Transaction or True Love?


Do not owe anyone anything, except to love one another, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. (Romans 13:8)

“Teacher, which command in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and most important command. The second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands.” (Matthew 22: 36-40)

Levels of Christian Maturity:

When we come to Christ as Savior and Lord, we begin a journey where we are to obey and follow Him for the rest of our lives. There are different stages of growth in our Christian walk; unfortunately, we tend to get stuck on one plateau or another. I believe that the depth of our Christian commitment can be demonstrated by the kinds of questions we are asking.

When we initially come to Christ, most of our focus is on the “what?” questions. What does the bible teach? What am I supposed to do? What does God require of me? We spend a lot of time learning and figuring out what it means to be a believer and “what” the bible teaches. Basically, we have a “just give me the facts” approach where we desire to know the rules and the protocols of being a Christian. When someone becomes more mature and goes deeper theologically, they might also start asking the “how?” questions. Yes, I need to be baptized (the what), but the Scripture teaches I need to be baptized by immersion (the how). We realize as we grow that God desires us to do the right things the right way. For example, we should pray (what) in Jesus’ name (how). We should give our tithes and offerings (what), but we have to give cheerfully and liberally (how).

Asking what we must do to serve Him and ensuring we are doing those things God’s way is essential. Yet, there is a third question, and it is probably the most important one. This is the question of “why?” Unfortunately, this is the question that few of us ask, which keeps us immature instead of going on to greater heights with Jesus. The “why?” question is what separates a Pharisee from a devoted disciple of Jesus. It takes a good bit of biblical and theological knowledge to answer the “what” and the “how.” We cannot negate the importance of what and how. However, if you know what to do and how to do it but you have the wrong motives, then you are like the Pharisees who had the correct information but the wrong motivation. Legalists who focus so much on doing the right thing the right way without examining their own heart tend to become unteachable and unpliable. The new Christian is at least open to learning, and open hearts are required for sanctification.

A Love Relationship or a Transactional Relationship?

When we consider the issue of motives, that is where the rubber meets the road in our Christian walk. The more I dive into this issue, the more convicted I become about my own motives and the more convinced I become that many churchgoers are either lost or immature believers at best.  

I lived and worked in Africa for years and have observed that Africa is a relational society. Most anthropologists agree that Americans tend to be individualistic and independent, while Africans are relational and interdependent within their network. The assumption has long been that this relational prowess of the African Christian makes them better equipped to relate to God and their fellow believers. Yet, relationships are based on different motivations or different “whys,” and this has to be considered when judging the quality of one’s Christianity. One can do the right thing in the right way but still be wrong if it is done for the wrong reason.

The more I meditate on this topic, the more I am convinced that there are two basic motivations in any given relationship: genuine love or give and take (transactions). This statement is not a judgment on transactional relationships because we all have them. When I go to a local shop and buy something, I enter into a transactional relationship with that shop owner. I give him money, and I expect that he will, in turn, give me a product I desire at an agreed price. This win/win relationship ensures that I will continue to frequent his shop to get what I need, and he will make a profit to get what he needs. Transactional relationships involve someone getting something for giving, and we need those in life.

Genuine love relationships, on the other hand, are entirely different. In this case, we give, serve, or do something just because we love the other person. In these relationships, there is no transaction taking place. Instead, one is benefitting, and the other person does not benefit at all. If they do benefit, it is a secondary result and not a motivating factor. This is the relationship that God has with you. “But God, who is rich in mercy, because of his great love that he had for us, made us alive with Christ even though we were dead in trespasses. You are saved by grace!” (Ephesians 2:4-5). God does not need you, and you gain everything in this relationship without having to pay anything.

Our relationship with God as believers should be based on unconditional love, not a transaction. Think about it, we were saved by grace and not by works. There is nothing we can do to earn salvation. There was no transaction between God and us; Jesus paid the price, we did not. Yes, repentance and faith are necessary to experience that payment, but even repentance and faith are gifts from Him. There is nothing in you or me that deserves His grace.

Additionally, from our perspective, we must relate to God because of love. He owes us nothing, but He gives freely because of His love and grace. Why should we serve Him? We shouldn’t serve Him to get something from Him, but we should serve and obey Him because we love Him and desire His glory. Standing on God’s promises to you does not mean you have the right to leverage or command Him. Even if I suffer or if God never helps or blesses me, I still should serve Him because I love Him and because He is worthy. This is the flaw of the prosperity gospel. Our relationship with God is not based on a transaction where I do something for God, and He must do something for me. That is transactional thinking. My relationship with God is not predicated on what He does or will do; my relationship is based on obedience grounded in love. I love Him, and I desire His glory because I love Him. Therefore I obey for the right reason.

Consider Luke 17:7-10 “Which one of you having a servant tending sheep or plowing will say to him when he comes in from the field, ‘Come at once and sit down to eat’? Instead, will he not tell him, ‘Prepare something for me to eat, get ready, and serve me while I eat and drink; later you can eat and drink’? Does he thank that servant because he did what was commanded? In the same way, when you have done all that you were commanded, you should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we’ve only done our duty.’” (Luke 17:7-10)

African Culture is Relational:

Africans tend to be much more relational than people in the West. However, it still begs the question of the “why.” What is the motivation underlying many of these relationships? My observation is that while Africans are intensely relational people, these relationships are usually based on transactions and not unconditional love. I am not saying Americans are better. By virtue of their individualism, Americans are the most selfish people on the planet, and this self-centeredness is on display for all the world to see. Many are proud of this fact and boldly proclaim they “look out for number one.” The relational nature of Africans causes them to appear less self-centered on the surface, but when they honestly answer the “why” question, you find selfishness is prevalent here too.

