Have you ever found yourself making deals with God?
Maybe you’ve ruminated over one of these catastrophes:
- What if something bad happens?
- What if someone I love dies?
- What if…?
Your imagination runs wild as the anxiety oppresses you. In an attempt to stop the spiral of negative possibilities, you find yourself bargaining, “God, if you _______, I promise I will _________.”
Does this scenario sound familiar? If so, you’re not alone!
Andy* had an exciting camping trip coming up. But he had this nagging feeling that something bad might happen if he went. While watching sports on TV one evening, he made a decision, “God, if Barcelona wins, then I’ll take it as a sign that something bad will happen, and I won’t go on the trip.” Barcelona won. Andy missed out on a successful and uneventful camping trip.
Suzie* made a vow to God many years ago that she was never going to read certain books, particularly some that she enjoyed. Even today, she still finds herself worrying that she might accidentally read one she wasn’t supposed to because of her vow. She lives with debilitating apprehension.
These stories are classic examples of making deals with God—a very common symptom of scrupulosity. If you have found yourself thinking similar thoughts, you are probably struggling with scrupulosity, also known as religious OCD.
So is it wrong to make deals with God, to bargain with Him, to make vows? How do you know if your vows are compulsive? In this article, we will explore:
- Why we make deals with God, and why yours might be scrupulous
- What the Bible says about vows
- Whether it’s a sin to break a compulsive deal you made with God
Getting to the Core: Why We Make Deals with God
Let’s get to the root of the issue. Why do we feel the compulsion to make deals with God?
Those of us with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) typically struggle with uncontrollable thoughts related to anxiety. In our attempts to gain control, we engage in repetitive behaviors or make compulsive decisions.
When we struggle with religious OCD, our compulsive actions are a means of managing spiritual anxiety. Sometimes, these compulsions are not biblical at all. At others times, they are partially biblical but taken to an unhealthy extreme.
The making of vows does have a precedent in the Bible, but the types of vows we make often have no foundation whatsoever.
For example, you suddenly get the awful impression that your grandma is going to die. If she does, you believe that her death will be your fault. So you pray, “Oh, God, I’ll never eat pasta again if You keep Grandma from dying.” In addition to taking on an inflated sense of responsibility, you have created a very subjective vow to do something the Bible doesn’t speak of (ditch pasta). But because that idea surfaced naturally, you believe it’s from God.
The vows can vary from performing religious behaviors (prayer, fasting, Bible study) to the giving up certain everyday pleasures like food, television, or hobbies. Regardless of how good they are on the surface, they are all inappropriate because they are based on a fallacy of control—a type of thought distortion.
Of the two types of control fallacies, the one that underlies deal making, is a sense of internal control over everything, even things actually outside of one’s sphere. People who make deals with God believe that the only way to feel comfortable and secure is to be in control.
What is the purpose of asserting this type of control?
To Prevent Harm
Many of my clients share with me that they have made obsessive-compulsive deals out of fear that harm might come to themselves or to others. Vowing to do something in exchange for God’s protection was their way of attempting to soothe their concerns.
A mother who is waiting for her teenage son to return home may begin to worry when he is late. As catastrophic possibilities spiral out of control in her mind, she prays, “If You bring my son home safely, I promise You that I will never smoke another cigarette.”
Sounds great, right?
Um, not so fast! The problem is that the mother was using her relationship with God to get what she wanted and to provide herself with a sense of control.
To Ensure Salvation
Second, scrupulous individuals make deals with God to obtain assurance that they will be saved. This kind of thinking especially blurs the line between appropriate and inappropriate vows because it takes a genuine desire to be saved and turns it into a fear-filled response to God.
To Reduce Anxiety
The sense of control that comes from deal making may ease anxiety—but only temporarily. Months later, after vowing to give up certain enjoyments, we often feel resentful. This is only natural, because we are missing out on things we enjoy and we’re holding ourselves to a higher standard than everyone else around us.
But the worst part of it all is that we still feel anxious!
Making deals with God ends up being not only burdensome but also ineffective.
Is It Biblical to Make Deals with God?
At this point, you’re thinking, Well, I’ve made a deal with God, and the Bible says I shouldn’t break it.
You may have had this verse in mind:
When you make a vow to the Lord your God, you shall not delay to pay it; for the Lord your God will surely require it of you, and it would be sin to you.Deuteronomy 23:21
Another one praises the one who “swears to his own hurt and does not change” (Psalm 15:4).
People use these verses to justify the deals they make with God. They think, If I don’t follow through with my vow, no matter how scrupulous it may be, I’ll be sinning, and something bad will happen to me.
But let’s take a closer look at what the Bible actually says.
God Does Respond to Our Vows
While fleeing for his life, Jacob found himself sleeping on the ground with only a rock for a pillow. After God granted him a special dream of assurance, he made a vow to God:
If God will be with me, and keep me in this way that I am going, and give me bread to eat and clothing to put on, so that I come back to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God. And this stone which I have set as a pillar shall be God’s house, and of all that You give me I will surely give a tenth to You.Genesis 28:20-22
Years later, God reminded him of that promise:
I am the God of Bethel, where you anointed the pillar and where you made a vow to Me.Genesis 31:13
Jacob’s experience shows us that God does honor and respond to the vows we make. Clearly, then, not all vows to Him are wrong.
Biblical Vows Are Relational, Not Transactional
Earlier in this post, we looked at the motivations underlying scrupulous deal-making: anxiety and a need to be in control. When you promise God something, you are looking for Him to do something in exchange for your vow. In other words, scrupulous deal making is transactional, like putting money into a vending machine and getting a soda in return.
In looking at Biblical vows, we find a different motivation.
