By Linda Rex
It occurred to me more than once during this election season the messages I was hearing from the two primary parties were designed to create fear in the people hearing and seeing them. The idea, it seemed, was to motivate people to vote for a particular candidate because there was real and present danger in electing the other candidate to office. Both candidates were accused of horrific evils and horrendous motivations, and no doubt there was reason to believe these accusations had real basis in fact.
My purpose here isn’t to defend or criticize either position, but to bring up the topic of using fear as a motivator to get people to do what you want them to do. The honest truth if it must be told is for many centuries Christian preachers and teachers have used fear as a motivator to get people to choose Christ as their Savior. It seems there is a real belief the only way to get people to make a good choice is by terrifying them into doing it.
This seems to permeate our human way of doing things. For example, when I went into a medical clinic one day, I found myself staring at a revolting illustration of a lung filled with cancer which had in bold captions a reminder smoking is hazardous to my health. Nice to know, I suppose, only I don’t smoke. At Halloween time at the chiropractor’s office, I found myself face to face with a skeleton with a heading telling me this is how I will end up if I don’t eat right and keep my spine straight. Perhaps it might be a helpful encouragement to the correct person to do the right thing, but for me, it was not helpful at all.
Growing up in a religion which taught me I had to get everything exactly right or God would be mad at me, I developed an aversion to fear-based motivators. This includes even those intended to be helpful to me.
This is why it was such a relief to me when I discovered the real God was totally different from the God I was taught to believe in as a child. When the reality about who God really was leapt off the pages of the Bible through Jesus into my heart, I was stunned. I still struggle to believe this is really true—God knew me and loved me before time began, and has always intended for me to be included in his life and love. This amazing God has such an amazing love for you and for me, we do not have to perform correctly in order to be loved and accepted. No, God’s very nature is outgoing, unconditional love and acceptance!
It is not fear which God has used to change me and to change my life. It is love—a love which passed through the gates of suffering and death into resurrection and now lives in you and me by the Holy Spirit. This love of God was willing to set aside all the privileges of divinity to participate in my/our brokenness and to heal it from the inside out—Jesus did this moment by moment as he lived and walked in our human flesh, becoming sin for us so we might become the righteousness of God.
It is instructive Jesus often told his disciples at critical moments, “Do not be afraid.” Fear is our immediate reaction to anything we are uncomfortable, or uncertain about. It is a completely human response to the unknown.
Peter did a good job of walking on the water up until the time he allowed fear to supplant his trust in the Savior and turn it into doubt. With Jesus present and enabling him to do what he could not otherwise do, Peter had no reason to be afraid. Yet his focus turned to the uncertain circumstances in which he found himself—“seeing the wind, he became frightened.” There was absolutely no reason for him to fear, but his natural human response to the chaotic wind and waves was fear.
Peter’s next response though in that moment of fear was a good one—“Lord, save me!” This is the best response we can give to anything we face which frightens us or makes us feel uncertain and afraid. We can be assured Jesus is present in the midst of all our fearful circumstances and is ready to lift us to safety as we call upon him. (Matthew 14:22-33)
But I don’t see Jesus using fear as a motivator to get people to follow him. I see him speaking the truth in love, yes, but also listening to people’s stories, healing them, and joining them in their everyday life. I see him telling people the truth about his relationship with his heavenly Father—a relationship of oneness and love which motivated God to send his Son for the benefit of a broken humanity which was in need.
The thing is, using fear a motivator gives a person an illusion of control over another person. Love, however, always gives the other person the freedom to choose their response. Love then, is a lot more uncertain with regards to the response. There is a whole lot less control, and a whole lot more uncertainty, which means the person trying to motivate someone cannot ensure the outcome will be what they want.
Domestic abuse can be the result of wanting to control the response of another human being. Since giving another person the freedom to choose whether or not to love in return means rejection or abandonment is a distinct possibility, a person may seek to control the outcome through the creation of fear or the use of violence.
Understanding our human tendency to want to always control the outcome makes even more amazing what God did in creating and loving human beings who are free to reject him and turn away from him. God does not demand our allegiance or obedience—he invites it, through his love and faithfulness, and in taking on our human flesh and making our suffering and brokenness his own so we would be free of it. God motivates our loving and obedient response through his covenant love and grace, his compassion and all the divine attributes of his Being.
This is why Paul could say, “Christ’s love compels us” (2 Cor. 5:14). It is this love of the Father expressed to you and me and all humanity in and through his Son and by his Spirit, which motivates us to live our lives as grateful, loving, obedient children. It is not fear which motivates us—for such motivation can be and often is destructive, transient and debilitating. Love is what God uses as his primary motivator, and it is high time we began to use it as well in every area of life—family, community, politics, work and play. For this is the only motivator which will last on in God’s kingdom life on into eternity.
Abba, thank you for your faithful love, for the gift of your Son and your Spirit. Thank you for not using fear to motivate us, but for showering on us love and grace instead. Fill our hearts with such love and grace as well, so we will quit trying to control others and motivate others by using fear. Thank you for making all this possible in and through your Son Jesus, in Whose Name we pray. Amen.
“For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.” 2 Corinthians 5:13–15 NIV