In recent weeks I have been posing this question to my Sunday morning ladies Bible class: Are you more afraid of being punished by God or of losing your relationship with God? It is a rhetorical question, very personal in its nature because the answer to it reveals the state of one’s relationship with God. If my fear of being punished by God is my reason for seeking Him, then I see God more as a judge than any other role He may play in my life. I can be a faithful follower of Christ and have this view of the God of the universe. I submit, though, that if this is my primary motivation for following Christ, then my motivation is incomplete, and I am at serious risk of losing my relationship with God and the reward of heaven.
“It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” Hebrews 10:31
I started as a young Christian with this avoidance motivation. I remember well the ‘fire and brimstone’ preachers I heard as a kid in church. They were successful in putting the fear of God in me. I wanted no part of hell or God’s wrath. This inspiration is still a part of my faith basis. Living with fear as my primary motivation for following Christ became very cumbersome, though. If all I am doing is avoiding the bad, when life gets hard, my faith falls apart. If I am already living some really bad scenarios, how much worse can hell be? I have my own personal hell on earth. Why should I follow a God who does not protect me from evil and brokenness and heartache here and now?
Looking through history I see a lot of bad stuff happening to Christians. They were fed to lions and other carnivores, cruelly crucified, beheaded, drawn and quartered (look it up if you don’t know what that is) and burned alive, among many other horrifying methods of torture and execution, for remaining faithful to Jesus, for refusing to renounce His name, for refusing to worship any other god than the one true God. Even today, in some parts of the world, Christians are tortured, maimed and killed only because they wear the name of Christ. In modern, civilized society, Christians are demeaned, ridiculed, even caricatured by the loftiest in government. Being a Christian puts a target on my back, and it is really hard to imagine a hell worse than one Christians already endure among their fellow humans. Why would I remain loyal to Christ in the face of such discomfort and even horror? And yet, multitudes of Christians remain faithful, even in the face of wretched torture and death.
” ‘The one on whom seed was sown on the rocky places, this is the man who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet when he has no firm root in himself, but is only temporary, and when affliction or persecution arises because of the word, immediately he falls away.’ ” Matthew 13:20, 21
It seems faithfulness requires more than just the fear of God’s punishment to keep me rooted and grounded in Christ. Faith in Jesus must be deeply rooted in something that endures, that withstands the twists and turns of a broken world. It must be rooted in a heart that is soft and vulnerable and secure, a heart that knows it is deeply loved. Love survives this world into the next. It is the bridge that spans the divide between the carnal and spiritual.
“But now faith, hope, love, abide these three; but the greatest of these is love.” 1 Corinthians 13:13
In addition to learning about God’s wrath while growing up in church, I learned about God’s love. I do not know if it was my child mind or how it was taught to me, but God’s love seemed like a sentiment, a nice feeling I was told was important. It did not occur to me until later in life that God’s love was something I could sink my teeth into or grab like a life preserver. So God became my rescuer, the ever present Savior of my soul and my life on earth. This concept evolved into God being my supreme Bless-er, the One who gives good gifts to His children. None of these ideas is in error, but they are an incomplete picture of God on their own.
“Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow.” James 1:17
God indeed is the One who blesses, saves, disciplines and judges. God does all of these things because He loves me, hook, line and sinker. Doubtlessly, persistently, relentlessly, passionately. He desires a positive, healthy, fully functioning relationship with me. One that is mutual. A relationship He makes possible. A relationship He wants me to desire with all of my being.
Matt Hammitt, in his song “Without You”, includes this line: “I don’t want to love You for a blessing / I just want to know who You are / ‘Cause You could never give me something better / Than Your light in my heart.” This line convicts me. Do I want to know God for His blessings? Or, do I want to know who He is? Do I value His light in my life more than anything else He gives me? Do I cherish the light He has put in my heart so much that the idea of being without His light, without Him, is terrifying to me?
” ‘For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.’ ” John 3:16
The most profound gift ever given is God’s gift of His Son for the redemption of man. Do I want to know why He would do such a thing? John tells us it is because of the love He has for each and every one of us. What kind of love would sacrifice itself to save a worthless and selfish human like me, much less multiple generations of an entire planet of them?
God’s gifts in my life are many and varied and personal to me. Do I value the love and thought put into each one? Do I crave to be close to the heart that spends so much time and thought and energy on me to keep me safe in His arms for eternity? The best gifts given to me by another human being were from my husband when it was obvious he had spent time and thought to give me something I would value. I rarely remember the things he gave me, but I will forever remember the effort he put into selecting them. With those thoughtful gifts, he spoke to my heart, made me feel important and loved. Am I so intimately joined to God that His thoughtful, careful gifts to me speak love to my heart? Do I value knowing Him more than I value anything else?
” ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.’ ” Deuteronomy 6:5
All Bible quotes are from Zondervan’s Classic Reference Bible, New American Standard Bible–Updated Edition copyright 1999 by Zondervan
NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE, copyright 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by the Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.