Thursday, December 17, 2015

Motivation: Fear or Love?

The concept of how to motivate people in business and in life is something Americans care a lot about. What I’m writing about today is the way my father, Fred W. Phelps Sr. chose to motivate his children. And later how he tried to motivate his church and ultimately his community.

I think when my father started out as a pastor he was honestly telling people what he believed to be true. And initially I think he thought what he was saying was for the benefit of his listeners. But what my father did that hurt him and a whole lot of other people in the process was he started to isolate himself and would not allow anyone to give him feedback. About his thinking. About his preaching. And ultimately about the way he lived his life. And a man out of the loop of feedback from his peers is a man who can go astray. And to say my father went astray is truly an understatement.

What my father did was find what he thought were the most important rules from the bible for how to live properly and then he pounded those into the minds of his listeners. Over and over and over again! Those of us who later got out of my father’s cult found out that my father cherry picked things from the Bible that mirrored his growing hatred of himself and other people. So he truly chose over time to preach hate. The hate was actually in his own heart but he picked concepts out of the Bible that he thought might support his views and then ever so subtly he twisted them. And to do that he pretty much had to throw the true God and His Son out. My father especially disliked Jesus. Who he understood was loving and forgiving and because of that had to either ignore or malign.

When I first came to understand that Jesus had died for my sin and actually was a loving, caring Savior my life was at a very different place than it is today. I had no concept of the fact that the Father and the Son meant for me to live in relationship with them first and foremost. And ONLY after that they would empower me to live my life out in a loving way, with their love actually flowing through me. I had no idea about this kind of relationship when I was a young man in my father’s church. My father never explained how a person was to live up to his rigid rules. He just beat the rules into us. There was so much information spewed forth at us with rigid harsh expectations for how we were to live our lives but there was no instruction given on how that was to be accomplished. Truly your nightmare leadership style to be sure!

We did not understand anything about the power and the hope that was available to us for living the new life Christ wanted for us. Well for that matter most of us didn’t even understand that Christ had a new life he wanted for us! At least this understanding wasn’t coming from my father’s preaching. What we did understand was fear! What we got was my father’s endless teaching, mostly of his own making with little connection to the heart of God and the Bible’s plain meaning and packed with plenty of don’ts, with boat loads of fear mongering and deception, but honestly very few dos, certainly no instruction on how, and no hint of love!

What I have learned over the years is that people who are in a life giving relationship with the Father and the Son rarely have time to do anything negative or judgmental because they are so filled up with the love of God. The people who tend to bash, in my experience, are the ones far, far from God. And because they have no relationship with God they resort to rules.

I struggled to live up to the standards apparently required by God (remember, this was according to my father) and the meeting of this standard was imposed with brutality by my father, the preacher. I know now that it is possible to be aware of the facts of Jesus and his death for your sake without knowing what his death and resurrection truly means. I actually think this happens to a lot more of us than we realize if we aren’t truly given the teaching we need to understand this amazing life Christ wants to give us. That was my experience.

I had a fair amount of the “head knowledge” of the Bible and the facts of Jesus’ amazing death and resurrection from the dead. What I didn’t have was an understanding that that historic event had real power connected with it to allow a young man in Topeka, Kansas to be able to live a very different kind of life. Eventually when the head knowledge became heart knowledge, and of a practical sort, my life changed. So I can honestly say to you that I am no longer living the life I used to live.

Here’s why. The Bible says some things happened when I became a follower of Christ . . . a change occurred that was as simple as the flipping of a light switch and as life altering as a baby getting born.

One part of the flipping of the switch was me having, for the first time in my life, help and power from God to live the life He wanted me to live. And the help would come from Him! In the Bible it says “It was through reading the Scripture that I came to realize that I could never find God’s favor by trying—and failing—to obey the laws. I came to realize that acceptance with God comes by believing in Christ. ‘I have been crucified with Christ: and I myself no longer live, but Christ lives in me. And the real life I now have within this body is a result of my trusting in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Wrapped up in the gift of responding to God’s love and becoming a child of His was this amazing truth that God would live in me and with me and that because of that amazing fact, my life would never be the same. Because of God’s love for me and the fact He was now actually living His life in and through mine I could live my life in a completely different manner.

