My husband and I are trying to get our kids to consistently do their chores. We've tried threats and rewards but worry that our extrinsic motivators are holding our kids back from learning to obey simply because it's the right thing to do. "Gee," we long to hear them say, "my folks love me and know what's best for me, so I better pick up that broom and chip in."
Our struggle with our kids got us thinking about God's struggle with us. Surely he wants us to do the right things for the right reasons. As his people, do we behave "Christianly" because of extrinsic or intrinsic factors? As his church, what are our ideas about moral development?
I once spoke at a family camp of believers and nonbelievers who had been meeting for years. One morning, a seminary graduate shared his story with the group. David had weathered a crisis of faith when his father—a sternly religious man and prominent church leader—had been exposed in chronic sexual sin. David said that healing had come slowly and that, looking back, he realized the Christianity of his upbringing had overemphasized "morality" in place of "relationship."
It sounded to me like David's dad might have benefited from a little more emphasis on morality. And I worried that David's take was not what the group needed to hear; two affairs had fractured their community in recent years. To me, it seemed they were suffering from too much relationship and too little morality.
I remember my reaction now with chagrin. I've since seen individuals and church communities with a robust focus on morality fall countless times. I get David's point: An emphasis on holy living without a genuine, life-changing relationship with a holy God can lead to rigid legalism on the one hand or secret sin on the other—and often it leads to both.
I also know Christians who emphasize relationship—and God's un-earnable, inexhaustible love—yet who have catastrophic moral falls. Such failings do not disqualify us for God's forgiveness, but they often have shattering consequences.
So what works? When it comes to shaping character and behavior, is it better to focus on God's law or his grace?
Psalm 119 is a love song to God's law, which seems odd. My friend Steve Bell says he never understood such passion for a moral code until he thought about children playing near the edge of a cliff. Without a fence, the children are always in danger, never able to relax. But if a barrier is installed, they can play freely and without fear. God's law is God's grace. It's a safety fence that brings incredible freedom.
Of course, it's only a matter of time until a kid starts to wonder what's on the other side of the fence. If she doesn't know or trust the fence builder, she might suspect that the barrier is holding her back from bigger fun. So she hops the fence, a lemming for false liberty. Humanity has an extensive track record on this front.
Fortunately, there's more to the story. God's law is not only a safety fence; it's also a mirror that shows us we can't live up to his standards without his help. Jesus comes not to abolish the law but to finally fulfill it. Yet many of us keep hopping the fence. Why? Partly because we still don't really know and trust the fence builder.
God doesn't expect morality in the absence of relationship. The first line of the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20) is not, "You shall have no other gods before me," but, "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery." God defines the relationship first, then describes a life lived in its context.
Psychologists warn that extrinsic motivators for morality erode intrinsic ones. When our preachers thunder warnings about living right to avoid God's wrath or earn his favor, we run the risk of drowning out that still, small voice that beckons us to live out the holiness given us solely by our Father's grace.
Conversely, when the message is that our behavior doesn't matter, that God's grace is unmerited and therefore morality is not a major issue, we seem not to know our Father at all.
In the end, it isn't morality versus relationship. It's morality because of relationship. "Grow up," Jesus says in his most famous sermon. "You're kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you" (Matt. 5:48, The Message).
If we know our Father loves us, and we love him, we'll trust whatever he asks of us. We won't need the threats and rewards that can skew real faith toward pharisaism. We'll just pick up our brooms and chip in.
Copyright © 2010 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
More Christianity Today columns by Carolyn Arends are available on our site, including:
Allow for Space in the Music | Acknowledging the mystery of pain. (April 12, 2010)
Strength in Meekness | What to do with the anger that saps strength. (February 15, 2010)
Our Divine Distortion | We can't see God clearly without Jesus. O come, Emmanuel. (December 18, 2009)
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