What is it that best motivates us to accomplish our goals in life? This question has been asked of those in every field of study known to man. Educators want to know how to motivate their students. And preachers how to motivate their congregants. Salesman want to motivate potential buyers; and politicians potential voters. To be sure, some of these craftsman ply their trade with deception and some with truth. But in both cases, the greatest motivation to get someone to accomplish a desired goal is love. If you can get them to “love” what your offering then they will move heaven and earth to get it. Commercials try to convince you that you can't live without a certain product. You're life will be better with “such and such” toothpaste. Your stomach will not be content until you eat at “such and such” restaurant. Your clothes will only sparkle with “such and such” detergent. While these examples are piddly when compared to the great things of the universe; they nevertheless reveal an underlying truth. Love is the greatest of motivations.
When world renowned physicist Albert Einstein was a boy his mother bought him a violin and arranged for him to take lessons. Einstein despised the idea. While clearly brilliant, Einstein was never the type to enjoy the forced discipline required in many educational endeavors. He chafed under the authoritarian rule of his native Germany. He referred to his school teachers as “drill sergeants” and often struggled with classroom tasks that involved rote. He is most well known today as a great scientist; but it wasn't rules that captured him. He was independent and creative. He did his best work when he was free from the bonds of intellectual shackles. If he was forced to learn something, he bristled and rebelled. But if he loved something, then all the forces in his life couldn't keep him from pursuing the goal.
Einstein eventually became a master violinist, but it wasn't because of a tyrant's whip; but rather a composer's song. Einstein hated the discipline required to learn the violin, until he heard one of Mozart's sonatas. The simplistic beauty and logical flow of the melody captured Einstein in a way that no amount of brute force ever could. In analyzing this aspect of his character Einstein remarked, “I believe that love is a better teacher than a sense of duty.” Einstein was right.
What motivates a Christian to follow Christ? Is it duty? Or is it love? This is a question that theologian John Piper has devoted much of his life to. His philosophy of “Christian Hedonism” is based on his famous quote, “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.” Piper teaches that devotion to God and personal joy are not at odds with one another. To the contrary they go hand in hand. The Psalmist wrote, “In thy presence is fullness of joy; at thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore.” (Psalm 16:11) Hearts that have been “born again” follow Christ because they have a new found love for him. Jesus said, “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments” (John 14:15 NASB) He DIDN'T say, “If you keep my commandments, THEN I will love you.” While the two statements might sound similar, their difference is both astounding and absolute. The two statements are polar opposites in the realm of salvation and motivation. The statement Jesus actually said, speaks of love. The second statement speaks of legalism. Sadly, most people fail to see this truth and thus turn Christianity into a works based merit system of self righteous accomplishment. They strive to obey, then expect love to be the result. Instead of striving to love Christ and watching obedience come forth as the result. In proverbial terms, they get the cart before the horse and fail to see that it is love for Christ that leads to the result of obedience unto him. And even this love for Christ is rooted in God's work, not man's. For the Scriptures teach, “We love because He first loved us.” (1 John 4:19)
I fear that many professing Christians majestically miss the point regarding Christian obedience. Is there a link between obeying Christ and being saved? Yes, but it's not the link that many think it is. Salvation is not the result of being obedient to Christ. Salvation is the CAUSE of being obedient to Christ. Mere obedience, apart from a changed heart, cannot save. Saul of Tarsus assumed he was justified by his works in his meticulous keeping of the Mosaic Law. But Christ taught him otherwise and Saul (otherwise known as Paul) later wrote, “But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ.” (Philippians 3:7-9 NASB) Paul praised the Romans, not because they were obedient. But more specifically, because they were “obedient from the heart.” He wrote, “Thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed.” (Romans 6:17) Obedience, in and of itself, is of no saving value. But obedience from the heart, gives the evidence of God's redeeming work in the darkened heart of a sinful man. Who once was blind, but now he sees.
