September 14, 2008

St. Catherine’s Monastery and Mt. Sinai: Live in Gratitude
Exodus 20:1-2

Like many other college students, I got sick during the last semester of my senior year. The symptoms of my illness were readily detectable: inability to concentrate, diminishing interest in all academic pursuits, deer-in-the headlight expressions during class time, and an obsession with outdoor leisure activities. I somehow always thought that I was immune from such a disease, but there I was, fully infected. I had Senioritis, otherwise known in medical circles as Lackus Motivationes.

Lackus Motivationes can be quite a debilitating sickness, to say the least. Infected people are either unable to motivate themselves to do whatever they need to do, or they do what they need to do for the wrong reasons. In my case, I simply stopped working at the level I that I was accustomed to working at. Even a “B” on a notebook in one of Al Long’s classes did not phase me. Other students somehow mustered the motivation to carry on as usual, but for questionable reasons. Some gutted it out in order to avoid embarrassment or ridicule. Others carried on in hopes of securing some special gift that their parents had promised if they only managed to keep their grades up. Such students forged ahead with their assignments, but they did so begrudgingly.

Have you ever suffered from Lackus Motivationes? Perhaps you are now! You’re either unmotivated to do what you know you should do, or you find yourself doing it for the wrong reasons. Lackus Motivationes, after all, springs up everywhere—in school, at work, at home. Why, this dreaded disease even eats away at our spiritual lives a good bit of the time if we’re not careful. We either lose interest in serving God, or we try to do what he asks, but for all of the wrong reasons. If that is where we find ourselves, how can we get back on track?

There is a place deep in the desert of the Sinai Peninsula that calls out to those of us whose spirits suffer from Lackus Motivationes. St. Catherine’s Monastery was built way back in the 6th century, making it one of the oldest Christian monasteries in the entire world. Nestled at the foot of what many Christians have for centuries believed to be Mt. Sinai, the place where God first invited the Israelites into a covenant relationship with himself following their escape from Egypt, St. Catherine’s reminds us of this life-changing truth that will put a motivational bounce back into the feet of everyone who follows Jesus: we were slaves, but God set us free. What should motivate us to serve the Lord? Gratitude.

But first, the faulty motives that often plague us and cloud our thinking. Two immediately come to mind: the desire for rewards and the fear of punishment. Sometimes, first of all, we may find ourselves serving the Lord because we long for the benefits that such service may bring. In its most blatant form, we serve God in hopes of being successful, rich or healthy. In its more temperate forms, we serve the Lord because he will help us through the various struggles and difficulties that life inevitably brings. We serve God, in short, because of what we hope he will do for us.

Such thinking, of course, has a certain ring of truth to it, doesn’t it? It is, at least in part, biblical. But it is also wrought with problems. For one thing, it fails to appreciate what the Bible generally means by “success.” When the Bible speaks of God making his people successful, it typically refers to effectiveness in their God-given calling, not to material wealth or perfect health. In Joshua’s case, for example, God promised to be with him and to make him successful as he led the Israelites into the Promised Land. God assured Joshua, in other words, that he would be an effective leader. In the same way, God promises us that he will enable us to do whatever he calls us to do. Success in the Bible is not so much about large bank accounts and prestigious positions as it is the ability to carry a God-given task through to completion.

And for another thing, such a perspective fails to appreciate the developmental importance of rewards that appears even in the Bible. Virtually every psychologist, teacher and parent recognizes that rewards can help bring about certain desired behaviors. God understands this, too, so he sometimes uses rewards to motivate his followers to act and think in certain ways. At some point, however, he hopes that the rewards will no longer be necessary.

Think of it this way. When Deb and I were first trying to teach some of our children that diapers were intended to be a temporary part of their apparel, we discovered that grapes helped reinforce the point. As a result, we kept the hydrator in our refrigerator full of them. Our kids would try hard to keep their diapers dry so that they could have a few grapes. But just as the diapers were temporary, so were the grapes! Now, they go to the bathroom because it is the thing to do, not to earn a grape or two.

God deals with his people in much the same way. God, for example, promised to give land and descendants to Abraham if he only obeyed him. God then did precisely that, but did you ever stop to think that Abraham was soon willing to give back the very blessings that God had given to him? He offered the best of the land to Lot, and he was likewise prepared to offer his son, Isaac. Clearly, something was more important to Abraham than simple rewards.

On a larger scale, we see very much the same principle operating throughout the Bible as a whole. In the Old Testament, where very little is said about life after death and the world to come, God dangles bushels of grapes. “If you obey me,” God promised Abraham, “I will give you land to give to your descendants.” He similarly promised to bless the Israelites with bursting barns and overflowing vats if they, like Abraham, obeyed him. Again and again in the Old Testament, God’s blessings are couched in earthly terms. This world is the world that the Israelites inhabited and thought about.

