Transactional Salvation

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As Holy Week approaches, Catholics and others near the end of our Lenten sacrifices. Our springtime offerings to God may not be as brutal as older, pagan exchanges, but they still carry a feeling of costliness. We know it’s the season to offer something of value to God, but the why of the sacrifice can be lost or eclipsed by habits learned from other, secular exchanges.

At a Dominican lecture on temptation, one of the friars pointed out that the Stanford Marshmallow Test bears a strong resemblance to how some of us wind up understanding the sacrifices we make for God, both in the Lenten season and throughout our lives.

In the marshmallow experiment, researchers placed a single marshmallow in front of small children and told them that they had a choice. They could eat this marshmallow now, or, if they waited til the experimenter came back, they would get to eat two marshmallows. Captured on camera, the little children wait in varying degrees of agony – covering their eyes to avoid seeing the marshmallow, sniffing it to enjoy as much as they’re allowed to, or even pinching little bites off the bottom where (the child hopes) they won’t be noticed.

Just like the children, we’ve been asked to wait out a temptation in exchange for greater rewards in this life or the next (and we tend to cheat in fairly similar ways). But the experiment also exposes some reasons that this understanding of God’s rules may wind up leaving a bitter taste in our mouths. In the experiment, the children are exposed to an arbitrary test – there is no reason that eating a marshmallow now should preclude a treat later, except that the experimenters deem it so. Without a good reason for the adults’ demands, the children can play along, but they have no reason to trust or love – they have every reason to look for a loophole or a trick.

A number of recommended Lenten sacrifices (sugar, coffee, etc.) seem to be suggested simply because they are difficult. As in the marshmallow test, the sacrifice is arbitrary, not a positive reshaping of our lives that we’d want to continue after Lent. These sacrifices are valuable only in that they are hard, a chance to do something costly for God.

It can be nice do something flamboyantly generous for a loved one, and Christ praised this impulse in the woman with the alabaster jar, but exhausting ourselves in arbitrary ways has the potential to remind us less of the woman with the costly oil, and more with all the other painful, pointless-feeling sacrifices we practice on a day to day basis.

It is often better, whether during Lent or as a Friday discipline, to choose to offer God something that doesn’t seem arbitrary or arduous-for-the-sake-of-being-arduous, but something that is good for us, that we trust God will receive well because He delights in our good.

It’s easy to fall back into the habit of offering pure difficulty instead, however, because it feels if we our struggling, our struggle must be valuable to our trading partner, precisely because it is unusual to engage in a transaction where the other person’s good is aligned with ours.

Most exchanges we make aren’t endurance tests like that of the marshmallow experiment – they’re simple purchases. Most purchases are mutually beneficial – allowing us all to specialize, benefit from comparative advantage, and make our purchases using fungible currency, rather than working out a fair exchange for each swap we make.

But, even as we benefit from the flexibility of our consumerist economy, every transaction has a little worm at its heart – it would always be better still to get what you want without paying anything at all. Even if both sides are better off after the exchange, there’s still the longing to have made a better bargain—one that costs us nothing.

In an economic exchange, our interests aren’t aligned with our trading partner. But God’s interest in us is perfectly aligned with our own good. There’s no way to drive a harder bargain with Him and wind up benefiting ourselves. There’s no way to offer him something better than that which is already good for us.

Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco works as a news writer at FiveThirtyEight by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012. Arriving at Amen, her first book, will be published in Spring 2015.