Is a relationship which simply uses God as a means to an end, improper?

  • Clarifying the question

    This question plays a role in several discussions relevant to apologetics. For one example, a prominent argument against God's existence says that, if a loving God existed, that God would ensure everyone knows He exists, in order to allow all persons to have the opportunity to be in relationship with God, just by trying. One response says that God may actually not ensure that a given person believes, or may delay ensuring it, if God knows that person at that time would just enter into an improper relationship with God. This requires, of course, that there be characteristic features of a proper relationship that some persons may lack even while they do relationship-like things (praying and worshipping) God. One reason to think there is such a thing as an improper relationship with God is that we might have some examples. Would a relationship which simply and selfishly uses God as a means to an end would be an example of an improper relationship?

    1. An appropriate relationship with God seems to require genuine worship/reverence/desire of God for who God is, and for what he has done for us. The intuition here seems widespread. Consider the words of this early Muslim mystic,

      Rabia Basri: “O God! If I worship You for fear of Hell, burn me in Hell and if I worship You in hope of Paradise, exclude me from Paradise. But if I worship You for Your Own sake, grudge me not Your everlasting Beauty.”

      Or more canonically:
      Westminster shorter catechism: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” As an interesting sidenote: some argue that desiring God is satisfied merely in loving “the good.”

“Yes, after all…
  • Improper: using God to escape punishment

    Appropriate/best relationships are not primarily and perpetually attempts to avoid judgment.1 This is relevant because worshipping God for this reason, perhaps even with resent and disgust, uses God as simply as a means to an end.

    But wait, doesn't the Bible encourage using God to escape punishment? [See response]2

    1. C.S. Lewis: “Why is God landing in this enemy-occupied world in disguise and starting a sort of secret society to undermine the devil? Is it that He is not strong enough? Well, Christians think He is going to land in force; we do not know when. But we can guess why He is delaying. He wants to give us the chance of joining His side freely. I do not suppose you and I would have though much of a Frenchman who waited till the Allies were marching into Germany and then announced he was on our side. God will invade. But I wonder whether people who ask God to interfere openly and directly in our world quite realise what it will be like when He does. When that happens, it is the end of the world. When the author walks on to the stage the play is over. God is going to invade, all right: but what is the good of saying you are on His side then, when you see the whole natural universe melting away like a dream and something else - something it never entered your head to conceive - comes crashing in; something so beautiful to some of us and so terrible to others that none of us will have any choice left? For this time it will be God without disguise; something so overwhelming that it will strike either irresistible love or irresistible horror into every creature. It will be too late then to choose your side. There is no use saying you choose to lie down when it has become impossible to stand up. That will not be the time for choosing; it will be the time when we discover which side we really have chosen, whether we realised it before or not. Now, today, this moment, is our chance to choose the right side. God is holding back to give us that chance. It will not last for ever. We must take it or leave it.” [Mere Christianity (2001), 64-65.]
      Blaise Pascal: “God has willed to redeem men and to open salvation to those who seek it. But men render themselves so unworthy of it that it is right that God should refuse to some, because of their obduracy, what He grants others from a compassion which is not due to them. If He had willed to overcome the obstinacy of the most hardened, He could have done so by revealing Himself so manifestly to them that they could not have doubted of the truth of His essence; as it will appear at the last day, with such thunders and such a convulsion of nature that the dead will rise again, and the blindest will see Him.” “It is not in this manner that He has willed to appear in His advent of mercy, because, as so many make themselves unworthy of His mercy, He has willed to leave them in the loss of the good which they do not want. It was not, then, right that He should appear in a manner manifestly divine, and completely capable of convincing all men; but it was also not right that He should come in so hidden a manner that He could not be known by those who should sincerely seek Him. He has willed to make himself quite recognizable by those; and thus, willing to appear openly to those who seek Him with all their heart, and to be hidden from those who flee from Him with all their heart. He so regulates the knowledge of Himself that He has given signs of Himself, visible to those who seek Him, and not to those who seek Him not. There is enough light for those who only desire to see, and enough obscurity for those who have a contrary disposition.” [Pensées (430)]
    2. Some relevant verses here might include,…

      • …Matthew 3:10 -- therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
      • …Matthew 6:20 -- “…store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys,…
      • …Matthew 10:28 -- rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. (cf. Luke 12:5) 10:42 -- whoever [helps children] he shall not lose his reward.