As I said earlier, transactional relationships are not all bad. We need these kinds of relationships with some people. Let me use an African illustration. In my city, we have a fried treat called a mandazi. Often you will find ladies who walk around with buckets of these delicious treats, selling one for 10 shillings (10c). If I approach one of these ladies and ask for a mandazi, I am beginning a transactional relationship; she will give me a mandazi, and I will give her 10 shillings. Suppose, though, that I reach into my pocket and realize I don’t have any money with me; what will happen next? Africans are very hospitable, and she might just give me one for free. Does this mean that her motivation is one of love and not a transaction? Not necessarily. She could assume I will bring her the money another day or that even if she gives me one for free today, I will become her regular customer and continue to buy more later. That is still transactional. She might even think that since I am a “man of God,” she might actually get some spiritual blessing from God or get promoted by me to my other friends. Those are still transactional motivations; she still expects something from giving something. It is not wrong for her to profit from her business, but the motivation is not unconditional love.

However, if her 2-year-old child is hungry and wants a mandazi, she will likely give it to him, but the motivation is different. This is now a motivation based on love. It could be transactional, like if he is misbehaving and she is trying to quiet him down, but typically mothers do things for their children because of love. Mothers still care for their children if the child is disrespectful or misbehaving. They don’t do something to get something; they simply do it because they love them and feel it is their duty. A relationship motivated by love means you don’t consider what you will gain, only what you can give.

While Africans are super relational people, I am convinced that most relationships are based on transactions. Typical statements I hear include: “When my family member needs something, I give it to them because someday I will need something, and they will return the favor.” Others say, “If I say “no,” I will be labeled as “selfish” and so I need to give so that one day I will also benefit.” Or, “I cannot afford to go to this funeral, but I will go because if I don’t, people will suspect I was the cause of the death, or they won’t help with my funeral when I die.” Culturally, Africans are people who almost always do the right thing in the right way, but the motivation is based on a cost/reward transactional perspective. When someone does something for their neighbor or family without expecting anything at all (of any kind) in return, this is not transactional but a love-motivated relationship. I believe these instances are rare.

One reason is the historical foundations of Animism and African Traditional Religion that are still latent in African culture. Animism is by nature a transactional religion, where one does the right things the right way because if you do not, you will suffer punishment from the ancestors. People don’t obey the rules because they love their ancestors, but because they need their favor and fear their wrath. African Traditional Religion is all about using spiritual means to manipulate spiritual forces. If one can get the right medicine and use it correctly, he will have the power to control his circumstances.

What About You?

Now, if we consider these things spiritually, it reveals how much of our relationship with God is based on transactions and how much is based on genuine love. I believe this is one reason many people struggle with the concept of grace. Receiving unmerited favor from God for doing absolutely nothing is difficult for many people to get their minds around. Our penchant for transactional relationships is why works-based religions are so prevalent. That is why people (even some Baptists) believe you can lose your salvation. Most people are fundamentally wired to believe that to receive something, you must give something; to get a blessing, you must first make a sacrifice. Concepts like unmerited grace and mercy are foreign to many African cultures, and the idea of doing something nice for someone else without expecting anything in return is rare.

As mature believers, we must ask these “why” questions regarding how we view God and the church. Why do you come to church? Are you coming to get something or to give something? I think most people attend the Sunday service because they expect a spiritual benefit. They think that if I sing right, dance right, and pray right, I will receive something from God. They have a transactional perspective of God. This is why the prosperity gospel has found such fertile ground in the African church. The entire premise of the prosperity gospel is that if we do the right things the right way, God has to bless us. The prosperity gospel is purely transactional. There is no love for God or desire for His glory, but a means to an end or a way to get what I want. Instead, we must have a love motivation where we come to worship just because we love God and want Him to receive the glory He is due.

Why do you give? Do you give because you expect something in return, or are you giving to God and others, expecting nothing and simply to show love? Why do you obey? Is it because you fear God’s punishment and desire mercy, or is it just to show Him love? Are you serving because you know others are watching and are worried about what they will think? That is transactional; receiving appreciation for service rendered. Why are you praying? Is it to talk with the one you love and express your love to Him, or are your prayers filled with requests? Yes, we do need certain things, and some transactions are necessary. We need to pray and trust that God will answer and meet our needs, but when we ask the why question, we get to the heart of our motivations.

Why we do what we do is an indicator of our spiritual growth. Let us deeply examine our hearts and ask God to reveal our motivations in everything we do, say, and think. Perhaps some would realize they started wrong in the beginning. They approached God transactionally; “Let me pray this prayer so God will spare me from hell.” What motivated your repentance and faith? Were you trying to gain something from God, or were you broken because of your sin and desperate to love Him? There is a transactional aspect to our salvation, but He paid the price, not us. We are simply the recipients of His grace.

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