Ask a thoroughly secular person to explain the behavior of committed Christians and you may hear one of these answers: “They’re scared of hellfire, afraid of getting God mad at them.” “Religion is a crutch—they rely on rules because they can’t figure out things on their own.” “It’s peer pressure — they get together and reinforce each other’s beliefs.” Although any of these judgments may have some basis in reality, they do not reflect the motivations for behavior described in the Bible.
Attaining the Pearl
Jesus told of a merchant who found one pearl so incomparable that he sold everything he owned to buy it. The joy and what he gained swallowed up any remorse in what he lost. That is the image of the Christian life; not a grim-faced regimen of self-discipline but an exuberant new life easily worth whatever sacrifice may be required.
Attaining that life may take time and practice of course. I play scales on the piano only because of what they will enable me to play. The reward comes after the practicing and will not come without the practicing. To quote C.S. Lewis, “we act from duty in the hope that someday we shall do the same acts freely and delightfully.”
The Growth of Mahatma Gandhi’s Grandson
Why should we be good? Why bother with all the commands in the New Testament? Let me give you an illustration of the motivation which strongly parallels Jesus’ teachings in the New Testament.
Arun Gandhi, the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, spent his teenage years in South Africa, where his father helped lead the campaign for civil rights started by his grandfather Mahatma years before. Shortly after Arun had learned to drive, his father asked if he would drive him downtown to a lawyer’s office for a strategy meeting, then take the car in for repair. “You can do anything you want as long as you pick me up at 6:00 PM sharp,” he said. Like any teenager with a new license, Arun jumped at the chance to drive into the big city.
After dropping off the car at a garage, Arun went to a movie theater. The first picture, the western from America, proved so entertaining that he sat through the double feature, losing all track of time. When he walked out into fading twilight he panicked, wondering if the garage had now closed. He dashed there, found the shop still open, and retrieved the car. Skidding to a halt in front of the lawyer’s office at 6:30, he found his father waiting by the curb.
Aware of how his father valued punctuality, Arun spun a story about problems the garage had encountered while repairing the car. “We are lucky they finished it,” he said. “I had to wait almost an hour, which is why I’m late period”
Arun’s father, though, had called the garage at 5:00 o’clock to check on progress and learn then the car was ready. When they got beyond the city limits, he asked Arun to pull to the side of the road. He explained that he had called the garage and that he knew Arun was lying. “I am deeply troubled,” he said. “what would cause my son to lie to me? How have I failed as a father that my son would not trust me with the truth? I will reflect on this.”
The father walked the rest of the way home, asking Arun to drive behind him so that the cars headlights could illuminate the lightly traveled country roads. Because they lived some distance from the city, it took six hours for him to walk, his head down, deep in thought. Arun drove at a snail’s pace behind his father the entire way.
When I heard Arun story I wondered if he might use it as an example of a “guilt trip,” a manipulative way for a father to make his son wallow in regret. He did not see it that way at all. Even in his teens he respected his father as a great leader who modeled integrity and justice. When his father said he must reflect on how he had failed as a father, he meant it sincerely, and Arun was stricken to the core. More than anything else, he wanted to please his father and to emulate him; the lie pointed out how far he had to grow. “After that,” said Arun, “I never told another lie.”
Developing the New Identity
To please someone you respect, love and feel gratitude towards is motive for obedience, and can be applied to a relationship with God. We love others, says the apostle John, because God first loved us. We please him as a lover pleases their beloved, not out of compulsion but because they wish to.
Think about it: can anyone fulfill the greatest commandment — to love God — from fear of punishment? Love can never be forced. It flows out of fullness, not fear. Jesus laid out the next step, “if anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching.”
Reading the New Testament, I am struck by how consistently the authors appeal to our new identity as a motive for good behavior. As a temple of the living God, what business have we rooting around in what we know God disapproves of? Henri Nouwen calls this new identity “the inner voice of love,” an indwelling reminder that frees us to act as God’s beloved, beyond the reach of human praise or blame. Goodness or “holiness,” is not some egregious new routine that we lace around ourselves like a hair shirt. It is the outworking of an inner transformation, the gradual but sure response of a person in whom God lives.
C.S. Lewis said “I think all Christians would agree with me if I said that though Christianity seems at first to be all about morality, all about duties and rules and guilt and virtue, yet it leads you on, out of all that, into something beyond. One has a glimpse of a country where they do not talk about those things, except perhaps as a joke. Everyone there is filled full with what we should call goodness just as a mirror is filled with light. But they do not call it goodness. They do not call it anything. They are not thinking of it. They are too busy looking at the source from which it comes.”
“On earth we are wayfarers, always on the go,” said Augustine. “This means that we have to keep on moving forward. Therefore, be always unhappy about where you are if you want to reach where you are not. If you are pleased with what you are, you have stopped already. If you say, ‘It is enough,’ you are lost. Keep on walking, moving forward, trying for the goal.” A mature Christian need not act from a sense of duty but a sense of desire, for the very action that pleases God pleases self as well.
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“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field. (Matthew 13:44)
Reaching for the Invisible God by Philip Yancey