The Well-Intentioned Insult of Trying to "Pay God Back"

A few days ago I found myself with my Bible in my lap, strolling through a familiar neighborhood of the Old Testament.

Rounding a well-worn corner of 2nd Samuel, I came across the passage in which David tells the prophet Nathan that he’s been thinking about building God a decent house in the city center instead of making Him live in a tent on the outskirts of town.

In reading the passage, I was struck by something I’d never really noticed before.

Here’s how Chapter 7 begins:

After the king was settled in his palace and the LORD had given him rest from all his enemies around him, he said to Nathan the prophet, “Here I am, living in a palace of cedar, while the ark of God remains in a tent.”

Nathan replied to the king, “Whatever you have in mind, go ahead and do it, for the LORD is with you.”(NIV)

God had been extraordinarily good to David and he knew it. The Lord had blessed him with favor, victory, and abundance. Surrounded by the trappings of that success, David succumbed to one of the most common religious impulses known to man . . . he determined to do something for God.

This always sounds noble and praiseworthy. The prophet Nathan seemed to think so. Without even bothering to consult the Lord about David’s grandiose plans or even hear about them in detail, he essentially says, “Whatever you’re planning, go for it!”

That night, however, God grabs Nathan by the scruff of the neck and shares a few choice thoughts with him:

That night the word of the LORD came to Nathan, saying:

“Go and tell my servant David, ‘This is what the LORD says: Are you the one to build me a house to dwell in? I have not dwelt in a house from the day I brought the Israelites up out of Egypt to this day. I have been moving from place to place with a tent as my dwelling. Wherever I have moved with all the Israelites, did I ever say to any of their rulers whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?”

Allow me to paraphrase God’s message here. He commands Nathan to go tell David, “Hold on just cotton picking minute there, pardner. Just when, exactly, did I ever mentioned being unhappy with my living arrangements? I’m not insecure. I don’t need a fancy house to validate my worth. I don’t recall asking you to help me out.”

Then God’s message for David takes an abrupt turn.

“Now then, tell my servant David, ‘This is what the LORD Almighty says: I took you from the pasture and from following the flock to be ruler over my people Israel. I have been with you wherever you have gone, and I have cut off all your enemies from before you. Now I will make your name great, like the names of the greatest men of the earth . . . I will also give you rest from all your enemies. The LORD declares to you that the LORD himself will establish a house for you'”

Suddenly the Lord goes from chastising the King for his presumption about doing God a favor to talking about how much he plans to bless him in the future. One minute, God is rebuking David for trying to do something for Him. In the next breath, God is telling David what other great things He plans to do for him.

There is a lot of important insight to be harvested in this little incident.

First, we see in David the universal tendency to respond to God’s incredible generosity by moving from heartfelt gratitude (which is appropriate in God’s eyes) to a works-based attempt to pay God back. It’s a religious impulse.

It’s what theologian John Piper has labeled “the debtor’s ethic.”

The debtor’s ethic says, “Because you have done something good for me, I feel indebted to do something good for you.” This impulse is not what gratitude was designed to produce. God meant gratitude to be a spontaneous expression in the gift and the good will of another. He did not mean it to be an impulse to return favors. If gratitude is twisted into a sense of debt, it gives birth to the debtor’s ethic–and the effect is to nullify grace. (Future Grace)

Of course the root of the debtor’s ethic is pride. There is a part of every fallen, flawed individual that resents the reality of our utter dependence upon God and his grace. That’s the same part that urges us to work or sacrifice or perform for God in order to generate some false sense of having earned God’s blessings.

This is an insult to God and the Lord’s feisty rebuke of David reflects this.

So what does God want from us? It’s simple. Obedience. “To obey is better than sacrifice.” (1 Sam. 15:22) Enjoy the blessings. Be humbly grateful. And obey.

That obedience will almost certainly involve serving and blessing others. “Do you love me, Peter?” Jesus asked. “Then feed my sheep.”

“Don’t try to do me any favors!” That’s the startling message from God to David. And to you and me I suspect.