we’ve always known or always been taught.
By being open to ideas, we remain open to the transformational power of God’s own grace in our lives, and not become encumbered by the transaction-style boxes or equations we tend to assign to ourselves, each other, and even our Creator.
Watch Jenny’s sermon above …
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JENNY ARCHER is a volunteer associate pastor, and flawed human. When not road-tripping in her pickup, she and her wife live in Oklahoma City.