A very common theme among Christian preachers and teachers about how we relate to God and prosperity is that we should not see God as a means to something else that we enjoy, but as the ends of our joy. In the spiritual struggle against various forms of prosperity faiths, whether they are explicitly the prosperity ‘gospel’ or not, it has become a key point to help people to see that God is not simply an instrument for our blessing, our status, our happiness. I want to largely affirm everything that these teachers are saying and wholeheartedly affirm the goodness of the reasons they have for saying such.
What I want to suggest, however, is that there is a problem with how the the ethical language of means and ends is employed when it comes to God. There is the suggest that one could either treat God as a means or an ends, but not both. We either are using God, or we are valuing God Himself without concern for anything else.
This mutual exclusivity of means and ends is not intrinsic to ethical reasoning. Consider, for instance, Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative about persons: “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.”1 Kant doesn’t attempt to deny the fact that we, for the lack of better term, ‘use’ people, but that ethical reasoning should recognize that people should never be simply a means to other ends, as simply someone to use without concern for themselves as an end.
The fact is that there is no such thing as a happy relationship between people where one person always treats the person as an ends, but never themselves as a means for their own sake. At least, if such relationships do exist, they would be extraordinarily rare in the form of a person who exclusively finds joy in making other people happy, perpetually irregardless of what they feel, but that doesn’t make it praiseworthy or ethically right. Most long-term and happy friendships, marriages, etc. have something that is commonly referred to as the give-and-take. If I were to attempt to describe what I understand to be the practical reasoning that takes place in the most exemplary relationships, even if it is not formally understood that this is what is happening, follows along the lines of two principles.
People in relationship can happily treat each others as means insofar as the other person feels they are also treated as an end.
That is to say that the person who is being ‘used’ can accept being ‘used’ insofar as it does egregiously violate their own sense of well-being, either in the short run or the long run. For instance, consider a person who is moving asks their friend to help assist in the moving of furniture. This friend does not serve to benefit from this act, except maybe a change to hang out and form a better friendship, but it will instead take some time out of their day, they will get tired, etc. In this immediate moment, the friend is a means to another end, to move more quickly and easily.
This isn’t a problem in most cases. In most cases, there is no need for an immediate quid-pro-quo that immediately treats the friend as an end to make up for it. Healthy relationships have a ‘relational buffer’ that allows one party to ask something of the other party without having to immediately ‘repay’ back. So far as the relationship continues the way as it has been prior, the ‘relational buffer’ will naturally restore over time. The continuation of what makes the relationship good and healthy over time is usually sufficient to keep the person from not feeling that they are being used in the worst sense.
Put simply, in relationships, most people are unconsciously, and occasionally consciously, gauging whether we expect that we will be valued and treated in a way that we want to by the other person, which is what usually call trust. For flexible people, this expectation does not simply change with whichever way the wind is blowing in the moment. For instance, making a personal sacrifice for another, a disappointment, or the experience of a mild conflict doesn’t immediately erode all positive expectations for them. They can still trust that they are important to the other person.
When the ‘relational buffer’ has been depleted by feeling like one has been used (or forgotten), the “seeds of mistrust” begin to develop that needs to be addressed to prevent from growing.
Many relationships hit a hard point where questions begin to be ask “do they even care?” While a person with little ‘relational buffer’ will constantly be plagued with mistrust, such as a spouse easily incited to jealousy, in most instances this phase can actually be a good opportunity in a relationship if both are willing to engage in the conflict and discussions in a healthy way. If a person feels like they are becoming ‘used,’ that they are simply a means to an end, then they will begin to express it, either directly or indirectly. If successful communication can be had so that it is understood why the person feels that way and the other person is seen to be sincere in treat the other better, then trust will begin to restore and the relational buffer will restore.
While most relationships do not have explicit conditions, we can consider relationships to work much like covenants works, where there are a series of expectations that are laid upon both partners. While not a contract with precise stipulations as to what should be done, when, where, how, etc., covenants and most relationships work under the principle that one person fulfilling their expectations while the other party is unfaithful is unacceptable. In this case, complaints can be brought in the relationship that seeks to bring to mind these expectations. So, if one party feels misused or forgotten, they can bring their complaint forward and if the other person recognizes the reasons for the complaint, then the relationship begins to restore. This relational renewal or restoration has the effect of keeping the parties of the relationship being treated as an ends, even as they are sometimes also means.
The point of these two principles is that good relationships are defined by both means and ends, but that for good relationships there is certain relational corrective mechanisms in place in case a person is being treated excessively as a means and not a end.
So, when we think of God, we can think of our relationship to God as both means and ends. This is essentially what a covenant is, where the expectations given to both parties makes them a means for the ends of the other party. Insofar as both parties make themselves a means for the ends of the other, the relationship thrives and grows. But the covenant provides the basis that each other can legitimately offer a grievance against the other if they feel the relationship is not being matched by the other party.
So, trying to suggest that we don’t treat God as a means makes it hard for us to understand the covenantal relationship that God has with Israel. Israel is expected to submit to God’s instructions, but at the same time, God is called to be a blessing to the people. When Israel fails in their relationship, God brings complaints to them through the prophets, reminding them that God has been faithful but they have been unfaithful. On the other hand, when God is seen as not upholding his end of the ‘bargain,’ Israel also makes petitions and complaints, especially in the form of the lament psalms. Through this covenantal regulation and complain, God and Israel are to both be means to each others ends, but should that not be the case, attempts to correct this relationship will me made.
