Few things are more important for spiritual growth than motivation. Unfortunately, many Christians are idealists when it comes to spiritual drive. They think and act as if there is only one sanctioned motive for obedience. The underlying logic of their spirituality is that ‘love alone pleases God.’ In this way, they are like houses connected to a single powerline: Appliances work fine so long as the circuits are live and connected. However, if a tree falls and the line breaks, there is no backup generator to keep the lights on. So it is with many Christians. When spirits are high and adoration soaring, saying ‘yes’ to God is as simple as flipping a switch. However, if joy is unexpectantly cut off, or if the currents of love wane, obedience stalls. They do not know what to do when love, the highest motive, is unavailable.

Rather than viewing spiritual motivation like a powerline, we ought to picture it as the transmission in a car. The function of the transmission is to transmit the power of the engine to the wheels through a system of gears. For a good reason, no modern car relies on a single gear to run. Given the situation, and the terrain, different gears are required to complete a journey. Some may be higher and others lower, but all are necessary to speed through the valleys, climb the hills, and to avoid obstacles on route to a destination.

Something similar is true spiritually. God has graciously given us multiple gears of motivation to provide the power needed to obey Him. Some, like love and gratitude, are higher than others, like duty and fear, but nonetheless, all are important for persisting in a life of faithful service. No Christian should set out on the road of discipleship without a basic understanding of the mechanics of spiritual motivation.

The Five Gears of Faithful Service

The spiritual equivalent of first gear is fear. While some Christians may squirm at the thought that faith and fear can coexist, the Bible shows no such anxiety. More than once, God tells us that ‘the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’ (Proverbs 9:10). While fear may not be the be-all and end-all of knowing God, no knowledge of holiness, or divine justice, would be fully mature that did not, on occasion, quicken the pulse of a worshipper. After all, even those safely in the arms of Christ need to adore the ‘consuming fire’ that is ‘our God’ (Hebrews 12:29).[i]

The second gear is a sense of duty. Among evangelicals, the word ‘duty’ has an even worse reputation than fear due to duty’s lack of passion. However, this prejudice is naïve. As a father, I often tell my children to take out the trash. Usually, my request is disrupting another activity. Because of this, I do not expect them to leap from the PlayStation with a hallelujah chorus. I am content if they are willing to yield their will to mine in a humble act of service, regardless of whether passion is present or not. Jesus indicates that something similar is often true of discipleship. There will be times when our final thought after an act of service is no more fervent than this: ‘We have done what was our duty to do’ (Luke 17:10).

Third gear is reward. There is always the danger that Christians will be more spiritual than God is, and this danger is felt acutely when talking about rewards as motivation for obedience. Yet, the final trump card for overcoming this discomfort is the teaching of the New Testament. Repeatedly, both Jesus and Paul hold forth rewards as incentives for obedience, sacrifice, and perseverance. These rewards can both be gained or missed, and thus provide a dynamic that unsettles any fatalistic outlook in the Christian life (I Corinthians 3:11-17). We press on in prayer and doing good in no small part because we trust that the ‘Father who sees in secret will himself reward [us] openly’ (Matthew 6:4).[ii]

Fourth gear is gratitude. While we need to acknowledge the presence of the lower gears, we also need to emphasize the hope of shifting up to the higher gears. Gratitude is a higher gear. We feel grateful when we remember and celebrate the things God has done for us, most importantly, His acts of creation and redemption. The more we appreciate the sheer gift of birth, and the greater gift of new birth, the more we tap into a joyful sense of indebtedness. In the words of Chesterton, we discover the startling truth that ‘the man who really knows that he cannot pay his debt will be forever paying it.’[iii]

Finally, love is fifth gear, the highest motive of the Christian life. We love God when we see and appreciate the beauty and goodness of His essential being. Whereas with gratitude, we are still able to love God for the sake of self, with love, we rise even higher to loving self for the sake of God. The lover does not say to the beloved, ‘I love you for what you do for me,’ but rather, ‘I love you for who you are.’ Such deep satisfaction in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, is the final end of life, now and always (John 17:3), and thus provides the most forceful and enduring motive for a life of faithful service.[iv] We know we have climbed to this heart-felt peak when, with Isaac Watts, we sing,

Thou art the sea of love,

Where all my pleasures roll;

The circle where my passions move,

And center of my soul.

The Importance of Downshifting; the Hope of Upshifting

The reason that we need to know about these different spiritual gears is that there are situations in life where downshifting from one gear of motivation to another is necessary. There are moments when a flashflood of lust fills the heart. Like David on the roof, a man sees a woman and is drowned in a desire to see more of her. In such moments the levee of love might be too weak to protect him from lust. What, then, should he do? One option is to drop down into first gear. Fear, at times, can provide a needed boost of power to get past the allurement of sin. If our love of Christ is momentarily enfeebled, it may be our fear of Christ that causes us to think twice before abusing His grace (I Corinthians 10:9).[v]

A second example regards duty. Ideally, each time a Christian husband sees dishes piling up beside the sink, he will spontaneously exclaim, ‘What a wonderful opportunity to cherish Christ by serving my wife!’ However, realistically, if he delays the choice to serve until he feels a gust of love, a lot of service will be left undone. A better option when the winds of love and gratitude slacken is to drop back down into a sense of duty. There is nothing wrong with saying, ‘As a bondservant of Christ, service is what I do, and here is an opportunity – regardless of my feelings – to serve my Lord and my wife.’

Yet, if Christians need to learn to downshift, they also need to aspire whenever possible to move from the lower gears of motivation to the higher ones. No driver would keep his car in third gear if a clear highway enabled him to shift up to fourth or fifth. Similarly, a Christian should never be content with a sense of serving out of duty or fear if the hope exists to perform the same actions from gratitude and love. Thus, we see that one of the great aims of our sanctification ought to be the transformation and improvement of deep motives and driving affections. Such is the hope that we have through the gospel. The more we learn of what God has done for us in Christ, the more truly and consistently, we will experience the words of William Cowper:

To see the Law by Christ fulfilled,

And hear His pardoning voice;

Changes a slave into a child,

And duty into choice.

[i] In the French Catechism of 1537 John Calvin describes piety as ‘a pure and true zeal which loves God altogether as Father and reveres him truly as Lord, embraces his justice and dreads to offend him more than to die.’ See John Calvin, Instruction in Faith. Tr. Paul T. Fuhrmann (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1949), 22.

[ii] In The Institutes Calvin comments, ‘The eye of our mind being too dim to be attracted by the mere beauty of goodness, our most merciful Father has been pleased, in his great indulgence, to allure us to love and long after it by the hope of reward. He accordingly declares that rewards for virtue are treasured up with him. That none who yield obedience to his commands will labor in vain. On the other hand, he proclaims not only that iniquity is hateful in his sight, but that it will not escape with impunity, because he will be the avenger of his insulted majesty.’ See John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion. Tr. Henry Beveridge (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 319.

[iii] G.K. Chesterton, St. Francis of Assisi.  

[iv] The dynamic of love is beautifully described by the great medieval spiritual writer, Bernard of Clairvaux. In Sermon on the Song of Songs he writes, ‘Love needs no cause beyond itself, nor does it demand fruits; it is its own purpose. I love because I love; I love that I may love. Love is a great reality, and if it returns to its beginning and goes back to its origin, seeking its source again, it will always draw afresh from it, and thereby flow freely.’

[v] Charles Wesley reminds us of the usefulness of such fear in the hymn stanza,
‘Give me, Lord, a holy fear,

And fix it in my heart,

That I may from evil near

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