My brother Scott is an expert in motivational theory. A behavioral scientist and psychologist, he consults with companies that are realizing there is a limit to how much they can capture in market share by capitalizing on insecurities and promoting rewards. Scott helps them, instead, to develop autonomy in their clientele and employees, inviting them to act on the basis of their intrinsic values, needs and desires rather than merely in relation to extrinsic demands, expectations, requirements and benefits.
This is challenging work in a world devoted to measuring people’s worth in terms of productivity. In a culture where every Instacart delivery is rated three ways, where every minute a student spends on the class portal is counted and logged by an L.M.S. (Learning Management System) and where even our assessments are ranked on a scale from “helpful” to “unhelpful,” how are we possibly to live as those who believe we are enough? (If you find the Calm app helpful in this regard, by the way, would you please log in and rate it a 5?)
How does this landscape affect the way we engage Christian practices? Naturally, it often leads the faithful to want to find ways to track our progress. The problem is that this can quickly give way to focusing on how successful we are at the practices, rather than being present to the practices themselves.
Several years back, when many churches were running programs for reading the Bible in a year, I became alarmed at how many people felt inordinately guilty because they couldn’t keep up with the readings. This was not only because the readings were long, they told me, but because they were stuck in something they had read in the Bible that troubled them — and there was no provision to pause and discuss. One woman even blurted out in the middle of a workshop I was leading, “I HATE reading the Bible!” She had been explaining that her pastor had advised her to keep pushing forward, remembering that her Bible reading was only a means to an end, the real end being to know God better. Her surprise at her own angry outburst was mitigated only by her even greater surprise at my response: “I think you should stop reading the Bible for a year and see what happens,” I said. “Am I allowed to do that?” she asked, laughing. A year later she emailed me to say that she had taken the break and now felt free to read and study without any stymying pressure. She was coming to see her reading – including her struggle with difficult questions – as a way of communing with God.
Calvin lived before intrinsic motivation was a thing, but I think he glimpses it in his discussion of Christian freedom. A Christian is “free from the law to obey it,” he says. We are enough – claimed and beloved as God’s children – regardless of whether we keep the law or not, regardless of whether we engage in Christian practices or not. And when we do, we don’t do it for the bonus bucks or for fear of penalty. We pray, read, clothe, feed, do justice — all for their own sake. These are some of the immediate ways that we can live in relationship with God and one another.
My spouse and colleague, Bill Greenway, is fond of talking about those baffled sheep in Matthew 25. They ask: But when did we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and imprisoned? (All the while we who are reading the story sweat it out on their behalf, thinking something like: Run, Mario, run! Big bonus bucks! Get on through those gates, already!)
May God grant us the grace to splash as playfully in grace as those sheep, free at last from those tyrannous questions, “How am I doing?” and “How do I rank?”
Cynthia Rigby is professor of theology at Austin Theological Seminary in Texas.