I would suggest that there is a better way to avoid prosperity ‘gospels.’ What underlies prosperity gospels is the lack of Divine freedom, either in God’s power or in obligation, for God to bless and give as He sees fit. Prosperity ‘gospels’ imagine very specific ‘blessings’ that people want and that they imagine that there is some law or rule that obligates God to provide it. A person wants a great new job, they should pray with faith and God is obligated to give them that specific desire. It is as if God is a covenant with people to do as they request, rather than a more open-ended freedom of God to be a blessing to His people. The problem with prosperity ‘gospels’ isn’t that we somehow see God as a means to our well-being and happiness, but rather that God is the means to realize very specific outcomes, especially in such a way that pushes off any sort of responsibility off of the person.
As I remember it during the 2000s, one of the most prevalent forms of the prosperity ‘gospel’ among high school and college age Christians was the dating prosperity ‘gospel.’ (It could still be the case now, but I am not as aware as what is happen in the culture of ‘college Christianity.’) I am reminded of when I was in college and I imagined people wanting God to bring them their future spouse, but they weren’t necessarily willing to be the type of person that their dream spouse would want. They wanted God to fulfill the dream, but at the same time, they weren’t concerned to be a dream themselves. The end result is that they could be readily disappointed when the man or woman of their ‘dreams’ when they first met turned out to have a lot more flaws and scars than they recognized. Meanwhile, they could grow either despondent or angrily entitled when the person of their dreams came along, but they weren’t wanted.
The problem of the “dating prosperity gospel” in college wasn’t that they wanted God to bring them a spouse. It wasn’t that God was a means to finding and having a good marriage. The problem was the way they had in effect tried to bind God, and through binding God also life, others, etc., to expectations that no one had agreed to. And as the despondency hit, they would then be tempted to try to make bargains with God, such as “if I am obedient,” you will bring me someone. God was a means to fulfill very specific expectations.
As a result, they set themselves up for having unrealistic expectations that they could then throw onto potential partners. Meanwhile, they also had unrealistic expectations that this person should just accept them as their boyfriend or girlfriend without themselves concerned to be a dream for their partner. Without realizing, they shirked personal responsibility to seek to become the type of person they idealized, not so as to simply hook someone in, but so as to be the type of person that could be a blessing to others in the way that they themselves would want to be blessed. In other words, the ‘dating prosperity gospel’ caused people to overlook the words of Jesus, “In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you.” (Matthew 7.12) While not a roadmap for relational success, it embodies a mentality and a mindset that when deeply formed also happens to make one a potentially charming partner that ones would want.
It is the way that God is obligated to specific expectations while we simply shirk any responsibility that undergirds all the various prosperity ‘gospels.’ While not offering a “God helps those who help themselves” type of thinking, it is more of, “God freely blesses those who are freely faithful to Him.”
One overriding narrative of the Scriptures is that God seeks to be a blessing to the world. However, this concern for blessing isn’t simply for the person themselves, but for others. God promise to bless Abraham, but at the same time through him to be a blessing to the nations. Abraham’s blessing and the blessings to the nations come to fruition through Isaac, both in a partial fulfillment as Isaac’s grandson Joseph becomes a means of blessing Egypt and, as those who believe that Jesus is Lord, a fuller fulfillment in Christ as the Savior of all creation. In so doing, God treats the people he blesses as both means and as ends. Abraham is simultaneously given a child and blesses the world. Joseph is simultaneously raised in authority, after multiple injustices, and he becomes a blessing to Egypt (and his brothers). And, most fully, God’s Son Jesus is given the name above all names, while at the same time blessing the nations through His own sacrifice.
What is happening here? Allow me to suggest that God’s form of blessing is different than what many people consider to be a blessing. Worldly blessings are things that make us happy. They aren’t inherntly bad, but nor are they inherently self-reproducing of further blessing; they have a small half-life. God’s blessing are those things that when given to us bring life and joy, also provide a holy form of life and joy to the world. In a world marred by the desolation of sin and death, God’s blessings is God’s work to reorder human life, and even creation itself, from the excessive disorder that tears human life and all of creation apart. God’s blessing is God’s means of bringing a longer-lasting new order to creation.
God did not create us to simply be beings who enjoyed God as God in isolation from everything else. The creation narrative of Genesis 1 that calls everything good suggests that the creation is also an end to be enjoyed; it isn’t reduced to an instrument that simply mediates God’s goodness, even as it does that. God created us to find joy in the world around us, in eating and drinking, in working and playing, in loving and making love, and so on. Not in some excessive, hedonistic manner in which these other ends drown out our recognition of God’s role in our lives and creation, nor in a way that we forget other people as ends, but that in these ends we also have gratitude to God as our ultimate end and other people as also enjoying the same things that God created for their ends. This type of blessing and sharing in blessings is the vision of human life God created us for.
The problem is, however, in how the excessive disorder in God’s creation has caused us to forget God and others, and instead treat the immediate and full fulfillment of our desires as our ultimate ends. The problem is that we are resistant to becoming a means to those blessed ends while wanting a blessing ourselves. We don’t want to be used, but we are willing to use. There may be a willingness to compromise a little so as to manipulate our appearances enough so that we can get what we want from others, without concern for faithfulness after we got what we want. Then, in the midst of all of this, there are those of us who have been used and are scared to become a means to use so that others can get what they want without us also being an end.
In the midst of all of this, God is the ultimate means who is also our ultimate end. By ultimate, I don’t mean exclusive means and exclusive ends, as there are many other means and ends to enjoy in life. Nor do I simply mean that God is the most important means and the most important ends. Rather, God is the ultimate means and ultimate ends who orders all other means and all other ends in our life when we as God’s end for blessing also become a means of blessing for others.