Wednesday, July 13, 2011

How Do We Get People to Be Good (Including Ourselves)?

(If only he had believed he wasn't going to get any supper)
This is a short article from the July/August issue of Relevant magazine (which, may I add, is worth far more than its subscription price). It got me thinking.
Cheaters Never Win - But a Lot of Them Are Christians
Some people won't cheat because God says not to - but other people will because they know He'll forgive them. A new study called "Mean Gods Make Good People: Different Views of God Predict Cheating Behavior" says there aren't too many notable differences between believers and non-believers. However, among those who profess faith in the Big Guy, behavior and attitudes are greatly influenced by how the individual views the object of their belief. For example, if one sees God as an angry judge, they're less likely to cheat. But if one sees Him as gracious and loving, they're more likely to bend the rules and bank on forgiveness. 
"The take-home message is not whether you believe in God, but what God you believe in," said Azim Shariff, a University of Oregon psychologist who worked on the study. Research involved experimenting with 100 undergraduates taking a math test. The students were told about a "computer glitch" that would soon show them the correct answers - unless they opted out by pressing the space bar immediately. In addition, students were also given a survey about the details of their personal faith perspectives. In the end, those who associate a deity with compassion were more likely to peek at the correct answers.
While one experiment can hardly define the morality or behavior of all believers, scientific research is becoming an increasingly important component of ethical debate. "It provides a powerful tool to study what is a powerful force in the world," Shariff said.

What is the most effective way to get people to behave ethically? Is it fear of punishment or unconditional love? According to this study, fear of punishment is the way to go. But is it really?

For the last five years, a big part of my job has involved one-on-one discipleship, and a big part of discipleship involves trying to get people to behave. Every time I've had to address a disciple's bad behavior I've had to decide whether to emphasize God's love or His wrath. Without exception, I've always chosen to emphasize His love.

Why have I done this? To be honest, it's not because I expect that talking about God's love is going to be a more effective behavior modifier than talking about His wrath. The truth is, I do think the person who honestly believes God will smite them for cheating is less likely to cheat than the person who thinks God will forgive them. While I don't think fear of punishment is guaranteed to eliminate bad behavior, it is no doubt a powerful motivator. The research appears to confirm this.

The reason I've emphasized the love of God is because I believe the Gospel message emphasizes the love of God. The whole message of the Gospel - at least as far as I understand it - is that Christ has merited your salvation. What you couldn't earn, God has earned for you. Therefore, if someone is "in Christ" he can be confident of his salvation (how someone ends up "In Christ" for certain is a topic for another post).

This means that if one of the guys I'm discipling professes faith in Jesus but keeps getting drunk on the weekend, I can't tell him his soul is in danger. Well, I can, but if I do I'm implying that his works are what determine the destiny of his soul. That belief in itself is supposed to be a sin (or so I've heard - and possibly a more egregious one than drunkenness), so I've always steered clear of encouraging it.

So, when it comes to discipleship relationships, I usually spend a lot of time encouraging guys to see their relationship with God as secure and His love as unconditional. I tell them to avoid sin not because God will smite them if they engage in it, but because living in sin is like slapping a merciful Father in the face. In other words, I try to encourage people to change their behavior out of love for God rather than fear of Him.

This idea, of course, is not without Biblical roots. Romans 2:4 says that it's God's kindness that leads to repentance. Jesus also said that "he who has been forgiven much, loves much" (Luke 7:47). Both of these passages suggest that if people are going to love and serve God, they need to experience His kindness and forgiveness first. But if this is true, how do we explain the results of the research? The people who believed God to be forgiving and kind were the ones least likely to obey. What gives?

I think the best way to address this question is with another question -

Who demonstrates better behavior?

(a) A person who feeds a starving child because there is someone pointing a gun at his head demanding that he do it


(b) A person who feeds a starving child because he wants to do the right thing?

I'm sure almost every honest person would answer (b). We all know it is better to do something out of pure motivation than out of a desire to save your own skin. It's still better to feed the child than not to feed the child, but the person who feeds the child out of pure motivation performs a more excellent action than the one who does it because a gun is pointed at his head.

