Scattered Ramblings on “Want” and “Ought”

Last week, my church’s Life Group had its last meeting, for the winter, that is.

One of the leaders of the group was sharing why she is so involved in the church.  She said that she is giving back.  There was a time when she was receiving far more from the church than she was giving.  Now, she is giving back.

It helps to have an authentic motivation.  I remember when I was attending Redeemer church in New York City, which is where Tim Keller pastors.  Tim Keller continually presented Christ’s love and sacrifice for us as something that motivates us to change, once it is real to us and we grasp its significance.

But shouldn’t we obey God without a motivation?  Or, more precisely, without a positive motivation?  A person can work at a job without a positive motivation.  She may be doing things that she does not want to do.  She grits her teeth and moves forward.  There is a motivation, of course: she needs money, and, if she does not do what she is supposed to do, she can lose her job.  But that is not a positive motivation, a motivation that makes a person want to do the right thing, a motivation that energizes a person.

I recently read Tim McConnell’s Happy Church.  I received a complimentary review copy from the publisher.  McConnell said in one place that church members who are negative or complaining should be disciplined by the church.  After all, the church is supposed to be a place that sets an example for the outside world.  People in the outside world want to be happy, and, if the church does not show people that one can be happy by coming to Christ, then the church is being a poor witness.

Naturally, there is a part of me that recoils from that kind of spiel.  It sounds to me like “mush, mush, mush, doggies!”  Ignore how you truly feel!  Get back in line!  Pretend to be happy to witness to the outside world!  I got the same impression when reading Thom Rainer’s I Will, which is the book that my church’s Life Group read this winter.  And maybe there is some Scriptural basis for that kind of attitude.  A Scriptural passage that we read was Philippians 2:14: “Do everything without grumbling or arguing” (NIV).

At the same time, I should remember that McConnell does try to explain why and how Christians should be happy: he does not bark commands but provides a motivation, or a context for Christian happiness.  In addition, maybe there is a place for treating church as a job, on some level.  Instead of focusing on one’s complaints, why not focus on doing good?  Why not act as if the church has a job to do?  That is well and good.  Yet, for some reason, when it comes to religion, I would like to have some positive motivation that energizes me.  Guilt can be effective, but only for so long.

When it comes to religion, I do value my personal choice.  I want to do something because I want to do it, not because I have to do it.  There are plenty of places in life in which we do not have a choice and feel as if we have to conform to other people’s expectations.  Why should I import that into religion, when, technically, I do not have to?

Maybe a good Christian life has a proper balance between “want” and “ought.”

Some of these themes have come up in our Life Group.  People have talked about finding something that they enjoy doing to serve the church.  One of the leaders was talking about finding one’s bliss: in her case, she’s been making a lot of slippers and donating them to charity!

Finding my niche in a church is not exactly easy.  I can rattle off a lot of reasons: my introversion, my preference for activities that I can do in solitude, how I have a lot of academic knowledge about the Bible but struggle somewhat to make that look applicable or relevant to people’s lives.  One of the leaders said I can tell her what the coming book that we will be reading is like.  That could be my niche!  Of course, though, I will only be attending a few, maybe just one, of the coming Life Group meetings, since I will be moving to another location and another church.

Anyway, those are some ramblings for the day.

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About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. I study the History of Biblical Interpretation at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, as part of its Ph.D. program. I have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting.
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