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Ask Conciliar Post: “A Question of Motivation”

One of the many unique features of Conciliar Post is the Ask function that allows readers to pose questions to the Conciliar Post community. Unfortunately, this portion of our attempts to further meaningful and informed dialogue has often resulted in questions which are (for a variety of reasons) not suitable for public response. However, we very much enjoy seeing the kinds of questions our readers are asking, and whenever possible, we are always happy to try and provide what we hope will be well-informed and interesting answers. Today’s article is a perfect example. One of our readers, Joshua, has posed the following question: “What is the most effective method of motivation? Fear—punishment. Trust—honor. Shame—identity.” What follows is my best attempt at an answer.

There are those who are able to see incredible distances due to the strength of their own eyes and great stature; there are those who, by standing on the backs of giants, are able to see marvelous things with their own eyes even though they lack the strength and vision to do so alone; and then there are those who, finding themselves in the company of such great adventurers and visionaries, benefit from the tales of their experiences without having ever exerted the effort or acquired the strength to experience such adventures first hand. In spiritual matters, there is no doubt that I fall into the third category. Only being able to reiterate what I have read in spiritual books or acquired from spiritual men and women, I am unable to speak from my own experience, and therefore want to begin by asking your forgiveness for any errors or oversights that I have fallen prey to as a result of my own inexperience in spiritual matters. With this disclaimer ever on your watchful minds, let us evaluate the question at hand.

The fear of punishment—and the corresponding expectation of reward—have long been known to behaviorist psychologists as quite effective means of altering specific behaviors. Classically called “positive” and “negative” reinforcement, they are now often referred to more simply as “reinforcement” and “punishment,” respectively. These methods can be used as effectively with non-rational animals as they can with rational human beings, but they can also be used on human subjects subconsciously. As such, these practices (along with their corresponding behavioral contingencies such as “avoidance,” “time-out,” etc.) are very useful for altering specific behaviors in any kind of animal or human, but they are even more useful on the sub/non-rational level, as they are probably the strongest forms of motivation that can be externally imposed on such beings.

For this reason, these motivational tools are what we generally see practiced with very young children and the mentally handicapped, although their application certainly runs a much larger gamut. As Christians, we can see these same methods used by God in the Old Testament with a spiritually young humanity. The entire framework for the Law is that if the people of God follow him they will be blessed, and if they do not follow him they will be cursed.1 There are only hints and whispers in the Law and Prophets as to any kind of reason why this might be the case—it remains purely on the level of God more or less telling his people that he will hurt them unless they do what he says. It is not until the New Testament that we begin to see the full picture of why this is so, but we are getting ahead of ourselves.

So we come to the couplets “Shame–identity” and “Trust–honor.” While much has been made of the difference between “shame” and “guilt” cultures in sociological circles, I do not think this distinction will be of much use to us on the topic of motivation. I say this because, if we are attempting to get to the root of what does or should motivate us, I think we can see that even in “shame” cultures, the core operating behavioral contingency is still punishment/reinforcement (the fear of shame, or the reward of identification with your group). While this may be a slightly more elevated level behaviorally (what one behaviorist is calling “rule-governed behavior”2), it is still based upon the kinds of motivation we have already discussed. Without spending the time to make a categorical argument, I believe we can quickly see the same will be true of using trust and honor as motivations, since what will be operating on the motivational level is still fear of breaking trust, the reward of being honored, etc. The foundations of these motivational forces still remain sub-rational, animalistic, and automated. Such an account, were we to stop here, would fit nicely into a Darwinian model of what it means to be human, but is there anything more we can say?

As Christians, I believe there is much more that we must say. The good news of the New Testament Scriptures is precisely the declaration of freedom from the above description of a purely behavioral, animalistic understanding of human action. This is why the Psalmist cries: “The afflictions of my heart are multiplied; bring me out from my necessities” (Ps. 24:17 [25:17])3. It is for this reason that we pray in the Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom for deliverance from all affliction, wrath, danger, and necessity, and the prophet says that the Christ will come “to decree the release of captives, and the freeing of prisoners” (Is. 61:1b; Lk. 4:21).4 All of creation was subjected to the futility of necessities with the fall of Adam,5 to the vanity of vanities,6 to the existential crises that all serious modern sociology must come to terms with; the frustrations, absurdity, angst, alienation, and anomie of modern life—in short, sin. All of this is what our Lord put to death on the Cross, having shown us a still more excellent way,7 and all that remains now is our free embrace of this way. And it must be embraced freely, for the path is narrow.8

I will lead the blind along an unfamiliar way; I will guide them down paths they have never traveled.9 

In fact, there is only one form of motivation appropriate for Christians, which is love, and here we come full-circle to the why of the Law. When our children are young, we tell them that they must learn to read and write, and we threaten them with punishments and/or motivate them with rewards in order to gain their obedience. We do this because we know that they will have a much higher quality of life in the future if they know how to read and write, but they do not yet possess the abstract reasoning skills necessary to think about things such as “future quality of life.” Likewise, the Law worked in human history, as “our guardian until Christ came” (Gal. 3:24), teaching us how to behave and administering punishments for offenses and rewards for obedience. And it had to be so for the same reason as in our childhood education example: humanity was not yet ready to accept the absurdity of loving its enemies. Humanity would not become ready to accept this little piece of nonsense10 until it was united with God himself in the Incarnation, and shown by our Lord what such love can accomplish.

