At this festive time of year, when many of us are celebrating dual Christmases – you know, the one that honors the birth of Christ alongside the one that generates fourth quarter revenue for Citicorp – I think it’s important to make a distinction between the deities governing each. Because, frankly, I think many of us are thoroughly confused by the difference between Jesus Christ and Santa Claus.
The currency of our childhood relationship with Santa is good behavior, the assumption being that the more good behavior we produce, the better off we’ll be when Christmas morning rolls around. The currency of our adult relationship with Santa is a good deal simpler – the currency is, well, currency.
For many of us, the currency of our adult relationships with God is alarmingly similar to that of our childhood relationships with Santa Claus – I’ll be good, just please make things work out for me. And when they do, I’ll show you how good I am by thanking you profusely. And then I’ll pick something else for you to work on for me.
There’s nothing wrong with laying our cares before God and sharing earnest appreciation for our blessings. But if those are our ONLY topics of conversation with God, we’re in for a very boring relationship. It turns into this kind of dinner with the ‘rents:
“Dear Mom, will you please pass the salt?”
“Here you go.”
“Bless you and thank you, Mom.”
Munch, munch, munch.
“Dear Dad, will you please pass the peas?”
“Here you go.”
“Bless you and thank you, Dad.”
“Dear Mom, please can we have fried chicken tomorrow night?”
“Only if you have faith.”
“Dear Mom, I believe. Help me in mine unbelief. Will you please pass the potatoes?”
And so on.
I’d love to be able to blame this transaction-orientated attitude toward God on our consumer-driven culture, but the fact is, this is how people of the Judeo-Christian variety have always related to God, way before the invention of Santa Claus. And over and over again, we’re reminded that this is NOT what God ever had in mind.
Joshua understood the stakes involved in a love relationship with a God so enamored of human beings that God pretty much lost his mind whenever the Israelites cheated on him. Let me introduce Joshua: he took over leading the Israelites after Moses retired.* At the end of Joshua’s life, after the Israelites had mopped the proverbial floor with everyone in Canaan, Joshua had a little “come-to-Yahweh” talk with them. It’s too long to reproduce here, but the gist is as follows:
Joshua: We’ve been dating God for generations. Now, it’s time to decide whether or not to get married. No big deal if you don’t want to (other than making yourselves a bunch of idol-worshipping infidels who’ll get slaughtered in the Book of Judges), but you have to decide now. Me and my peeps are going to, but you do whatever you want.
Israelites: We’ll follow God! God gave us everything we wanted! God’s totally bitchin’! We LOVE this guy!
Joshua: Are you serious? We’re talking MARRIAGE, here. You’re not up for that kind of commitment. And if you try to break up with God, you’re really going to hurt God’s feelings and then you’ll be sorrrrryyyy.
Israelites: NOT! We’ll follow God.
Joshua: Fine, from your lips to…well…God’s ears.
And the rest of the Bible chronicles, in lurid detail, how rocky that marriage has been.
I think Joshua’s point was this: Getting everything we want from God is not the same thing as being in relationship with God. And to be in relationship with God, I’m reminded of an old adage of my mother’s, “To have a friend, you have to BE a friend.” This isn’t really rocket science. To be a friend, we:
- Let the other person do some of the talking. That means we shut up and listen. Sometimes friends talk very quietly. Sometimes, they don’t talk at all – they’re just happy we’re there paying attention.
- Care about what our friend cares about and if we’re really serious about the friendship, we care with more than lip service. For example, we know that Jesus cared deeply for the poor. So what’s our new Xbox got to do with what HE wants this Christmas?
This is way different from Santa’s expectations of me. Santa Claus and I are not “in relationship” just because he brought me a set of stainless steel cookware last year. Heck, Santa doesn’t even care if I can pay for the presents I buy. Santa will gladly extend credit, which boils my responsibility down to paying my minimum balance for the next forty years. And I’ve never given one second’s worth of thought to what Santa might want in return; the arrangement doesn’t require that. Santa exists to reward or punish our behavior – he sees us when we’re sleeping and knows when we’re awake, he knows if we’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake…so we’ll get presents.
When we think of God as a cosmic Claus, we hamstring our relational capacity because we only experience God transactionally – when we want something or, more rarely, when we get or give something.
God just wants us.
* Not insignificantly, Joshua was portrayed in The Ten Commandments by a bronzed and glossy John Derek:
© Marian the Seminarian, 2011