This brings me back full circle, to Einstein and Piper. How could these two men be so infinitely different and yet come to such a similar conclusion regarding motivation? Einstein was not a Christian. But he was also not a militant atheist like many of the scientists of today. Einstein was probably best described as an agnostic, who claimed a certain amount of ignorance when it came to God. Nevertheless he marveled at the universe around him. And the more he studied, the more he marveled. He once wrote a friend saying, “We should never cease to stand like curious children before the great mystery into which we were born.” Being raised as a secular Jew, Einstein ultimately rejected the Bible as having stories that “were not possible.” His scientific mind rejected the notion of supernatural miracles; and yet ironically he once said, “There are only two ways to live your life: as though nothing is a miracle, or as though everything is a miracle.” He rejected miracles, while marveling that in a sense, life itself was a miracle. Einstein proved many theorems in his life. But sadly the one he proved most of all is found in Romans 1. “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.” (Romans 1:18-20 NASB) The handiwork of God was “clearly seen” by Einstein and yet ultimately “suppressed” by a heart that was unchanged by the truth before him. Yet this didn't stop him from frequently commenting on the “mind of God” that had worked so meticulously in the universe. Maybe the most profound thing Einstein ever said was this: “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. So is a lot.” For in his own life his vast knowledge led him to a place of being awestruck at God's handiwork, while refusing to give God the true credit for the work itself. As Paul would say of the Jews, “A veil lies over their heart.” (2 Cor. 3:15) And so it was with Einstein also.
Yet in the midst of spiritual darkness, Einstein perceived a kernel of Divine truth. Love is the greatest motivation. Piper wrote this when he described the “debtor's ethic.” The erroneous belief that we should be motivated by wanting to “pay back” God for His goodness to us. Piper writes, “We all know what the debtor's ethic is, even if we've never called it this. Suppose you invite me over for dinner. It is certainly right for me to feel gratitude. But O, how easily we distort this spontaneous response of joy into an impulse to pay back. You gave me an invitation and now I owe you one. When our virtue toward other people, or toward God, is born out of this sense of "paying back" we are in the grip of the debtor's ethic. What's gone wrong? It's not wrong to feel gratitude when someone gives us a gift. The trouble starts with the impulse that now we owe a “gift” What this feeling does is turn gifts into legal currency. Subtly the gift is no longer a gift but a business transaction. And what was offered as free grace is nullified by distorted gratitude." (Future Grace, pg. 32)
Even the unregenerate Einstein could see that this was wrong. Duty is not the greatest motivator. Fear is not the greatest motivator. Love is the greatest motivator. Einstein knew this, as it pertained to playing the fiddle, but he missed this as it pertained to knowing God. And therein lies the lesson for you and me.
When the “Heavens declare the glory of God and the skies His handiwork” (Psalm 19:1); you and I should respond with awestruck wonder at the majesty of the Almighty and humble ourselves in thankful admiration. When we experience the illumination of Divine grace that has “shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” (2 Cor. 4:6) You and I should respond with the utmost gratitude that God has mercifully unveiled the truth of the gospel. When scientific knowledge teaches us about the intricacies of the universe, you and I should respond by marveling at the God who said, “Let their be light!” And then there was light. But in all of our awestruck amazement at the infinite glory of God, let us not accept the “debtor's ethic.” Let us not presume to “pay God back” when we are utterly and spiritually bankrupt in and of ourselves; and thus have nothing to offer the One who possesses all things. I guess, in an odd way, I'm encouraging you to let an agnostic rebuke you if you are legalistically inclined. Einstein was right about love being a better teacher than duty. And by God's grace, Piper wrote of this as applying to spiritual things as well. Einstein and Piper share the common trait of understanding correct motivation. Yet Einstein was blinded to the greater ramifications of this kernel of truth that he understood. While Piper has “eyes to see.”
Einstein's life is now over. Piper's will one day be. And what's more, yours and mine will soon be past as well. Let us not waste the few precious days we have on earth, by burying our intellects in the sand of science and doubt. Rather, let us use every tool at our disposal (including science) to point us to the supremacy of Christ and let us joyously pursue the life that comes by embracing a free gift that should not (and indeed cannot) be paid back. Let love for the Lord be your motivation for obedience. Let love, not duty, be your teacher.
NOTE: To hear an audio sermon on this topic, click here.