      By way of response, however,…
      • …this assume Christian theism (and Biblical inerrantism) is true.
      • …even then, a promise to punish someone for wrongdoings (stealing etc.) is not the same as threatening punishment for failing to pray to and worship God. There is no evidence even here that God is motivating relationships through fear.
      • …in fact, articulating to individuals the gift of salvation offered to them spontaneously results in their thankfulness and awareness of God's love for them, suggesting that a proclamation of the judgment they are due plays a powerful role in winning over lovers of God, lovers who value God not to receive a gift, but because the gift was already offered to them freely.
      • …the claim was simply that proper relationships are not primarily or solely attempts to avoid judgment

  • Improper: using God for gifts (e.g. heaven, blessings)

    Appropriate relationships are not primarily and perpetually attempts to receive gifts (e.g. heaven, blessings).1, 2 This is relevant because worshipping God for this reason, perhaps even with resent and disgust, uses God as simply as a means to an end.

    But wait, doesn't the Bible encourage using God for gifts? [See response]3

    1. Michael Rea: “Suppose Bill Gates were to go back on the dating scene. Wouldn’t it be natural for him to want to be with someone who would love him for himself rather than for his resources? Yet wouldn’t it also be natural for him to worry that even the most virtuous of prospective dating partners would find it difficult to avoid having her judgment clouded by the prospect of living in unimaginable wealth? The worry wouldn’t be that there would be anything coercive about his impressive circumstances; rather, it’s that a certain kind of genuineness in a person’s response to him is made vastly more difficult by those circumstances. But, of course, Bill Gates’s impressiveness pales in comparison with God’s; and, unlike Gates, God’s resources and intrinsic nature are so incredibly impressive as to be not only overwhelmingly and unimaginably beautiful but also overwhelmingly and unimaginably terrifying. Viewed in this light, it is easy to suppose that God must hide from us if he wants to allow us to develop the right sort of nonself-interested love for him.” [Evil and the Hiddenness of God (Cengage, 2015), 161.]
    2. Richard Corrigan: “According to theists, we should not love God merely because he promises rewards to the faithful, we should attempt to distance ourselves from the selfishness of such a desire and instead love the divine because of its perfection.” [Why Hidden? Divine Hiddenness, Love and Revelation (Parmenion, 2008), 49.]
    3. Some relevant verses here might include…

      • …Colossians 3:24 -- knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance.
      • …Philippians 3:14 -- I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God
      By way of response, however,…
      • …this assume Christian theism (and Biblical inerrantism) is true.
      • …a promise to reward someone for good works (visiting widows etc.) is not the same as rewarding someone for being in relationship. One challenging verse, however, is…
      • …Matthew 6:5-6 -- “When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you. However, the primary message of this verse is not that one should pray in order to receive rewards. The primary message is that one ought not pray to be noticed by men. Moreover, nowhere does Jesus imply that you should pray just to receive reward. Jesus surely takes it for granted that the individual wants to pray for the right reasons, but explains how to get the most reward out of it. Moreover still, if one did want to say Jesus meant the sole reason for praying was for reward, plausibly, it will be the kind of reward we see Jesus saying people will receive, a kind honor in heaven, where heaven is something one could only desire while one is desiring God―it is inseperable from relationship to God.

  • Improper: using God for religious experiences

    Appropriate relationships are not primarily and perpetually attempts to receive religious experience or euphoric union.1, 2, 3 This is relevant because worshipping God for this reason, perhaps even with resent and disgust, uses God as simply as a means to an end.

    1. Travis Dumsday: “…premature experience of God, and especially a premature constant availability of that experience, could lead to the individual treating God like a drug—entering into communion with Him not out of love (or even nascent love) but out of a desire for the unutterably wonderful experience entailed by the presence of the divine. In such a world, Marx’s allegation might really be fulfilled: God (or rather the experience of God) might become the opiate of the people. Because this would be both inherently immoral (a grave moral offence against God) and bad for the individual, it could be that God rightly refrains from making such an experience continually available to all of us—especially from a young age.” [“Divine Hiddenness and the Opiate of the People” International Journal for the Philosophy of Religion (2014): 195.]
      Travis Dumsday: “…it would be bad for the individual, inhibiting or even preventing his/her development of a genuinely positive, meaningful relationship with God. Consequently God has good reason to refrain from making Himself thus available, both to some/most/all adults, and especially to children.”
    2. Interesting thought: using God for the euphoric experience He is able to provide might be analogous to being in relationship with someone who you do not care about just for the sex, or caring about them only because of the sex.
    3. This may not be very rare. There have been many “Chrisitans” who have left the faith because they no longer have this experience, or won't enter into relationship because they don't have an experience.