Imagining More than “Gospel Motivation”

By Justin Rossow

After quite a while trying to follow Jesus and help others take a small next step following Jesus, I am beginning to think all motivation, including so-called “Gospel motivation” (at least the way we typically practice it) is LAW.

When using Law motivation, you are trying to get people to do something by telling them to do it (or else!). But “Gospel motivation” doesn’t tell people they have to do something; instead, Gospel motivations says you are supposed to want to do the same things out of gratitude for what Jesus has done for you. You don’t have to; you get to. In fact, you are supposed to actually like doing it.

That seems nice on the surface, but we typically end up adding to the burden of action the burden of desiring and delighting in that action. You still have to do it, only now you have to want to do it. That’s just piling it on!

So are you supposed to use Law Motivation or Gospel Motivation? Well … what if we focused less on motivation (something in us that results in action) and more on formation (the Spirit of Jesus in us, shaping us to be like Jesus)?

I can’t self-motivate good actions; telling me I should want to because Jesus died for me only makes it worse: even though Jesus died for me, I still can’t summon up enough motivation to live like that!

So it can’t depend on me; it must be “God who works in you both to WILL and to DO” (Phil 2:13). The Spirit shapes the desire, delight, and actions of Jesus in me. That’s not “Gospel motivation” in the sense of giving me an inspiring reason to behave a certain way. Instead, the Spirit is conforming me to the image of Christ for the sake of others.

Life change flows from forgiveness: “forgive us, renew us, and lead us…” Why? “So that we may delight in Your will and walk in Your ways.” But that’s not forgiveness as motivation; it’s forgiveness as formation.

I just wonder if our dialogue about “motivation” emphasizes the wrong thing (MY attitude toward my actions) when both my attitude and my actions are crucified with Christ, and more and more shaped by the Spirit to reflect that cruciform shape in my daily willing and doing.

Not I, but Christ. Not motivation; formation. Not a minimalist Law/Gospel either/or; rather, the Spirit of the living Jesus living in me.

One reason “Gospel motivation” doesn’t actually bring life change–though really, we act like it should, right? We wave a magic forgiveness wand and tell people to go live out their new identities as if thankfulness for Jesus should be enough to change behavior–sorry. Where was I?

Gospel motivation doesn’t work the way we intuitively think it should because counter-intuitively, personal motivation is only 1/6 of what actually creates behavior change. Personal Motivation, Personal Ability, Social Motivation, Social Ability, Structural Motivation, and Structural Ability are the six, and you need 4+ of these different influences working together to create change.

Personal Motivation, by itself, will not create more faithful followers of Jesus or produce more humble acts of loving and serving your neighbor. Even if you manage to avoid making Gospel motivation a guilt trip, in isolation even Gospel motivation won’t magically make better people.

If you want to disciple people into a more active engagement in knowing and following Jesus, if you want people to take a small next step, if you want to see some kind of life change even though you know the good work begun in us won’t be completed until the Day of our Lord Jesus Christ, then you have to consider how to engage as many of the sources of change as you can at the same time.

Any single one of those areas by itself, no matter how much you activate it, can’t actually affect change. So being really, really, really thankful for Jesus–by itself–won’t produce change of behavior.

I’ve seen the science on some of this, and I would say this reality of life change is true from a 1st Article perspective; apart from what you think about the claims of Scripture, this is the way humans are hardwired. (I wrote a three-part blog on this if you are interested. Well, I actually lacked the motivation to write the third part, but irony notwithstanding, you can find the first two starting here.)

You need Personal Motivation working together with Social Motivation and Structural Motivation; and with Personal, Social, and Structural Ability, as well. That would be a discipleship paradigm well worth exploring and developing and experimenting with until you got it right. Or at least better. You don’t have to have an A+ in each of the six areas to create change; you just need four or more working together.

The other major thing you need in order to create a culture of discipleship growth is actually the right metaphors. Weird, right? The subtitle of my book Preaching Metaphor is “shaping sermons that shape people.” That’s because we all filter our experience, expectations, actions and reactions through metaphors we are almost always unaware of.

Changing patterns of behavior is most powerfully and effectively done by changing the lens through which a community views their experience, and therefore changing what seems natural, obvious, or even possible.

[There’s an interesting paper on how framing crime statistics with a metaphor of “crime as a wild beast” vs “crime as a disease” made a statistical impact on the kinds of proposed solutions to the problems of crime –and people across all demographics in both research groups cited the statistics (which were identical) as the thing that shaped their opinion, when the metaphor (noticed but ignored) actually drove their decision-making process. You can read about it here.]

Wild Beast or Virus? The Metaphor Makes the Difference

God created a humanity hard-wired to use metaphor for filtering reality. The question becomes, how does the Church address those filters? Would the Church handle those filters any differently than the world? How do you shape what seems like obvious or natural behavior to be more Christ-like? But you can’t even have that conversation as long as you aren’t aware of the filter.

So how do you motivate behavior change? Law or Gospel?

The answer is, both Law and Gospel have a place within the larger picture of motivating behavior change, which MUST include all of the sources for influencing change, not just Personal Motivation, and MUST deal with the metaphors we live by.

Trying to figure out how to do all that ain’t easy. And I think we’ll do it better together than we will on our own. That’s why Next Step Press is focused on collaboration as well as innovation: we need to figure out together how to motivate and equip people for the delight of taking a small next step following Jesus. That’s so much bigger than “motivating them with the Gospel.” But the results have the potential to be so much more significant. And way more fun.

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