By J. Aaron White
Though it is often relegated to the world of legal proceedings, the phrase quid pro quo has much to say about our theology. In simple terms, it means “this for that, a favor in return for something.” In even simpler terms, quid pro quo means that I will scratch your back if you scratch mine. Dermatological issues aside, this kind of thinking has massive implications for our lives as Christians. Specifically, it calls into question how we view the practice of prayer.
Those Bloody, Raving Pagans
First Kings 18 paints a scene that is macabre in its mixture of tragedy and comedy. Elijah, the prophet of God, challenges the prophets of Baal to a theological showdown. After telling them that each camp (Team Baal and Team Yahweh) will make an altar of sacrifice and pray to their respective deity, Elijah says that “the God who answers by fire, he is God” (1 Kings 18:24).
What ensues in the Baal camp is a painful example of quid pro quo in action: “And [the prophets of Baal] cried aloud and cut themselves after their custom with swords and lances, until the blood gushed out upon them. And as midday passed, they raved on until the time of the offering of the oblation, but there was no voice. No one answered; no one paid attention” (1 Kings 18:28-29). One can almost imagine the bloody, sweaty, and befuddled pagan prophets staring at their unkindled altar. One of them has the courage to say what the others were thinking: “What’s the deal? We held up our end of the bargain. Why isn’t Baal ponying up?” (insert sarcastic mockery from Elijah).
Hedging Our Bets with an Obligatory Altar
Trying to manipulate a deity for personal gain is not an Old Testament phenomenon. The apostle Paul capitalized on pagan quid pro quo when he stood in the Areopagus in Athens. In his opening remarks, Paul said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘To the unknown god’” (Acts 17:22-23).
For the Athenians, paying homage to a god who held jurisdiction over a specific aspect of life was a respected way of getting what you wanted. Need a girlfriend? Pay homage to Aphrodite. Going on a trip? Give a little incense in honor of Hermes. Need a really big favor that requires the top dog? Pay serious homage to Zeus. For the Athenians, the idea of a loving, personal relationship with their myriad gods was a foreign concept. The ancient gods were capricious, aloof, and often moody. If you wanted their favor, you’d better get a back scratcher (and your wallet).
Exulting in the God Who Sees in Secret
In stark juxtaposition to the pagan practice of manipulating an impersonal deity(s) for personal gain stands the gospel of Jesus Christ. The eternal Son of God comes to redeem his sinful people, raise them from spiritual death, put his Spirit in them, and open their crusted eyes to the glory, beauty, and all-satisfying majesty of God Almighty (Romans 8:1-4; 2 Corinthians 5:17-21; 1 Peter 3:18). In so doing, the gospel radically reshapes how we think about and engage in prayer.
Like the prophets of Baal and the ancient Athenians, we are all prone to using prayer as a means of manipulating deity for personal profit. This is precisely what the Lord Jesus is rescuing his people from in his magnum opus, The Sermon on the Mount: “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think they will be heard for their many words” (Matthew 6:7). In this verse, Jesus uses a unique word (battalogeo, to babble at length). Christ is not condemning long prayers nor is he prohibiting repetition in prayer. He is calling his redeemed people away from using prayer as a means of manipulation (i.e., praying a certain way or with repetitive words as a way of garnering favor).
King Jesus, the sovereign Lord of the universe, will not be coerced or manipulated. Moreover, he invites his redeemed people into the joy of prayer as a means of exulting in God rather than trying to manipulate God. He calls them into private prayer as a means of communing with and enjoying God (see 1 Peter 3:18). They don’t need to cut themselves with swords because the blood that is needed to give them access to God was already spilled on Calvary. By faith in the Person and work of Jesus Christ, we are rescued from paganized prayer that seeks to manipulate an impersonal deity. In Christ, we are free to “pray to [our] Father who is in secret. And [our] Father who sees in secret will reward [us]” (Matthew 6:6). We exult in the reward that is God himself. The gospel changes everything, even prayer.