“Yay, Elon!” We cheer and clap as he puts a block into the bin. He grins a cute little grin, and claps for himself too. At 18 months, he is in the beginning stages of learning to follow instruction and teaching him involves constant positive reinforcement. He puts his toys away, not because it’s the right thing to do, but because he wants the applause.
Enoch, at age 4, is motivated towards obedience because he fears what might happen if he disobeys (and gets caught). It would be silly of me to break into a round of applause if he put his toy trucks away after being asked to. He might get a quick “thank you” when he follows through on a simple task, but that’s about all the fanfare he can expect.
In contrast, Ezekiel and Egan, ages 10 and 9, receive even less immediate positive reinforcement than their younger brothers. It is expected that they do their work when they are asked. Even still, I cannot tell you how many times one of them will come up to me asking if he can earn the privilege of playing electronics or get a treat. They want their simple everyday tasks to come with a tangible reward. Their motivation for obedience is to get past the work and into the fun stuff. And fun stuff does usually follow the completion of work. However, to obey with the contingency of a guaranteed reward, is to almost cheapen the offering of obedience. It’s obedience at a surface level, not a heartfelt desire to do what is right for its own sake.
The older boys are learning though, and I do see glimpses of progress in their obedience maturity. Ezekiel, in a frequent desire to be helpful and ease my burdens, asks me what he can do to help. He loves me and therefore wants to help me. Sometimes I spout off a short list of chores that need doing, but sometimes he catches me in the middle of something else and I don’t have the brain capacity to assign him specific items. I tell him, “go find something to do!” and send him on his way. He will usually exclaim, “I don’t know what needs to be done!” in frustration, so I will stop what I’m doing and take him on a little house tour.
I’ll take him into a room and ask, “what needs to be done in here?” Perhaps there are blankets on the floor, smudges on the windows, dust on the tables, toys EVERYWHERE, and laundry on the sofa. If he responds with “I don’t know”, I’ll give him a mom look and spell it all out for him.
He knows the chores I frequently assign, and he knows how to do them independently. What I’m trying to teach him now is to anticipate what I will ask of him. I want him to be in a room, see a need that he is capable of meeting, and then meet it before I ask! He should do what is right simply because it is right., and regardless of if anyone notices and rewards him.
In the meantime, however, the boys most frequently crave reward and not righteousness. Because can one truly want both equally? Our desire for one will always outweigh our desire for the other. Similarly, I may say and believe that I am doing what is right for the sake of righteousness, but then why do I get disappointed when I don’t receive affirmation after obedience?
I think our Christian obedience journey mirrors a child’s obedience journey. When we first become a Christian we need very specific instructions on what it means to live for God. Do not lie, etc. Because these instructions often fight with our human instinct, we need positive reinforcement in order to persevere. Perhaps then we move into a different stage of spiritual maturity where we already know how to do what we are being asked, but our primary motivation for obeying is fear of consequence.
As we continue to grow and understand more scriptural instruction, what is right begins to seep into our hearts. We begin to see the world through that lens of righteousness and we can anticipate what we need to do to serve God. We love God, and therefore we want to obey Him.
Even though I’ve been a Christian for many years I still find myself getting caught in the stage Ezekiel is in right now. I may know the right thing to do in a situation, but I still go to God and ask what needs to be done—perhaps hoping He will tell me something different. And sometimes I do what is right, but crave validation that it was right. My inner monologue sounds a little bit like this.
God, I want to do good things to serve you—what should I do? (He reminds me that I’ve already been given instructions) But are you sure? Is that really what I’m supposed to do? (I do it) Okay, did I do the right thing? Did I do a good job? Did I? Did I?
I get so anxious and doubtful sometimes about the steps of obedience I take! I may know that I did the right thing, but without affirmation I don’t always feel like it was the right thing. Like Ezekiel craving a reward for doing good, these times when I crave positive reinforcement show me that I have room to grow spiritually. These times show me that I’m still learning what it means to crave righteousness first and everything else second. These times definitely keep me humble as I am forced to acknowledge my human nature. And these times remind me that I must constantly surrender my expectations of an outcome and trust that God has a plan to be glorified through my obedience.
Ultimately there is a reward for this kind of anticipatory obedience, or righteousness. Ezekiel may not realize it yet, but as his character becomes more consistently trustworthy, and I can rely on him to do what is right even without direct instruction, he will automatically be given more privileges and rewards. I won’t be rewarding individual actions, but rather the person that he has become. The Bible gives us many promises for people who are pursuing what is right—so we know our character will eventually be rewarded.
I must continually surrender my insecurities for doing what is right. If I am not careful, I may begin to lose heart and stop trying. That’s exactly what the Enemy wants—me to give up my pursuit of righteousness because of fear and doubt. I frequently hear little whispers in my ear saying things like “what you did didn’t matter” or “your efforts aren’t good enough”. But listening to those statements puts the focus onto myself which feeds into my insecurities even more. Instead, the best weapon I’ve found to combat the lies and my fears is to take myself out of the equation. I remember that it’s not about me, I’m not in control, and my personal glory means nothing.
So how do we get to the point where we are walking in anticipatory obedience to God? Learn what He has told us to do by reading scripture, decide that we love Him and want to be obedient, and then take ourselves out of the equation. It is simply summed up, but much more difficult to achieve. I am continually grateful for the patience and grace extended to me as I learn more and more how to be obedient without the need for affirmation.
How about you? Do you find yourself second-guessing a step of obedience because you did not see immediate results or blessings? How do you decide to persevere through these doubts and keep pursuing righteousness?
Galatian 6:7-9 “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”