So even though fear of punishment is effective at creating good behavior, it is incapable of creating good motivation. If all God cared about was whether we performed moral actions, I'm sure he could devise some very frightening methods to get us to comply much better than we currently do. If everyone who had too much to drink or slept with his girlfriend was immediately struck dead and sent to Hell by the LORD, I'm sure we'd see a decline in drunkenness and fornication. But we would also end up in a world where no one ever had the opportunity to avoid drunkenness and fornication for the right reason: that is, out of a desire to love God and to love one's neighbor.

When I was in Italy, I met a philosophy student who said that "motivation doesn't matter, only the action itself." I asked him then if he thought people who kill in self-defense should face the same punishment as people who kill in cold-blood. I think that example alone was enough to show the flaw in his philosophy. Jesus affirmed the idea that God cares about more than just our behavior - He cares about our hearts. It's not enough not to murder, he said, because the anger that leads to murder is in itself a sin. It's not enough not to commit adultery, he said, because the lust that leads to adultery is also a sin. To experience true repentance is not just to have a change in behavior - it's to have a change in heart. Repentance is not what happens when someone obeys because a gun is pointed at their head. Repentance is what happens when someone obeys because they want to do what is right. 

A couple months ago when the tsunami hit Japan, I was fascinated by reports that said there were no incidents of looting after the disaster. None! The country modeled how to behave in a crisis beautifully. When I heard these reports, I wondered: Japan is one of the least-Christian nations in the world. Where are they getting this power to behave so morally? Then I was reminded that in the Japanese culture, doing anything that brings shame upon yourself or your family is to be avoided at all costs. The stigma that comes upon you (and your loved ones) for doing something like stealing is powerful and destructive, and Japanese people are willing to go to great lengths to "save face."

Now, I think the American culture could learn a lot from the Japanese and I respect the way they handled themselves immensely, but I think the circumstances surrounding their good behavior might have more in common with the gun-pointed-at-the-head scenario than with the the out-of-pure-motivation scenario. It could be that many of the Japanese chose not to loot or take advantage of the disaster out of a pure desire to do what is right, but the problem with punishment is that so long as the threat is there, we can never know.

Do you want to do what is right because you love God and love others? As long as the threat of Hell hangs over your head, you can never know. As long as that threat is there, every good behavior you do could simply be attributed to a desire not to be thrown into the flames. It is only when that fear is completely removed that the possibility opens for truly moral, truly beautiful motivation.

Maybe people who have confidence in God's mercy aren't more likely to behave better than people who think He's ready to condemn them. I'm not sure.  But what I am sure of is that people who have confidence in God's mercy have an opportunity to act out of purer motivation than those who don't.

So, does this study reveal that fear of punishment is more effective than mercy/kindness at leading to repentance? No, I don't think so - because repentance is more than doing the right thing - it's doing the right thing for the right reason. That is something a test can't measure.

I suppose I should add - I do think the threat of punishment - even the threat of punishment from God Himself - can and should be a motivating factor in our lives (at least in our weaker moments). The Bible does say that "the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom" (Proverbs 9:10). But notice it's the beginning of wisdom, not necessarily the end of it. Also, even though I usually choose to emphasize the love and grace of God in my discipleship relationships, I always try to help people see the ways that their sinful behaviors can (and do) hurt themselves and those around them. A lot of the time, sin is its own consequence, and that is something to be feared in and of itself. My main point is not that fear should never be an influence. My main point is that our purest, best actions are only free to be so when the threat of punishment is removed. The Gospel, as I understand it, enables us to live with that kind of freedom.

What would you do with freedom if you really had it?

What if all threat of punishment was removed?

What would you do?

Because what you would do says a lot about who you really are.


