One of the pitfalls of contemporary religiosity is a misunderstanding of God’s relationship with human beings. Our conception of God is essential to how we treat religious obligations and life in general. Understanding God as an indifferent “clock maker,” who doesn’t care about our daily lives, breeds apathy towards the question of whether He even established commands for humans to follow, leading one to live a life of secularity. Understanding God as a vengeful deity, a common product of Old Testament exegesis, may foster a spiteful relationship towards God, potentially leading one away from religion. To see God as a reactionary, emotional entity that, without warning, can decimate a nation for little to no reason is unlikely to foster an intimate relationship with the Divine based on love and mercy. While these theological positions are obvious misconceptions, there is another, more toxic understanding of God: the transactional God.
What is a transactional understanding of God?
We work for a large portion of our days to make a living. After hours of toil, we receive checks from our employers and happily rush to the bank. There, we exchange our checks for our desired reward: money. Money is the fruit of our toil and had we neglected our jobs or not worked at all, we would undoubtedly expect to see a deficiency in our payment. What if we persistently worked hard and went to turn in our checks to the bank, but were refused without explanation? We may tolerate it a few times. Perhaps the bank was closed. Maybe there was an IT error. It may be that the employer simply forgot to write a check. Eventually, after so many instances of unrewarded toil, we would stop working altogether. This would be a rational decision, since our jobs are rightfully transactional. What if we treated God in this way?
Many of us happily and hopefully announce that we are praying more, giving more charity, and increasing in other righteous deeds as an important interview, exam, or deadline approaches. We believe that if we embellish our acts of worship for a few weeks, God will grant us whatever we desire. Regardless of whether we successfully acquire our intended ends, the same trend usually follows: a downward trajectory of our spiritual dedication to God. It’s hard to understand why this happens, but upon reflection, a sobering realization surfaces: we were praying for the sake of worldly gains rather than out of sincere devotion to God. The first problem in engaging in such a transaction is the potential invalidity of our acts of worship. Will God accept our righteous deeds if they are done for reasons other than to worship Him? Are they even considered “righteous” deeds?
What are the implications of understanding God as a transactional deity? Many of us will find that our hopes remain unfulfilled despite well-timed spikes in our deeds. This may initially result in a short-lived disappointment, followed by a return to this erratic cycle. Over time, we become fatigued, drained from the heartbreak of our many hopes that never materialized despite our spiritual works that preceded them. Eventually, we may give up altogether and rationalize it with our own empirical experiences. If God is supposed to reward us when we pray more and He seemingly doesn’t, why should we pray at all? This is the common result of a transactional understanding of God. It is a source of spiritual stagnation and neglecting to confront this flawed understanding of God perpetuates a cycle of dishonesty within us regarding our spiritual states.
How should we see God?
The relationship between God and His servants is unique. God is neither a businessman nor a bank, nor is He to be treated as either. Umm Salamah reported:
The most beloved deed to the Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, is what is done regularly even if it is small. (Sahih; Musnad Aḥmad 26178)
Anything loved by the Messenger of God (God bless him and give him peace) is loved by God as well. In order to understand the meaning of consistent deeds, we must understand its opposite: inconsistency. Inconsistency in our deeds largely results from spiritual highs and lows, affected by the various tides of life. Removing ourselves from these cycles involves shifting our spiritual focus away from life and towards eternity. We must perform actions solely out of respect for God, without any expectation of reciprocation. However, we shouldn’t necessarily conversely break from expecting punishment for our sins. Instead, we should know that God offers us an opportunity to be forgiven for our sins. This is the meaning of having a good opinion of God and the best du’aa’ (prayer) is a good opinion.
How should we treat our acts of worship?
