Extrinsic motivators are continually at work in our lives, shaping our choices and lending direction. These motivators, both those made by man and those designed by God, represent an important ingredient that adds order and structure to our lives. They serve purpose that cannot and should not be denied. Effective employers, teachers, and parents all understand how to wisely and properly use external motivation in order to move others toward established goals.
Discussions centering on the proper use of external motivators continually draw a wide range of viewpoints and opinions, for the responses these motivators draw are as diverse as the individuals represented. The same motivator that stirs one person to action has the ability to frustrate another. For example, we have all witnessed our share of energetic debates over institutional rules that generate more heat than light. These debates continually remind me of how much time we can waste seeking to find common ground when it is not possible or even necessary to be found. Apart from the mandates of God's Word and from those whom the Lord has placed at the decision tables, is it necessary for us to find agreement with an institution's code of student conduct before we embrace any biblical admonishment to withhold negative judgment and criticism?
I am not against hearty discussions that are driven by the Word; for although I am concerned about wasting time with fruitless debate, I am just as concerned about substantive topics of needful examination that too quickly become derailed. A discussion about the difference between a Holy Spirit-driven intrinsic motivator that yields heart transformation and a man-driven extrinsic motivator that yields outward conformity is of grave importance; however, it can be a frustrating train of thought to keep on track without it deteriorating into an irrelevant debate about the existence of rules, with one side offering a militant defense for their preservation and the other cheering on their removal. This article carries with it a probability of this kind of derailment, the same probability that was carried by a previous article I wrote calling for a measure of thoughtful examination of our system of rewards. Although there was no call for the abolishment of rewards, the subsequent discussion evolved into a defense for their existence.
The Enemy is a liar and a deceiver who is masterful at using "good things" to divert our trust and confidence away from the One who is our only source of hope and righteousness. Therefore, it is imperative that we offer diligent and sober attention to everything that carries the potential danger of misguiding us, even if that danger lurks within profitable external motivators that come in the form of rewards, rules and regulations, and distributions of discipline. In reaction to the shrill of fleshly calls for liberty and humanistic cries for fairness, we cannot afford to strike postures of defense that do not allow us to render humble and thoughtful evaluation.
We are all faced with the ongoing temptation to relinquish measures of trust and confidence into hands other than God's. It is a continual challenge not to view our perceived successes through a human lens that distorts our perspective, leading us to embrace our man-made instruments of intervention with a fervor that has us bestowing upon them a power that does not exist. When the "horses and chariots" of our lives are effective in helping to drive us to right action and to carry us to honorable places, they can appear mighty enough for us to misplace our confidence within their strength. No matter how vehemently we declare that our trust is in the Lord, our conversations often betray us. How often do we find ourselves offering assurances of physical safety to our children in a manner that inappropriately sets confidence in seatbelts, helmets, locks, and security systems instead of in a sovereign Creator? How often do we share testimonies of sanctification that are unwittingly attributed to man and his effective structures of guidance and discipline instead of to the work of God's amazing grace? How often do we use or absorb marketing endeavors that unwittingly, yet unbiblically, exalt human instruments as the power behind heart transformation and the source of spiritual safety and physical protection?
Extrinsic motivators carry with them temptations of diversion that can cause us to neglect that which is truly needful. We can devote such large amounts of time to the maintenance and repair of protective guardrails that we remain oblivious to the potholes of sin that are eroding the highway of the heart. We can dedicate such raptured attention to the proper wearing of armor that our inspections of sufficiently lengthened loincloths and loose-fitting breastplates leave us open to attack. And in our efforts to strive for excellence and to reward men for accomplishments well done, we can expend so much energy vying for blue ribbons and patting each other on the back that we are too weary to honor God. These temptations exist in spite of the fact that the attention and efforts offered to these places of potential diversion can indeed be legitimate and profitable.
Of all the potential dangers that accompany extrinsic motivators, by far the greatest is the temptation they bring to replace the one truly needful, intrinsic motivation that has the power to transcend the limitations of every human endeavor and move us down paths of true righteousness. It should be no surprise that our Enemy, the Accuser, would so intently strive to divert our attention away from this Gospel-centered motivator. As Horatius Bonar poignantly articulates, it is the one motivator that will drive us to our knees in worship of a merciful Redeemer:
It is forgiveness that sets a man a-working for God. He does not work in order to be forgiven, but because he has been forgiven; and the consciousness of his sin being pardoned, makes him long more for its entire removal than ever he did before. A forgiven man is a true worker, the true law-keeper. He can, he will, he must work for God. He has come into contact with that part of God’s character which warms his cold heart. Forgiving love constrains him. He cannot but work for Him Who has removed his sins from him as far as the east is from the west. Forgiveness has made him a free man, and given him a new and most loving Master. Forgiveness received freely from the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ acts as a spring, an impulse, a stimulus of divine potency. It is more irresistible than law, or terror, or threat.
I confess that I am one of those mothers who passionately embraces strong guardrails for her children; and for the most part, I believe I can offer a rather convincing defense for the wisdom of their existence. However, the Lord has increasingly convicted my heart about my desperate need to continually safeguard my thinking against finding the slightest measure of comfort in their ability to produce heart transformation. Otherwise, I can quickly find myself devoting inordinate amounts of emotional energy to their maintenance and to the distribution of consequences when they are damaged by vehicles of self-will. And when my heroic efforts at keeping the household in line prove to be sufficient, a false sense of satisfaction easily fills my heart; and when my efforts don't prove to be sufficient, my responses easily deteriorate into expressions of frustration and fear. Either way, the deadly result is that the message of the cross and Christ’s forgiveness becomes lost in the entire process.
In our embracing of those profitable extrinsic motivators that help our lives function more smoothly, may we not only remember that they are powerless to transform the heart, but also continually render thoughtful examination as to whether the time and energy they demand is replacing or diluting attention that would be much better given to the exaltation of our Lord Jesus Christ and His marvelous grace. May we allow nothing to overshadow the message that, as redeemed children of God, there is a condemnation that we should own that we will never see nor ever know.
Holly Stratton, mother of two, is wife of Dr. Dick Stratton, president of Clearwater Christian College (Clearwater, FL). She earned a bachelor's degree in Home Economics Education from Bob Jones University (BJU) and a master's degree in Child and Family Development from the University of Georgia. She taught family and personal management courses at BJU for 18 years as well as a Christian womanhood series for the Homesat network. Besides teaching at Clearwater Christian College, Holly is a frequent speaker at ladies' retreats.