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|This article is adapted from my book Faith
and Optimism: Positive Expectation in the Christian Life
(formerly The Optimism Factor).
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Is it right to
follow Christ for the sake of personal advantages that result? Or is
this a vain and selfish motive? Is it better to live for him without
any expectation of reward? Which motive is the higher one?
For most Christians the
push-button response is that our commitment to Christ shouldn’t be
based on any hope of personal benefit. “You should serve God for
nothing,” as I once heard it proclaimed in a sermon. Yet this
comes dangerously close to missing the essence of the biblical idea of
Hebrews 11:6 declares,
“Without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who
comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who
earnestly seek him.” The writer states not merely that it’s okay
to desire benefits from following Christ, but necessary if
we’re going to be able to live effectively for him. Faith, as
Scripture understands it, is an outlook which believes that the
rewards of following Christ are greater than those that come from
disregarding his will. Without the expectation of personal benefit,
the motivation to stay faithful to Christ when his will strongly
conflicts with our own simply won’t be there.
his The Unity of the Bible, Daniel P. Fuller explores this
concept of faith, which he notes permeates both the Old and New
Testaments. In a superbly helpful analogy, Fuller compares the
relation between faith and obedience in Scripture to the attitude with
which we follow a doctor’s prescription. We obey a doctor’s orders
not because we’re duty-bound to do so, but because we trust the
doctor’s insights and believe we will be better off by following his
or her advice. This is precisely the motivation that should underlie
our obedience to God.*
Some years ago I had a
terrifying experience. For one traumatic week my 20-20 eyesight
gradually faded, growing dimmer each day, until it was 20-400--I was
almost “legally blind.” By the end of that week I could barely see
to read or drive, and Evie was afraid to be in the car when I was
behind the wheel. I was greatly relieved when an ophthalmologist not
only diagnosed the problem (optic neuritis) but confidently prescribed
a cure--the wonder drug prednisone. I eagerly took the first dose,
then followed the prescribed regimen for several weeks, even though it
meant discipline and the inconvenience of getting up in the night to
take a pill. It was one the greatest joys of my life to watch the
world around me gradually come into focus again.
In this case my obedience
to the doctor sprang from one motive--the belief that I would benefit
from following his counsel. That belief, of course, involved
faith--faith that his prognosis was correct.
I agree with Dan Fuller
that this is how faith and obedience relate in Scripture. God gives us
his diagnosis of our situation and prescribes a remedy. We follow it
with the hope of improving our life. Our obedience flows from faith
that God understands our condition better than we do and that his plan
of action is infinitely better than any we could dream up on our own.
More Than Obligation
This motive differs from
one that is often suggested as a basis for following Christ--that we
have an obligation to do so. It’s said that we should obey
him simply from a sense of duty, without hope of reward.
I don’t deny that
obeying from obligation is better than not obeying at all. Yet somehow
this brings to my mind inmates in a penal institution obeying out of
desperation because they have no other choice. Surely this isn’t the
spirit in which Scripture calls us to “the obedience of faith”
(Rom 1:5, 16:16), any more than I took the prednisone out of
obligation to my doctor. I did so because I believed I would benefit
as a result.
There’s no question that
we have an extraordinary obligation to Christ. But Scripture stresses
that it cannot be fulfilled through compulsion but only through faith.
“Without faith it is impossible to please God.” When my primary
motive for obedience is obligation to God, I lay myself bare to pride
and a “works mentality,” from thinking that I can fulfill my
obligation to God through my own effort.
More Than Gratitude
A more subtle motive for
obeying Christ that is sometimes suggested is gratitude. Because
Christ has done everything for me, I ought to obey him out of
gratefulness for his gift.
Of course we are called to
undying gratitude to Christ. We ought to do everything possible to
increase our thankfulness. But if gratitude is our primary
motive for obedience, we’re in trouble--just as I would have been if
my only reason for taking the medicine were gratitude toward my
physician. While I was extremely grateful for his help, gratitude
would not have inspired me to swallow a single pill.
The young man or woman who
goes off to the mission field purely out of gratitude to Christ, for
instance, runs at least two dangers. One is burnout, when his
gratitude becomes hard to maintain. The other is--again--a works
mentality, as she begins to think that s he is somehow repaying Christ
for what he has done.
My decision to go into
missions--or into any profession--ought to be based on the conviction
that I will be the most fulfilled and fruitful person possible in this
role. If it be feared that this is a self-serving notion which will
keep me from loving others effectively for Christ, I would argue just
the opposite. We do our very best work for Christ when it’s a
reflection of our deepest levels of motivation. We give ourselves to
others much more naturally, joyfully and creatively than when we’re
laboring purely from a sense of duty or gratitude.
when those who are motivated and gifted for a vocation settle for
another option which, say, seems less risky or more financially
rewarding, the problem isn’t that they are too concerned with their
own happiness but not concerned enough. They settle for a
measure of fulfillment that’s less than what God holds forth for
them. C. S. Lewis argues this point forcefully in his essay “The
Weight of Glory”:
Indeed, if we consider the
unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards
promised in the Gospels, it would seem that our Lord finds our
desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are halfhearted creatures .
. . like an ignorant child, who wants to go on making mud pies in a
slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday
at sea. We are far too easily pleased.*
Don’t Settle for Reduced Benefits
Our lack of confidence in the benefits of staying faithful to Christ is
the problem behind most moral failure in the Christian life. The
Christian man who believes as a matter of moral principle that he
shouldn’t cheat on his wife will obey that standard and tout it
proudly as long as it’s convenient to do so. Yet when an alluring
opportunity comes along, to everyone’s surprise he may give in.
While he winces at renouncing the code he has held so highly, he is
drawn by a higher motive--that of gaining happiness. Scripture teaches
that he’ll be happier staying faithful. Only if he believes in the
depth of his heart that Scripture is right will he find the strength
of will to turn his back on this immediate enticement.
Again, modern moralistic Christianity too often preaches the requirements of the Christian life without adequately stressing the rewards of obedience. It’s little wonder that we see so much moral failure in the body of Christ today.
God has put within each of us the instinct for happiness. The desire to
be happy is a God-given motive, inseparable from the will to live.
Only as I come to believe that Christ’s path for my life is
infinitely better than any substitute will I have the sustained
motivation to follow in his steps. The ultimate human problem is not
disobedience but unbelief.
From this angle it becomes so important to continue doing those things
that rekindle my enthusiasm for following Christ and for enjoying the
benefits that come from obeying him. My devotional time, fellowship
with other believers and regular worship experiences are so
essential--not for “appeasing God” (another misplaced motive we
could talk about) but because they help keep faith alive.
greatest demonstration of this faith which looks to the reward is that
of Jesus himself, “who for the joy that was set before him endured
the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the
throne of God” (Heb 12:2). He couldn’t see or feel that joy in
those dark days when he steadfastly moved toward the cross. It was
faith. Let us be inspired by his example.
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Copyright 2012 M.
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