We often hear that our acts of worship must be “for the sake of God.” While this is the noblest and best intention, there are two other valid intentions mentioned by Islamic theologians. They are, in order of increasing nobility, a desire to avoid Hell or to enter Heaven. Our intentions when performing acts of worship must be otherworldly and acts of worship done for worldly ends, be it reputation, praise, or material wealth, are said to be theologically unacceptable. Internalizing this forces us to confront our spiritual states. We will find that we aren’t as pious as we think we are and that perhaps we weren’t well intentioned. What of a façade of piety that lasts throughout the entire day, save for our retreat to the privacy of our homes in the night? Is it piety if we fulfill our obligations in public, but transgress by way of domestic violence or pornography addictions in private? Realizing our lowliness in the face of Divine commands may be a source of panic for many, but it’s essential to think well of God. Our understanding of Him is essential to the development of our spiritual fortitude, and we must accept the shallowness of our hearts before we begin to cleanse them of impurity.
To expect immediate reward for our deeds is a sign of entitlement. It indicates that we have set a standard of behavior for God by which we evaluate whether He is worthy of worship, fueling hypocrisy and arrogance towards Him. Why do we expect immediate reward for our worship, but not immediate punishment for our sins? Correcting our misconceptions about Him may result in a decrease in our acts of worship, as we realize that they were insincere. However, this realization must motivate dedication to build consistent acts of worship whose fulfillment is not contingent upon the appearance of a worldly compensation.
Coping with our spiritual states
Realizing your acts of worship are artificial, transactional, and insincere can be overwhelming. Know that had God not intended that you overcome this realization, you would have likely remained in a state of heedlessness. Know that you haven’t fallen from grace, but rather lifted the veils that disguised your blindness as spiritual loftiness. Know that the first step on the path towards God is to be humbled, immediately followed by a stage of tawbah (repentance). Accept God’s call and turn away from your heedlessness with both a deeply willed intention to change and slow, consistent progress, as the intended ends are more important than the actual end you reach. Trust that God will facilitate your progress.
A practical solution
Imagine three groups. They are general categories under which most people fall, in my experience. The first are normative Muslims. They struggle with their prayers most days, but frequent a state of what seems to be piety before an exam or a performance evaluation at work. They continue on this cycle, missing most prayers in the year save for two months’ worth. By the time they reach old age and die, they’ve likely only completed 10%, at best, of their obligatory prayers.
The second group contains zealous aspirants seeking bounties from God. They wage full-fledged war against their apathy. They force themselves into stints of piety, but after the fourth month, having seen only spiritual stagnation, not any substantial changes in their internal happiness or worldly gain, they burn out and fall into spiritual destitution for the rest of the year. They then rinse and repeat. If they avoid completely burning out and giving up, they age and die having completed a third of their lifetime’s prayers.
The third group contains Muslims who have realized the dangers of a transactional relationship with God. These Muslims admit that they are deficient in their worship and realize that they cannot meet God in their current state. They undergo an internal desire to change and begin to take things step-by-step. For the first month, they dedicate themselves to praying the dawn prayer despite any spiritual highs or lows. After habituating to the dawn prayer, they take upon themselves the midmorning prayer. A month later, having habituated the first two prayers, they add the afternoon prayer. A few months later, they find themselves habitually praying all five daily prayers without concern for worldly compensation. This is an indication that they are truly sincere. No disappointing grade, familial discord, or heartbreak can move their determination to complete their prayers. Just as humans feel a physical and emotional need to eat every day, this third group awakens the soul’s thirst for closeness to God and develops a need to pray. Continuing this process further increases their piety and standing with the Divine.
Any sane individual would rather be amongst the third group, since the first two are plagued by spiritual stagnation and inconsistency. They are a product of our addiction to instant gratification. Mindfulness of our understanding of God is the diagnosis of our spiritual state and an increase in piety begins in the heart. We must grapple with the psychological dispositions instilled within us by society, as pop-religion taught us that prayer is toil and we are meant to cash our efforts in to God for an easy life. But God is not a bank and we are not deserving.
About the author: Wassim Has is a student studying biology, chemistry, Islamic theology, and philosophy. In his free time, he studies Arabic and Shafi’i jurisprudence.