Why should you do the right thing? Have you ever stopped to think about it?
Even if you aren’t a practicing Christian, the vast majority of us will have a fairly similar moral compass – we know WHAT we ought not to do, even if we’re a bit hazy on the why. We know that we shouldn’t steal, murder, rape, cheat, bad mouth, abuse, use drugs – generally speaking. And we should be kind to others, forgive, be generous and trustworthy. And generally these are pretty easy things to follow, right?
Easier said than done
But what about when you really want to do something that you know you shouldn’t… what about when your relationship with your partner isn’t the best, and a very understanding, very gorgeous, very flirtatious old friend comes back into your life – and almost everything inside you wants to give in to this temptation? Or when your boss is an absolute tool, and you have the opportunity to take advantage of the system and fake being sick for a week – as fair compensation. Or some idiot cuts you off in traffic, and makes you lose your calm and abuse him. Or your mum loses her cool and starts an argument with you, so you dredge up every nasty thing you can imagine in order to win. It’s incredibly difficult to really want to do anything else at these times. So the question is, how do we motivate good behaviour?
Guilty as charged
We all use guilt and fear to try and control behaviour, it’s the easiest course to follow. Parents tell their kids that if they do that one more time, they’ll be grounded for a month. Sisters tell their brothers that if they don’t do what they said, they’ll cry and run to mum. And pastors (who should know better) are not exempt either. Here are SOME of the examples I’ve read and heard in my travels: “If you don’t give your tithe to the church, you and your finances will be under a curse” – is trying to get people to move beyond their selfishness and become generous. This is a good thing – but the motivation here is fear. Or, “If you sleep with your girlfriend before getting married – when you do get married, you will struggle and likely end up divorced” is said to help people withstand the temptation of dating in a modern world, and yet living a life consecrated to God. The fact that guilt is the main motivation, is irrelevant to most leaders. And finally, “If you don’t believe in Jesus, you’ll die and go to hell” – is an old one that is still popular in the “Heaven’s gates, Hell’s flames” presentations, and fire and brimstone preaching.
Law and Order
I’m not saying that the ‘fear of consequences’ is something that we should ignore or is somehow bad. God has given us the law, and grace, and they are both good gifts. Paul says in Romans, “What shall we say, then? Is the law sinful? Certainly not! Nevertheless, I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law.” (Romans 7:7) It’s a good thing that I think twice before treating the freeway like a race car track – as adrenaline filled as it would be. The knowledge that I might have to pay a speeding fine, or lose my license, or be pulled over, provides an added reason for me to think about my actions. As with the boy who becomes angry and picks up a stick to hit his sister – the probability that his sister will run crying to his parents and the discipline that follows – is an encouragement to do the right thing. It’s the fear of the law of gravity that stops me from running along the edge of a precipice. Paul writes that “through the law we become conscious of our sin.” (Romans 3:20b). The Law was given to us to reveal the sin that lives inside of us. Tell us to not do something, and we can’t shake the impulse to do the exact opposite. This impulse is sin at work in us. The law is good. And it has a purpose. It’s like a jackhammer – breaking up the surface to reveal what’s underneath. Unfortunately, we just love trying our hand at jackhammer heart surgery.
The law can’t change hearts. It was never designed to do so. Only the gospel can do that.
When we use fear to try and elicit change in behaviour, we end up counterfeiting what the true gospel does. Maybe we use guilt because we “don’t know that God’s kindness(goodness) is meant to lead us to repentance?” (Romans 2:4).
The Gospel of Grace
It’s “in view of God’s mercy…” that we should live our lives in a different way, says Paul later in Romans. And here is the point: LOVE is our new motivation to change how we live. “In view of God’s mercy, offer yourselves as living sacrifices, as a spiritual act of worship” (Romans 12:1) is the full passage. Worship is about love overflowing into action. It’s a melody so beautiful that we can’t help but dance to. We make choices to deny any desires we have that are bad ones – because we have a greater desire. Our hearts are moved with the beauty of God’s love for us. We see how sinful we really are, but then see how awful (in the original sense of the word) God’s love for us is. We see what it cost him to love us – and our hearts are changed, we no longer have to be manipulated into doing the right thing. We want to. And when we stop wanting to do the right thing – we have the common grace of the law, the safety net of mere ‘consequences for our actions’ to keep us from tearing each other apart. But when we’ve forgotten the sweet melody of grace, we’ve forgotten the words, and can’t seem to remember the tune, and all we can think of is guilt – the only solution is to play the song from the beginning. To remind ourselves of how deep the father’s love is; to wonder, ‘how could it be that I should gain from our saviour’s death?’ and that I the most undeserving sinner should be given such breathtaking love as this… We go back to the gospel of Grace, for we so easily forget. So why should we do the right thing? The gospel gives the highest answer. It’s because of love.
Photo: Gabe Austin