As Janice and I drive down Shell Road near our home in Georgetown, Texas, we routinely pass businesses with their attendant advertising signs. Although I tend to ignore them, there is one sign I just cannot disregard. Five minutes from my house, just before we intersect with a major highway, we pass an equipment rental agency with the intriguing name of Almighty Rentals.
I wish I knew more about the name. Surely the back story regarding the name’s etymology would be enlightening. I have many questions: What prompted this name? Does it have theological significance, as in “the Lord Almighty” or is it, in the best colloquial English use of the term, only meant to mean “enormous, massive, immense, colossal or terrific”? Are the potential customers promised to lease the Almighty or is it the Almighty who is doing the renting? Is the Almighty the leaser or the one from whom one leases?
I may never know what these business owners had in mind, and I trust that what I am about to say does not apply to their particular business. But today, I am thinking about the theological sense in which that phrase may be reflective of our current scene. I want to lift those words out of their original context and business usage because I sense that, in the minds of some, God is for rent in our day.
I want to think with you about the often-self-appointed handlers of the divine or the heavenly admen/women who audaciously take the name of God and apply it to their campaigns or pitches.
These days, it seems a few politicians or salespersons are tempted, without resistance, to imply or infer that God is behind their goals and objectives. From the beginning, movements of all kinds have borrowed or rented the symbols and language of religion to buttress their endeavors. The sociologists who study this phenomenon use the phrase “civil religion” to describe it. And ours is a day in which this type of religion is everywhere.
From “family values” all the way to “American imperialism” and Christian nationalism, many have tried to borrow the divine and “heavenly” concepts to suggest that what they are pushing is what the Almighty is, or once was, pushing.
Political parties wine and dine preachers and cleverly design their promotions to entice and capture them and other publicly devout spokespersons. These manipulators are pleased when this strategy easily pays off. The sad reality is that religious leaders have become “easy marks” for those implementing the God-renting strategy.
“When you rent God, it is very much like when you rent a tuxedo for the prom; you do not take on the responsibility for the care and upkeep of the tuxedo; you just wear it for the big dance, looking like someone you are not, and then return it to the renter, stained and dirty.”
Conveniently, it is not necessary for God to invade the total operations of these campaigns, as in becoming their Lord and Master. When you rent God, it is very much like when you rent a tuxedo for the prom; you do not take on the responsibility for the care and upkeep of the tuxedo; you just wear it for the big dance, looking like someone you are not, and then return it to the renter, stained and dirty. Reminiscent of the Garden of Eden, God’s words become a fig-leaf, just like that tuxedo, which are used to cover one’s nakedness and used for an “effect,” but not genuinely owned.
Those who easily and flippantly, yet intentionally, attribute their goals to God’s intentions rarely, if ever, seem actually to pray, at least publicly; neither do they attend the worship of God regularly, study to become familiar with God’s expectations, confess their short-comings, or engage in the “down and dirty” work of ministry in God’s name. When any of these actual manifestations of religiosity are present in their campaigns, it is only because they can be directly tied to the advancement of the movement’s causes, to which the rented name and symbols of God have been attributed.
When God is rented, selective memory is always utilized. Only a few of God’s words are remembered, while others are ignored or banished from the public relations advertisements. Those who want the Ten Commandments worshipped and placed on the courtroom walls, for instance, do not also seek the same for Jesus’ Beatitudes, because these difficult words are not in their rental agreement.
Knowing that religion can be as useful to divide as well as to unite, the rented and manipulated purposes of God for partisan causes always portray an “us” versus “them” approach. Those who disagree are easily demonized and cast out, rather than used to illustrate for the devout the cardinal teachings of most religions, which celebrate diversity and inclusion.
“Those who want the Ten Commandments worshipped and placed on the courtroom walls, for instance, do not also seek the same for Jesus’ Beatitudes, because these difficult words are not in their rental agreement.”
It would behoove us all to inquire regarding the actual lifestyles of those who use God as an ally in their partisan promotions. When we see leaders using religious terms, symbols or ideas, check to see to what extent these are profoundly present in the person’s life before, behind and after the campaign. The Baptist president Jimmy Carter comes to mind.
Let’s remember this: In what many take to be the most complete form of religion, revealed through Jesus Christ, a person gives up himself or herself and all self-centeredness on behalf of God. God is the Creator, Redeemer, Owner, not the renter or the one being borrowed.
If in Jesus we have freely received the grace of God, because God has freely given God’s own self for us, we ought also to give ourselves back, become servants of God and not renters.
When Jesus came across a wealthy and powerful young man (Matthew 19:16–29), he let him know that Jesus was not for sale. Indeed, he challenged the man to sell all his possessions, give the proceeds to the poor and follow after him. Sadly, because the rich young ruler was more interested in gaining than giving, after that intersection with Jesus, we never hear any more of him.
Following Jesus is a challenge, of course. But I would rather be in bondage to God’s purposes than try to rent the Almighty for those of my own.
Bob Newell has served as a university professor and administrator, a local church pastor and a cross-cultural missionary. He and his wife, Janice, now live in Georgetown, Texas, and he serves churches as transition coach and intentional interim pastor. They were the founders and remain advocates of PORTA, the Albania House in Athens, Greece.
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