Have you ever stopped to ask why you do what you do?
Are you volunteering at your kid's school because you really want to be there or is it because you feel obligated and fear that other parents might think less of you if you don't?
When leaving a neighbor's house after having been invited over for dinner and you say, "We should have you over next week." Are you saying that because you really want to have them over, or because you feel a sense of guilt if you don't return the invitation?
When your friend asks for help moving, are you eager to say yes because you want to help them, or because you fear they'll think you're a crumby friend if you don't?
Many of us (myself included) are often motivated by fear and guilt when making these types of decisions. As a pastor, I find this mentality readily translates into our relationship with God. Rather than pursuing God because we love him and genuinely want to spend time with him, we do it because we fear God's disapproval and disappointment. We are driven by feelings of guilt for not being disciplined or spiritual enough.
A few years back I came across a diagram that captures this well. It was created by a guy named JR Briggs. It's called the Endless Cycle of Religious Enslavement.
The cycle starts with trying hard. We often believe that we have to earn God's approval, and in order to do so we have to "do things for God." That could look like waking up early in the morning to read our Bible and pray, serving at our church or out in the community, or just overall trying to be a better person.
However, the problem is no matter how hard we try, our need for approval from God won't ever be met through doing things for Him because God doesn't approve of us based on our actions.
Therefore, as we hope to win God's approval, regardless of what we are trying to do for him, we naturally grow fatigued. We expect the harder we work the more we'll experience approval, but it doesn't happen. So, we naturally quit.
But then, it's only a matter of time before the nagging sense of God's disapproval starts to creep into our soul. We feel guilty for abandoning our "win-God's-approval project." And since we believe the way to receive God's approval is to do things for Him, we start all over again and try really hard.
In order to break the cycle, we need a paradigm shift. We need to see that God doesn't approve us because of what we do for him, but because of what Jesus has done for us. Jesus has done the work God required for us to receive God's approval.
That doesn't mean our relationship with God is void of spiritual work requiring spiritual effort. Dallas Willard said, "The gospel isn't opposed to effort. It's opposed to earning." But with this paradigm shift our spiritual effort has a very different motivational structure behind it.
Instead of being driven by guilt and fear doing things for God trying to earn his approval, we are compelled by gratitude and joy working in partnership with God to bear witness to His grace and love.
So, when it comes to your relationship with God (or any other relationship for that matter), why are you doing what you're doing? Is it guilt, anxiety, and fear? Or is it gratitude and joy?