The foundational teaching of the Law was to love God with all your being,11 and to love every human being in existence as you love yourself.12 “On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets” (Matt. 22:40). Now this all sounds great until you draw an obvious and very difficult inference—it also entails loving your enemies, even while they crucify you. But this goes directly against those powerful necessities we talked about earlier, namely self-preservation and the fear (or avoidance) of death. Even with apparent piety we could argue with such a command: What benefit is there if I go down into the pit, will the dead praise thee, O God?13 That would be a very American response (and, in fact, this is precisely how many Americans react to their first encounter with the writings of some early Christian martyrs; I must admit it was mine). But Christ also tells us why this must be so; if we are to become sons of God, we must behave as he behaves, and this self-emptying love is the essence of God’s behavior, not to mention his being. God is love.14 Our Lord explains it this way:

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor’ and ‘hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be like your Father in heaven, since he causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Even the tax collectors do the same, don’t they? And if you only greet your brothers, what more do you do? Even the Gentiles do the same, don’t they? So then, be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matt. 5:43-48)

And in what does the perfection of the Father consist? It is precisely the same perfection revealed in the Son, who “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:6-8).15 If you want to live the life of God, you must first die his death.16

The snare is broken, and we are delivered.17 

This teaching is what the leaders of the Jews found scandalous. The Pharisees had fear of punishment and the expectation of reward—these terms they well understood. But when the God who is love became flesh and walked among them, they could not recognize him as God or give him glory, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Man, being in honor, did not understand; he is compared to the mindless beasts, and has become like unto them.18 Theological knowledge of the deepest mysteries of God is futile, faith deep enough to move mountains and stop the sun vain, and even martyrdom useless, if we have not love.19 And not just any interpretation of love, but the true self-emptying love of the Cross, which is the power to die every second20 and be resurrected again and again, from glory to glory.21 The Cross is where God’s love for us is revealed and fulfilled, and it is also where our love for God and each other must be made manifest. By carrying our own crosses, with the power of his grace, we co-redeem22 the world with and in Christ. If we are not being conformed into the image of Christ crucified, then we are not being conformed into the image of Christ, for he is not divided.23 No servant is greater than his master.24

We have now covered much more than was really asked for at the outset, but this is all so important, and all so connected, that I felt the liberty to continue at length. Still, there is much more that could be said, particularly by those who have actually lived the life I can only describe. So, rather than concluding this matter by “wrapping it up,” I would like to leave you with a few words from just such pious men:

“It is a very common thought in the writings of the early christian ascetics that man must go through these three stages—slave, hireling and son. The slave is one who obeys for fear, the hireling is one who obeys for reward and the son is one who acts for love.”25

“Often neither labour, nor prostrations, nor crossing ourselves attract God’s grace. There are secrets. The most important thing is to go beyond the formal aspects and go to the heart of the matter. Whatever is done must be done with love.”26

“Love towards God is a great power. If the ordinary sinful human passions are able to make a man forget all dangers and sufferings for no other reason but the satisfaction of his sinful thirst, then what heavenly strength can come over those who are burning with a seraph’s love for God! For instance, the man enveloped by the passion for riches stays up whole nights thinking how to increase his riches; undertakes long and dangerous journeys across seas and mountains; suffers, frets and fumes, and endures all this heroically in the name of mammon. The man whose morbid sense of pride has been hurt wonders how to avenge himself; he is ready to demand a duel, even with the risk of dying. The man with a passion for fornication knows that he will pay with his soul for his deadly sin, but he is ready to undergo eternal torment if he could only satisfy his sinful lust. If even these earthly, sinful passions can overcome the fear of suffering, then could not love for God drive away faint-heartedness in the face of temporary sorrows?”27

“The goal of our life is nothing other than cleansing our heart to such an extent that it is able to sing with joy. Thus, prayer of the heart leads to joy of the heart. Nothing is difficult for a joyful person, because he has love.”28

May God bless you.


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Micah Carlson

Micah Carlson

Micah is a writer and a student. He holds a BA in Rhetoric and Writing Studies and a BA in Philosophy from Western Michigan University. He enjoys Linux, reading, practising martial arts, firearms training, playing chess, and of course, spending time with his wife.

  • Micah, I appreciated the depth of this piece (from my very lay perspective in the realm of psychology)… And that you worked through the details of how God made us physical/mental/emotional creatures who are/ought to be motivated by love.

  • Micah Carlson

    One of our readers on social media has pointed out that my description of behavioral contingencies in this article is not accurate, and he is completely correct. As I did not anticipate trained behaviorists to be among those in our audience, and as I did not intend to write about behaviorism as such, but rather about the human subject and the freedom and love offered to that subject by the Gospel, I was very loose in my description of behaviorist psychology.

    Strictly speaking, behaviorist psychology deals only in behaviors, not in subjects, and only in terms of increase or decrease in the frequency of behaviors, not in terms of “fear of punishment” or “desire for reward.” Thoughts, expectations, desires, and fears are all things which cannot be observed, and therefore not usually used in behaviorist descriptions, with the exception of rule-governed behavior, which as I understand is still a controversial area, and even if accepted is still based upon the strictly deterministic, foundational behavioral contingencies. So, a behaviorist would not say “Rudolf pressed the green lever because he was thirsty, and knew that he would be rewarded with a drop of water,” but rather “Rudolf pressed the green lever because pressing the green lever in the past resulted in the presentation of a reinforcer (water).” They would know that water in this situation is a reinforcer, not because “Rudolf likes water,” but because “the response-contingent presentation of water in the past resulted in an increased frequency of that response.” And even then they would want to clarify that water may only work as a reinforcer in the presence of another “motivating operation,” namely, that Rudolf has been depraved of water for a certain period of time.

    You can see how this language could quickly become a distraction in an article only indirectly related to behaviorist psychology. Therefore, I have opted to use more colloquial language which will undoubtedly make trained behaviorists squirm in their seats, and for this I am sorry. The lack of conceptual clarity was intended to make the overall story more clear to a wider audience, and not simply the result of carelessness, ignorance, or intentional misinformation.