  1. If someone were to say that it is better to do the right thing not out of love for God but simply because one wants to do the right thing, I would offer a few thoughts:

    1. When this person says that it is "better" he/she is assuming that the motivation is "more morally right/pure." In other words, he/she is assuming the existence of absolute moral truth when it comes to the issue of right motivation. However, it is important to remember that the assertion of moral truth requires belief in a supreme Law-Giver, because in the absence of one the person's assertion that it is more morally right to do things out of love for God is no more right (or wrong) than another person's assertion that it is more morally right to do things simply because one wants to do them. Therefore, it makes more sense to say that doing things out of a love for God is the purest form of morality because if we don't include the concept of God in the first place, true morality doesn't exist.


2. I'm less certain of the next thing I'm going to say, but I'll say it anyway: If a person really desires to do what is truly right simply because it is right - not because of any kind of personal gain or pride or fear of what will happen if they don't - then I suspect that person's desire really isn't any different than love for God. A love for TRUE goodness is synonymous with a love for God, because God is the author and standard of goodness. If someone is doing good things purely because they love what is good, then I think they are loving God. However, this leads well into my third and final thought, which is...

    3. Is there anyone out there who really does do what is right simply because they want to do what is right?

  2. Just a few remarks on your 3 points:

    1. Why does one's subjective value of something need to be validated by an objective standard to be worth doing? If someone wants to watch a sunset because they believe it is beautiful does it matter if it actually is beautiful?

    2. Love for God is a subjective experience that may or may not also be objective. The objectivity of that love has no bearing on the subjective experience. One can still love goodness with or without a source.

    3. Self actualization is an important part of the hierarchy of needs. It is not enough for someone to have all their creature comforts met to lead a satisfied existence. They need to know that they are valuable. One way to feel like you are valuable is to pursue "higher" values and gain a sense of progress towards them. If someone wants to feel like they are a moral person, they make moral decisions and gain the sense of accomplishment in exchange for the situational inconveniences that might tempt them otherwise. It all comes down to cost and benefit.

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. In response to your comments...

      1. In many cases, one's subjective value of something does not need to be validated by an objective standard in order to be considered worth doing by the individual having the subjective experience. As you say, someone can enjoy a sunset whether or not they have outside confirmation that the sunset is objectively beautiful. But that's not what I'm talking about here. What I'm responding to here is the specific assertion that: "Doing a morally "right" action out of a simple desire to do the "right" thing is more GOOD than doing a morally right action because of love for God."

      When it comes to claims about what is right and what is wrong, those claims need to be validated by an objective standard because they are claiming the existence of an objective standard. It is the nature of the claim. When someone says "it is wrong to steal," he is making an objective claim. If he was only saying something subjective, the statement wouldn't be meaningful. The person who says "it is wrong to steal" doesn't mean "I prefer not stealing." He means, "It is objectively wrong for people to steal."

      2. I agree that "love for God is a subjective experience that may or may not also be objective," but I disagree that the objectivity of that love has no bearing on the subjective experience. If someone thinks that their experience of God's love is merely a subjective experience and has no basis in objective reality, the experience will not be very meaningful for them. One has to believe that the subjective experience of God's love that one is having is actually a reflection of an objective reality in order for it to be truly meaningful. When people no longer believe that their faith has any basis in objective reality, they lose it.

      I agree with you that one can still love "goodness" even without being consciously aware of the source. If one love's goodness, one should ask him or herself what goodness really is and if it can actually exist in any meaningful sense in the absence of a God. I think love for goodness, even if it is an impure love, should lead people to an acknowledgement of (and hopefully a love of) God.

      3. I agree with you that "it is not enough for someone to have all their creature comforts met to lead a satisfied existence." Absolutely. I also agree with you that people want to "know that they are valuable." The follow-up question I would have is: Do you think that there are objectively right ways of convincing one's self of one's value and objectively wrong ways of convincing one's self of one's value? On my favorite TV show of the moment - Breaking Bad - the protagonist Walt tries to prove his value by gaining power over people and by making a lot of money by cooking meth. Is that "objectively wrong"? It seems like the view you are espousing doesn't allow room for claiming one way or the other, especially if the person doing the "wrong" thing considers his (or her) method of establishing value personally effective.