Okay, so what was the point about all of us trying to obey God’s law on our own? Do we motivate ourselves by our fear of God so we won’t misbehave? Do we honestly think it is because God’s desire is to keep us in constant fear and that He is going to crush us like bugs if we don’t toe the line? No! Then what is the point of us using fear, on our self and others, as a motivator for good behavior?

Remember the definition of “the law” in the Old Testament was simple and written requirements God set out for the Jewish people that would allow them to stay in the right relationship with Him. God created the Ten Commandments FOR His people. They were there for people’s protection just like guard rails on a curvy mountainous highway. But a cursory reading of the Ten Commandments brings us to the conclusion that no one has ever kept the law. All of us in the human race have broken those commandments. We have lied and coveted and not honored our parents and a whole lot more. The New Testament says something huge. It says “If someone obeys all of God’s laws except one, that person is guilty of breaking all of them.”

Wow. That’s a high standard. What’s that about? Who could even think about obeying all the laws of God all the time? When God made the universe He set it up as a moral universe. What that really means is it’s the kind of universe where the things you do matter. Your deeds have consequences. If you hit somebody you break their nose. And you actually break more than bones. You end up doing harm to the relationship you have with that person. God understands this cause and effect relationship. He set it up that way. What we reap we sow. Our actions matter. God expected people to live good, moral lives where they would show compassion and kindness and fight injustice. He would call the people He made to be of the highest moral fiber. But any thinking person realizes that God also gave people the ability to break His laws when He gave them free will. And people do break His laws with great regularity as we see each night on the news and as we walk down the streets of our villages, towns and cities.

Well that’s fine, but what was God really up to when He told us if we couldn’t obey all His laws it’s like we are guilty of breaking them all? When you read the Bible from cover to cover you see that God never lets up on the high standard He sets. In fact, He says things so beyond our comprehension they almost make us laugh. Like when He says “Be holy as I am holy.” Seriously?!

Well actually, yes. He was serious. This whole issue of God’s law itself and whether anyone had a prayer of keeping it completely was worked out by Jesus as He preached the Sermon on the Mount. On that mountain Jesus explained that the standard God set for Old Testament Jews He still wanted us to uphold but that Jesus was refining it to help us realize the standard was to be made even higher. But Jesus also explains in the Sermon on the Mount that this high standard has great and wonderful rewards. Jesus says “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall see God.” So His high standard, while high indeed, has a wonderful outcome. Jesus shows these high standards partly to encourage people how they could live happy, holy, and productive and caring lives. But he had another purpose.

Wait till you read the Sermon on the Mount again. You will see that the standard is truly Godlike. A standard so high it can’t be lived up to by we who are mortal! And you find out, as you wrestle with this thought, there was a reason why God did this. And that by showing the standard as insurmountably high must have been God’s point! Why else would you raise a bar even higher for a people who had never lived up to it in the first place! He wanted to make it really clear we couldn’t do it on our own and that without His Spirit living in us it was NEVER going to happen!

Um . . . does it have this odd feeling like we are being set up for failure? By God?

No, actually. It’s more like a master builder, who after asking his students to build a building as high as the heavens, tells them that not for one minute are they going to have to build this building alone. And that He will be with them each step of the way. When Jesus preached the truths of the Sermon on the Mount He built in the promises or the gifts we’d receive in each high standard he set out. When He says blessed are the merciful, He follows immediately with “they shall receive mercy.” So, yes, He is asking us to show mercy on people that it is sometimes hard to show mercy, too, but He reminds us those people will be shown mercy in unique ways. He is such an encouraging God! When He gets to the part where He says those who are persecuted for His sake are blessed He says “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in Heaven is great.” So when Jesus was setting this high standard He was promising us those actions would bring blessing to us, even if it would be in ways we couldn’t imagine. So these high, really impossible standards had promises built right in to them. And the reality is we are hard-wired by God for a desire to live these moral, honorable lives.