In the New Testament, however, where we find a far more developed understanding of eternal life and heaven, much of that changes. Now, although Jesus continues to speak about rewards, he increasingly pushes them off into the future. “I am going to prepare a place for you,” he suggests, “and I will one day come again and take you there.” Similarly, “None of you has given up anything in this world that will not be given back to you, and then some, in the life to come.” In the eyes of Jesus, this present world has more to do with obedience than it does with grapes. As Mildred Wynkoop phrases it, “When I cry and pray for a little heaven in which to go to heaven in, He (Christ) shows me the hell in which other people live. It isn’t time for heaven, yet.”

Let me be clear, here. God loves to give good gifts to his children, just as we earthly parents do to our children. In fact, Psalm 147:11 assures us that God delights in those who expect good things from him. At the same time, however, he appreciates even more the soul that, when tested by fire, says “yes” to him. There is a vast difference, apparently, between receiving rewards for positive behaviors, on the one hand, and acting positively simply to receive those rewards, on the other. True spiritual strength is not so much seen in the one who has received something good from God, but in the one who, having lost whatever he or she had, praises God anyway.

The second faulty motive involves serving God because we fear the consequences if we don’t. God is a god of justice, we believe, and he will not let human disobedience go unpunished. Even if such judgment is delayed, as it often seems to be, a fiery Hell awaits all those who refuse to listen to God. We serve God, as a result, in order to avoid punishment.

Now once again, there is obviously a core of truth to such a perspective. God is a god of justice, and his holiness demands that sin be punished. Just as there is an undeniable connection between obedience and blessings in the Bible, so is there a link between disobedience and punishment. Anyone who gives even a passing glance to the Bible realizes this.

But such a view isonce again, wrought with problems. For one thing, it fails to recognize the role that texts describing judgment often play in the biblical story. While some such judgment texts are clearly intended to motivate the hearers to new levels of obedience, more often than not they simply announce the unfortunate and unavoidable consequences of a sinful and self-serving life.

And for another thing, such a view typically overlooks the endless passages in the Bible that describe the overwhelming love and mercy of God. God is no tyrant holding a stick over our heads, waiting for yet another opportunity to scold us for our wayward behaviors. Rather than meting out punishments as a matter of course, God weeps over the downward spiral of his human creation and has in fact taken every possible step to lead us from darkness into light.

So where are we now? We’re standing at St. Catherine’s Monastery, gazing up at Mt. Sinai, and reading Exodus 20:1-2. Notice the brief phrase in v. 2 that introduces the 10 Commandments: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. Therefore…” Think about the context. Israel had been held captive for years, and it was a captivity out of which there was no apparent escape. Their situation went from bad to worse, and its latter years were characterized by intense pain and suffering. Yet it was precisely out of this bondage that God brought them, and it was only after this act of deliverance that God invited these people to serve him with all of their hearts and minds. Never did God say to the Israelites during their long sojourn in Egypt, “If you keep my laws perfectly for a period of time, then I will come and free you.” Instead, he freed them first! “I have loved you and delivered you,” God announces, “and you will be my treasured possession.” What, then, should motivate the people to follow the Lord? Greed? Fear? No. Gratitude.

Do you remember the woman who was caught red-handed committing adultery (John 8)? When everyone else was about to stone her to death, Jesus said to her, “I don’t condemn you. Go and sin no more.” Can you just imagine this same woman bumping into Jesus a few months later? Would she ask Jesus to do more and more things for her? Would she tremble in fear of what harm Jesus might bring upon her? Or would she say, “When everyone in the world was against me, Jesus, you alone cared for me”? Gratitude, I suspect, would carry the day.

And so it should be with us. Think of it this way. How would you feel as a parent if one day your teenage son or daughter did something particularly commendable, something you didn’t even tell them to do. When you asked them what motivated them to do it, they responded, “I was hoping that you might take me to the mall tonight and buy me a new pair of pants.” Or what if they said, “I did it so that you would not get mad at me?” I don’t know about you, but I would feel pretty disappointed and discouraged. In the first case, I’d feel disappointed because my child was trying to manipulate me for selfish gain. In the second, I’d feel discouraged because I’d become in my child’s eyes a whip-snapping tyrant. What would really delight me is if my son or daughter responded, “I did it because I love you and am grateful for all that you do for me.”

God, I’m sure, feels pretty much the same way. While he does continue to give good gifts to his children, and while he very well may at times discipline us when necessary, he wants us to move beyond thoughts of gain and punishment. He wants us to appreciate and love him. As a parent, I am beginning to understand.