Imagine five identical homes lining a suburban street. Out front, five young sons each mow their fathers’ lawns. Outwardly they seem similar. But if we could look into the heart of each young man, and listen to his subsequent interactions with his father, we would discover meaningful differences.
The first son mows his father’s lawn because he has done something wrong, and is trying to get on his father’s good side before his crime is discovered. The second mows because his mean and overbearing father will beat him terribly if he comes home and the grass is long. The third mows because he wants to go to the movies, and needs his allowance right away. The fourth mows because the neighbors would think him a lousy son if he didn’t help in the yard. The fifth, a little older than the others, is beginning to raise his own family, but comes over once a week to mow purely out of a sense of grateful love.
Do you see yourself in any of those scenarios? I see myself in all of them! Thus, it’s no surprise to learn that these are the same reasons why people are motivated to obey God. Each has a positive element, at least in limited and temporary circumstances, though one is far-and-away superior.
Sometimes, a sense of guilt or shame motivates people to serve God. If you’ve done something wrong, godly shame is the first positive step in the process of repentance. Paul didn’t want to confront the Corinthians with their sins, but in hindsight, he was glad that he did, “for the sorrow that is according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation” (2 Cor. 7:8-10).
Shame and guilt need to become rare things. Through the blood of Jesus Christ, shame and guilt are washed away, and we are able to address God as our Father. No gift from our hand can make up for our sin (Ps. 51:16-17), and all such attempts are suspicious. We need to stop sinning, so that shame no longer overshadows our relationship with God.
Sometimes, a sense of fear motivates people to serve God. Now, I know that certain passages teach that Christians should have confidence in their relationship with God and no longer quiver knock-kneed in His sight.
But fear should never be totally absent from the heart of a Christian. God is our Father, and our Friend, but He is not our buddy. I will never become so intimate with God and so indispensable to His kingdom that I can flippantly sin. “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12). God is not capricious, but He is true to His standards, and that means there will be times when “you may not do the things that you please” (Gal. 5:16-17). Godly fear helps me make the right decision in those moments. God is not mocked, and God will punish (1 Thess. 4:3-6, Gal. 6:7-8, Acts 5:11)! We should be reverently afraid that we could spend an eternity in Hell (Matt. 10:28, Heb. 10:26-31).
We have a tendency to want to impress whomever is buttering our bread. That’s no way to serve God. We can never indebt Him to our account anyway.
Then again, God Himself holds forth the promise of a reward at the end of a faithful life. “He who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him” (Heb. 11:6). Abraham is among the many who “desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (11:16). Since the alternative to Heaven is unspeakably bad, it’s right and faithful to declare, “God, I want a mansion!” Be assured that “your toil is not in vain in the Lord” (1 Cor. 15:58).
Some mornings, I wake up excited to come to worship. Others, I would rather stay in bed, or go have fun. I need a little extra motivation from a sense of duty. I go because I ought to, because I’m supposed to, because others will expect me to show up.
I don’t want all of my actions to be based on duty. That’s the language of begrudging, grumbling, foot-dragging, reluctant obedience. But a sense of duty is what causes soldiers to risk their lives in combat, and spouses to stay true in difficult seasons. It’s not the ultimate motivation, but it will suffice from time to time. “When you do all the things which are commanded you, say, ‘We are unworthy slaves; we have done only that which we ought to have done’” (Luke 17:10).
Loving God and loving others are the greatest commandments (Matt. 22:37-38). We tend to use the word “love” flippantly; it can mean anything from loving God to loving pizza. Godly love is defined as “unselfish good will.” It is a verb shown by action, not an emotion shown by infatuation. It has nothing to do with the lovability of others. It is the love demonstrated by Jesus during His ministry, and most of all, upon the cross. He always had others’ best interests in mind, even when they didn’t appreciate it.
Love is the highest motivation, the one I should always strive for, the only one that will sustain my good works and my relationship with God. Duty, fear, guilt, and the hope of reward each have their place; but only pure love for Jesus Christ will prevail every time. One motivated only by duty will eventually give up. One motivated only by the hope of reward is selfish. One motivated only by fear or guilt will soon rebel. But one motivated by love will do the best thing all the time. Thankful love will allow us to endure all things, to bear all burdens, to engage in all labors, and to be joyful all the while. In fact, only love truly profits in the end (1 Cor. 13:1-3). –John Guzzetta