Fear and Motivation

For the Week of September 14, 2015
by Rubel Shelly

Fear is among the poorest motivations for lasting, meaningful change in a human life. It gets our attention. It forces questions we may have been avoiding. But it simply doesn’t last over the long haul to change one’s lifestyle – whether eating habits or marital fidelity or smoking, kindness or generosity or goodness.

Maybe you are old enough to remember hot summer revival meetings. Or perhaps you know of times and places when – under air conditioning – the same “evangelistic strategy” is still being used. I suppose it could be called selling the gospel through fear of a terrible afterlife. In simple language, revival meetings once had this singular theme: Repent! Or you’ll go to hell when you die!

It is true that the Bible affirms life after (physical) death. It is also true that the choice of Master one makes in this life determines her destiny in the life to come. Those who live by faith now will live in happy intimacy with God; those who reject him here will not have his company forced on them when life is over.

Jesus and the church’s earliest evangelists more often spoke in terms of immediate life transformation. Jesus invited people to change their minds about the way they were living (i.e., repent), believe the gospel (i.e., good news of God’s redemptive work), and enter the kingdom (i.e., God’s reign and power).

Paul consistently taught that Jesus “gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age” (Galatians 1:4) – not merely an impending dreadful fate after death. On his view, the question was not so much “Are you sure you would go to heaven if you died tonight?” as “Does your life represent the Kingdom of God today?” So he wrote things like this: “[Jesus Christ] gave his life to free us from every kind of sin, to cleanse us, and to make us his very own people, totally committed to doing what is right” (Titus 2:14 NLT).

When I am talking with non-Christians or tracking the theme of a novel or movie, I don’t hear people asking what I was trained to answer. They aren’t pondering life after death. They are desperate to discover life before death. They want to know how to deal with their personal demons of addiction to work, sex, money, and chemicals. They want to find out how to focus their lives in a fragmented world. They want to understand how healthy relationships work.

We dare not forget the long-term consequences of obedience to God versus unbelief. But we need to realize that people are more likely to hear the gospel in response to the questions they ask than in terms of the ones we think they should raise. They have to understand that faith has immediate value for this life. They need to see that it heals brokenness in this world.

Eternal life is “what God does with your life as he sets it right, puts it together, and completes it with joy” (Romans 14:17 MSG). It is all this – and heaven too.