I’m on a diet. Oops. I’m not on a diet. I’m on a lifestyle change. This has led me to become acquainted with any number of new friends on my plate. I had, until now, heard of vegetables, but had never met any — or at least not any I’d like to invite over for dinner. The more surprising guest at my table, however, has been guilt. Before I went on this lifestyle change, I ate what I wanted. I knew I wasn’t as healthy as I would like to be, but I also took the view that whatever changes needed to be made wouldn’t be made on what I eat. I love food like some people love their pets.
My lifestyle change has changed my lifestyle. Now I have to find foods I like that won’t cause me to overspend my “points.” A nice bowl of ice cream or a hot plate of French fries is the equivalent of blowing the paycheck at the racetrack. When I eat well, I enjoy better-fitting clothes, compliments on my slimmer self, more energy, better sleep, and, best of all, I please my dear wife and children, who love me and want me to be around for decades to come. When I eat poorly, I lose all those benefits and gain both pounds and guilt.
What, then, is the proper motive? Some gurus remind us that we cannot change until we want the change for ourselves. Others encourage a kind of pragmatic calculus, saying that what drives us is net gains in the things we want and net losses in the things we don’t want. Still others encourage us to look outside ourselves, to do well for the sake of those whom we love.
God, from a certain perspective, isn’t terribly particular with respect to our motives. Inside the church there are those who argue that the right and heroic thing to do is the right and heroic thing because it is right and heroic. Spiritual maturity is measured on the Stoic scale. Others suggest that our driving goal must be simply — and alone — to please God. Still others, crasser still, take the view that we should do right in order to do well, that good things happen to those who do good. The thing is that the Bible presents all three motives before us.
Consider Moses’ parting sermon. Deuteronomy ends less with a long catalog of the grace of God in the lives of His people and more with a series of promised blessings and cursings. Moses, speaking the very words of God, is impenitently and flamboyantly crass — obey God and He will bless you in the city. He will bless you in the country. He’ll bless you when you are young and when you are old. He will, if you obey, bless your flocks, your household, your kneading bowl, and your wok. Your goldfish will have baby goldfish that all make the honor roll. Disobey God, on the other hand, and there is no end to how badly things will go. Your cell phone won’t work when your car breaks down in the middle of the traffic jam on your way to see that important client who holds your company’s future in his angry hands.
Jesus, on the other hand, from time to time seems to pick up on the Stoic theme. He reminds us that those who follow after Him must be prepared to pick up the cross. We have to consider the cost. We must deny ourselves. Later on, however, He reminds us that He came to give life abundant, that He is the Good Shepherd. As for His example, Jesus seemed driven by, more than anything else, a desire to delight His Father. He glorified the Father who was glorified in Him.
Is it possible that all these motives have their place? When Jesus commanded that we seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, He told us more which direction to go and less what fuel to use to get there. That said, one motive should have no place with us — guilt. As we seek to grow in our obedience to His law, we must always do so mindful that we fail, mindful that Jesus alone succeeded, and mindful that He succeeded for us. God is through being angry with you. His wrath is gone forever, as far from you as the east is from the west. Fearing His anger, then, won’t be much of a goad toward the good.
Indeed, seeking to keep God’s law in order to keep at bay His wrath is evidence that we are indeed under the law and under His wrath. It is seeking the kingdom of God and our righteousness. Those foolish enough to go this way will spend eternity weeping and gnashing their teeth. Using God’s law to escape His wrath is like using His grace to escape His law — foolish, destructive, and counter-productive. This is how the Gentiles live.
Trust in Him because He commands it and, as Lord of heaven and earth, He is due our fealty and allegiance. Trust in Him because He delights when you do so. Even the angels in heaven rejoice. Trust in Him because at His right hand are pleasures forevermore. Trust in Him because He is altogether trustworthy. And all these things will be added unto you.