In most every place on the planet people want to live this exact kind of life with high moral standards. A truly well lived life! We can see this by the constitutions and legal systems of countries and municipalities but also in the rules we make for our own families. We really do care. And we want to live up to the standards of our own countries’ laws but also to a higher law. We are drawn to God’s law whether we understand it’s His or not. We want to be people of honesty and integrity who are able to show compassion and love towards other people. We really do! We see evidence of this desire in our response to what we read in the newspapers because we are embarrassed and saddened when we ourselves or others are not living up to high standards, ours or someone else’s. We are created in God’s image and there is a real desire in each of us to do what we understand to be right.

Can our desire for goodness and honesty and kindness ever be perverted? Actually made into the exact opposite? Well, yes. Little children in any culture have strong needs for belonging and acceptance and we see children following the adults around them, the good ones and the evil ones. Children and even adults can be taught to do wrong and essentially change their bent if there is enough incentive, coercion or fear involved.

If you look at the news today you see individuals being drawn into and indoctrinated in the evils of terrorism who as young children would never have dreamed of doing these things. And when I look at my family I see my nephews and nieces behaving the same way my brothers and sisters were trained to behave by my father. And what the masters of evil in any culture count on initially in their recruitment tactics is the human need to belong. If that doesn’t work, the teachers of evil move on to scare tactics and violence. But if we look at each person’s past, no matter how far back we have to look I believe we can see evidence of a desire to do what’s right and good and life giving in each of us, because each of us is made in the image of God. What I also see is with the folks in my family who have been able to leave the fold sometimes it’s the simplest things that let them know they must go. For some of them it is finding out that there truly are good and compassionate people on the “outside” even though they had always been told the opposite. Isn’t it interesting that love truly can ultimately prevail over fear?

I was many years into my life before Jesus’ love for me became the motivation for my actions instead of fear. I was taught to fear by my father. And my father did not just see to it that I was terrified of him, but that I was terrified of God. Somehow my father believed the only way to get “good behavior” out of us children was to terrify us. He must not have believed how much children are wired to want to please their parents. If my father had given me the slightest encouragement to be a good son and had understood my desire to please him and see a smile on his face or a “well done, son” that would have been so motivating. I had no idea that goodness or honesty or kindness or love could be the motivation for anything! I only knew fear as a motivator. And sadly for a while I motivated myself and even others by fear. It was what I had been taught and it was really my mother tongue. God rescued me from my family but I had a whole lot of unlearning of fear to do to get where I am today.

But now goodness and honesty and kindness and love all are motivations in my relationship with God. Now I know my God. I mean I know Him at a personal level. Or I am getting to know Him. If you love a person, your love goes beyond the facts of that person, goes beyond the intellectual knowledge you have about that person, but it is rooted in the facts about that person. For example, I love my wife because she is attractive to me, she is kind, she is sweet and she is nice and she is a great friend. All these things are facts about my wife, and therefore I love her. But my love goes beyond these facts. I could know all of these facts about my wife and not be in love with her and put my trust in her, but I do. My decision to love my wife goes beyond the evidence and facts of who she is, to the point of connecting with her essence, her soul and heart. We have shared thousands of special personal experiences that have deepened our mutual love, respect and submission. My wife and I are two souls who know one another intimately and deeply and will love one another forever.

It is the same with my love of God! My relationship with Jesus Christ goes beyond just knowing the historical facts about him, yet it is rooted in those exact historical facts. I believe in Jesus on the basis of the historical evidence, but my relationship with Jesus goes way beyond the evidence. I put my trust in Him and walk with Him on a daily basis. So my relationship with Jesus is no longer based just on my head knowledge and the information I have about Him. And it is not based any longer on fear. It is based on a daily, vital living loving relationship with Him. Very much like my relationship with my wife. He is living and real and a part of my minute by minute living! And he can be that for you if you want this!

Even with all of this, fear still creeps into my motivations for things at times, when stress is high or when I have failed. But I have had enough years now of knowing God’s love and goodness that the fear evaporates within seconds or within minutes now and I remember that God is my friend and a present help in trouble, not my adversary.

If you have been motivated by fear instead of love because of past abuse or mistreatment, know this is a process to being set free from it. But, oh, is it worth it! Love is such a beautiful basis for a relationship. And it will allow you to finally “be” you. With God and with others!

Mark Phelps

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