Most are familiar with these chilling words from Satan to God about Job: “Does Job fear God for nothing? Have You not made a hedge about him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But put forth Your hand now and touch all that he has; he will surely curse You to Your face.” (Job 1:9-11)
Satan’s charge was that Job was only serving God because God protected him, but once that protection was removed, Job would not be so eager to serve. Job kept his integrity, though he suffered greatly. This challenge is not lost on us today, for we need to assess our own motives in serving the Lord. When we are faced with struggles and begin questioning our circumstances, will we still be dedicated in our service to the Lord?
What is the Christian’s incentive in serving God? Is it the reward of being with God in heaven? Is it the avoidance of hell? Is it Both? Is there more? There is no denying that both reward and punishment serve as motivators. Yet, while we would never deny that we ought to want to be with God, and we should want to avoid hell at all costs, there is more to be considered. Following are three more ways to think about proper incentives in serving God:
Our first incentive is founded upon love. “We love because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19). When we recognize His love for us and how much He has done for us out of His grace and love, we should respond with love. This is only proper. The incentive here is not one of reward or punishment, but more that of humble submission in response to God’s grace. The “greatest commandment” is to love God with all the heart, soul, strength, and mind (Mark 12:29-30). This means that we choose to obey Him as a recognition of His grace toward us, as Jesus stated to His disciples: “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments” (John 14:15).
A second incentive is based upon fear. The biblical directive is to “fear the Lord.” The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge and wisdom (Prov 1:7; 9:10), and is called “the whole of man” (Ecc 12:13-14). While fear (in the trembling sense) is involved in wanting to avoid hell, the fuller sense of “fear” involves reverence. If we recognize who God really is, as the glorious Creator worthy of all praise, we will know that we must honor and revere Him out of sheer respect. The incentive is to do what is right, and this will entail giving proper honor particularly to the One who deserves it the most. Out of respect for God, we must fear Him, and this fear will mean that we will desire to obey Him.
A third incentive, much related to the first, is grounded upon gratitude. Gratitude is the quality or attitude of thankfulness, and this stems from being appreciative for what someone has done. Given all that God has done, from giving us life to providing the life of salvation, how can we not be thankful to Him? We are to be “…giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph 5:20).
Being thankful is not based on wanting a reward, nor is it based on the fear of punishment. It is, instead, based on the appreciation that someone has done something wonderful for us. In this case, God has, through His grace, done for us what we could never do for ourselves. If this does not elicit gratitude from us, what will? Perhaps this is why those who do not honor God or give thanks become futile in their thinking (Rom 1:21). Our response to God’s grace is based not only on love, but also on thankfulness. If we cannot respond this way, we don’t want forgiveness or salvation.
Instead of framing the incentive question in terms of reward and punishment (both of which are very real), perhaps we should focus as much on showing love, reverence, and gratefulness for God and His work. This is not simply a duty, but a grand privilege. “Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thess 5:16-17).