Many of you are going to disagree with what I say in this article. Many more are not going to like it.

Too much Christian teaching is about what people ought to do and should have done and better do. There is not enough about what is good for them to do.

I was sitting in a group some time back when one lady in the group got all ramped up about this. “Well, there is doing what is right, and there is doing what feels good. Some where along the line we need to come to the point of maturity that we do what is right.” A room full of Baptists chimed, “AMEN!”

It sounds spiritual: we need to do what is right rather than what feels good. Here is another one.

I have read this in various forms in a couple of books and heard it preached a few times. “God is more interested in you holiness than your happiness.”

Again, it sounds good. And you can say that in the right right cadence and raise your voice just right and get a house full of Baptists to say, “AMEN!” My question is a theological one: is it true?

It is an important question and it has everything to do with how we influence people. Are we trying to influence them to go with their self-interest, or against it?

  • People may not feel like praying; we want to influence them to pray anyway
  • People may not feel like giving; we want to influence them to give anyway.
  • People may not feel like serving; we want to influence them to serve anyway.
  • People may not feel like doubling their classes; we want to influence them to double their classes any way.

This is usually a failed strategy. I want to show you a more excellent way.

Jesus and self-denial

Jesus taught self-denial didn’t he? Here is a classic verse:

Matthew 16:24 (NIV) Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”

It is easy to preach on this; deny yourself! Take up your cross! Take up the cross of praying! Take up the cross of giving! Take up the cross of serving!

What’s wrong with this picture?

As John Piper says it, “Keep reading.”

Matthew 16:24-27 (NIV) Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. 26 What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul? 27 For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done.

What is the motive that Jesus appeals to in verse 25? Saving your life. What is the motive in verses 26? Saving your soul. What about verse 27? Reward.

To quote Piper:

Jesus does not ask us to be indifferent to whether we are destroyed. On the contrary, He assumes that the longing for true life will move us to deny ourselves all the lesser pleasures and comforts of life. The measure of our longing for life is the amount of comfort we are willing to give up to get it. The gift of eternal life in God’s presence is glorified if we are willing to hate our lives in this world in order to lay hold of it (John 12:25). Therein lies the God-centered value of self-denial.

This is why so many missionaries have said, after lives of great sacrifice, “I never made a sacrifice.” On December 4, 1857, David Livingstone, the great pioneer missionary to Africa, made a stirring appeal to the students of Cambridge University, showing that he had learned through years of experience what Jesus was trying to teach Peter:

People talk of the sacrifice I have made in spending so much of my life in Africa…. Away with the word in such a view, and with such a thought! It is emphatically no sacrifice. Say rather it is a privilege. Anxiety, sickness, suffering, or danger, now and then, with a foregoing of the common conveniences and charities of this life, may make us pause, and cause the spirit to waver, and the soul to sink; but let this only be for a moment. All these are nothing when compared with the glory which shall be revealed in and for us [Romans 8:18]. I never made a sacrifice.

–The Dangerous Duty of Delight.

God is a rewarder

Hebrews 11:6 says,  (NIV) “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.”

We cannot come to God unless we believe God is a rewarder. We will be rewarded for following God. We cannot come to God unless we believe that. We will not follow God unless we believe it is in our best interest to do so.

If we would influence people to pray or give or serve or double their classes, we must persuade them it is in their best interest to pray and give and serve and double their classes. We do not persuade them to deny self-interest (except in the short run); we persuade them to have their self-interest ultimately satisfied.

Here is the good news: it is! It is always in our best interest to live the Christian life.

This theme is central to my book, DVD and seminar on Disciplemaking Teachers. (It comes out most in the seminar as has been a growing thought for me over the last few years.) If we would make disciples, we must constantly show them it is in their best interest to live the Christian life.

As I write Good Questions that Have Groups Talking, I return consistently to these kinds of questions:

  • How does it benefit us to forgive others?
  • What does it cost us if we don’t treasure our wives?
  • What do love about following God?

In some sense, Christian motivation appeals to self-interest–to the highest and best and most long-term self-interest. We are asked to deny ourselves in the short run so that we may have life, and have it to the full.

If you would persuade men to serve God, you must convince them that it is in their best interest to do so. You must convince them that is God is good, that he is a rewarder, and that they will be rewarded for following Him.