Those who made the Nazirite vow, for example, were not looking to prevent harm, ensure salvation, or reduce anxiety. Instead, they were separating themselves as “holy to the Lord” (Numbers 6:8) for a specific amount of time in order to draw closer to God. The focus was relational—on dedicating one’s time and being to God.
“But what about Hannah?” you interject.
Hannah made a vow to God that she would dedicate her child to God’s service if she conceived (1 Samuel 1:11). Again, she had a very different purpose than those with scrupulosity have.
Some Vows Are Inappropriate
God clearly disapproves of some kinds of vows.
For example, He made it clear that the vows the Israelites made to the “queen of heaven” were absolutely unacceptable to Him (Jeremiah 44:17, 22).
Some of the vows we make today could be equally inappropriate in God’s eyes. Keep reading to find out how we can tell the difference between appropriate and inappropriate vows.
Our Vows Impact Others
Numbers chapter 30 presents an interesting scenario: A woman in the ancient east who made a vow could be freed from that vow if her father or husband nullified it.
If a woman makes a vow to the Lord, and binds herself by some agreement while in her father’s house in her youth, and her father hears her vow and the agreement by which she has bound herself, and her father holds his peace, then all her vows shall stand, and every agreement with which she has bound herself shall stand. But if her father overrules her on the day that he hears, then none of her vows nor her agreements by which she has bound herself shall stand; and the Lord will release her, because her father overruled her.Numbers 30:3-5
The passage continues with the same line of reasoning if the woman were married.
Without getting into issues of gender hierarchy, I want to pull out a couple of principles that relate to our discussion.
For one, a vow can be nullified by others. The passage made it clear that if one of her family members overruled her vow, the woman would be forgiven (Numbers 30:8, 12).
Second, our vows impact those around us, whether positively or negatively. When making vows, we should consider their effect on our sphere of influence.
In fact, Jesus had some strong words for religious leaders who hurt others by their vows. These Pharisee had gone so far as to leave their parents in poverty to uphold their vows to God.
He said to them, “All too well you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your tradition. For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘He who curses father or mother, let him be put to death.’ But you say, ‘If a man says to his father or mother, “Whatever profit you might have received from me is Corban”—’ (that is, a gift to God), then you no longer let him do anything for his father or his mother, making the word of God of no effect through your tradition which you have handed down.”Mark 7:9-13
Jesus’ rebuke came in the context of clarifying the true spirit of the law. In His famous Sermon on the Mount, He deepened the meaning of the law to reveal its spirit of love to God and love to mankind.
The religious leaders had justified the neglect of their parents to keep a vow to God, but Jesus made it clear that true belief in God and a genuine love toward mankind must be the lens through which we determine whether our vows are appropriate or not.
Even so, we have to exercise discernment in each situation. At times, following Jesus may be hurtful to others who don’t agree with our decision, but we should still obey because we know that God has explicitly called us to do so in His Word.
The key word there is explicitly. God’s expectations for us in His Word are explicit and clear. On the other hand, scrupulous vows complicate God’s will in ways He has not required.
To summarize, scrupulous vows will involve at least one of the following:
- Doing what God has not explicitly asked us to do in His Word
- Causing others to suffer
So what do we do with the OCD vows we’ve already made that are hurting or annoying the people around us? Is it a sin to break them?
What If I’ve Already Made a Deal with God?
I can’t tell you whether your vow is appropriate or not. Your experience is unique to you, and your vows will require personal evaluation.
But I want to offer you some hope! If you find that the deals you made were indeed driven by your spiritual OCD—that is, they were motivated by the need to prevent harm, ensure salvation, or reduce anxiety—then you can breathe a sigh of relief! It’s okay to negate those deals with God!
When Psalm 15:4 speaks of those who swear to their own hurt and don’t change, it’s speaking about people who have chosen to keep their vows despite the inconvenience it might cause them. But—and that’s a big but—it’s referring to vows that were based on biblical principles. God will not condemn you for breaking a vow that was built on a shaky foundation to begin with.
Making deals with God is a common symptom of the scrupulous who are attempting to gain control over intrusive thoughts. They make vows with unhealthy motives—to prevent harm, ensure salvation, or reduce anxiety.
But not all vows are wrong.
Your motivation is key in determining whether your vow is scrupulous: Are you making a transactional vow in order to control your anxiety or a relational vow to draw closer to God?
Vows that honor God will be in harmony with the big picture of love toward Him and all mankind.
Even so, we will still uncover some tricky gray areas. Consider a couple of characters who made deals with God: Samson and Jephthah.
Samson’s Nazirite vow was admirable, but he broke it by cutting his hair.
Jephthah made a rash vow that impacted his daughter negatively.
Even so, both men are in the Bible’s hall of faith (Hebrews 11:32)!
It seems that the issue of making deals with God may not be as black and white as we would like it to be.
But here’s what I do know. Scrupulosity’s anxiety is a not a secure place from which to make vows. I encourage you to do whatever you need to do to heal from religious OCD. Until that healing takes place in your life, your vows will continue to stem from a hasty, anxiety-driven desire for control, instead of a relational desire to draw closer to God.
I’m giving you permission to let go of that inappropriate deal you’ve made with God. It’s completely okay! That vow was not from your heart. It came from your OCD.
And even if it really is a vow God wants from you, He is big enough to bring it back around to you and convince you to do it from a healthier place. After all, He knows your heart and who you really are.
So for now—give it up. Say goodbye to making scrupulous deals with God and experience the freedom He longs for you to have!
Drop me a line below — what kinds of deals have you made with God? Were they good ones or scrupulous ones?
Best wishes on the journey!