Don’t you see how wonderfully kind, tolerant, and patient God is with you? Does this mean nothing to you? Can’t you see that his kindness is intended to turn you from your sin?
- Romans 2:4
So there was this real life study conducted by real life psychologists twenty years ago that was published by the American Psychological Association. And it involved adults, cartoon mazes, owls, cheese, and mice. I know. This is off to an amazing start.
Research participants were given pencils and paper mazes, and told to help a cartoon mouse get from one end of the maze to other. The maze was the same for all the participants, but the imagery was different. On some of the papers, the end of the maze had a yummy piece of cheese waiting for the mouse. On the others, an owl looked down from the upper corner, on the hunt until the mouse got through the maze to safety.
And this crazy thing happened. There were different brain responses for the two groups of participants. Those doing the maze with the owl predator had their brains going into "avoidance mode," characteristic of the flight or flight response. Those whose mouse was going for the cheese had their brains go into "approach mode," characteristic of curiosity, desire, and eagerness.
There were two really interesting outcomes of this experiment. First, those whose mice were seeking the tasty cheese finished the same maze consistently faster than those whose mice were trying to avoid being digested.
Secondly, after these easy maze puzzles, participants were asked to do a creativity task. Those who had been chasing the cheese were twice as creative as those who had been avoiding the owl! Twice as creative! And these were just cartoon mazes. Just consider what must happen in our brains when we are motivated by fear, or motivated by goodness.
Many people are taught to believe that taking their faith seriously means needing to live up to God's standards and avoid God's punishment, disappointment, or judgment. God is seen as loving-ish, with a little bit of a dark side, and there's a whole lot of feeling not-good-enough. After all, we're told to be perfect like our heavenly father is perfect, right? (Matthew 5:48). That's a terrifying command!
Yet if we look at the entire arc of scripture, culminating in Jesus, we see a story that is characterized by love and invitation to something exceeding good: freedom, grace, fullness of life, forgiveness of sin, genuine relationship with God and others.
Love is expressed as the motivator over fear. Transformation comes from receiving God's gift of grace more than avoiding God's judgment.
In one approach, the end goal is simply relief. The bad thing didn’t happen.
But in the other, the end goal is fulfillment- a truly good thing happens! Which do you think sounds like abundant life? Turns out Jesus understands psychology.
God made us so that enjoying his presence is more transformative than avoiding his absence. Fear of punishment can only take you so far before the relationship falls apart. Love and connection creates lifelong transformation, and is more true to the character of Jesus we see revealed in the Bible. What incredibly good news that is for us today, when both fear and unmet expectations can have a crushing effect on our souls from all sides.
Do you want to be motivated to follow Jesus? To be more loving? To be a faithful Christian? You could try really hard to do everything right, believing that if you don't, God will be deeply disappointed in you. Or you could learn how beloved you are, and how much God longs to be in real relationship with you and set you free. And that, scientifically speaking, will provide the highest level of motivation you can get for living the Jesus way. Also, it will unleash your creativity to partner in building God's kingdom with freedom and joy.
Pursuing God because we long for more of God's goodness in us and in the world will always be more compelling than any alternative.
Jesus, fix my eyes on you today, so that I can move toward your kingdom life with joy and freedom.
(Details for the study: Friedman, R.S. &Forster J. (2001), "The Effects of Promotion and Prevention Cues on Creativity.")