Perfect Love Casteth Out Fear: A Look at Motivation

 DSCN2399  by Alisa

In Relief Society last month, the teacher said we should encourage our kids “to only marry someone who comes from a family where both parents have stuck it out together, so that our children will be encouraged to stick through whatever trials their marriages bring.” Not having read the General Conference talk she was speaking of, I was unsure whether that was her counsel or the counsel in the talk. Either way, I cringed as I quickly counted that at least 20% of the women in that room had been divorced at some point, and wondered what they were thinking about the marital success of their kids. I realized that the lesson, while attempting to teach good principles, was coming from a place of fear, particularly a fear that adults are too shaped by their childhoods to choose their path for themselves. It wasn’t an atypical lesson for Relief Society, and I do not blame the teacher for the motivation of fear. As a lifelong Mormon, it’s a motivation that I resonate with all too well.
I had a recent late-night chat with my terminally-ill father and my siblings. My dad explained how his views of the nature of our motivation for living the gospel has changed over time. He said that while he believes that teaching and keeping the 10 Commandments, the Word of Wisdom, observing the sabbath and fasts, obediently paying tithing, etc. (essentially living the gospel out of duty, fear, or in search of reward), was all the “Gospel 101” class in our lifetime, that he felt that the upper-division course is all about being motivated by mercy and love, which are the motivations he ascribes to Jesus and God. He talked of how the way of explaining the Savior as the mediator and God as the harsh justice-seeking money lender didn’t make as much sense to him when it appears that God is actually very good at blessing both the wicked and the righteous. Because Jesus says that everything he did he saw his father do, my dad has come to the belief that God is very, very compassionate and loving. And I’ll tune my ears to that. Since my dad is dying from his second round of cancer in five years, he has plenty to fear, plenty to feel punished for. Yet he feels overwhelming love.
My dad is quite a different man in his 60’s than the 30-something man who raised me to wake up at 6:00 am to read scriptures, who never allowed caffeine or playing cards into our home (nor allowed us to come into contact with these things), and who banned Sleepless in Seattle for promoting cohabitation. We lived in a very strict system where all commandments were to be obeyed to the jot and tittle, and where nothing was excused. We did these things because they were the commandments, because they were a test to see if we’d follow everything the prophet asked of us. And because we didn’t want God to be disappointed or to forfeit our right to be an eternal family.
Whether it was intended or not, the message that I received was one of rewards and punishments. I believed it was entirely up to me to earn my salvation, my exaltation. I had a great start. My parents showed that it was somewhat possible to do every single little tiny outward thing. They certainly tried, and I have to give them credit. But for me, I was lacking in the spirit of why we did these things. As a teenager, I began to experience deep depression that I interpreted to be God’s rejection and disapproval of me. I did some desparate things to try to make up for the infinite number of imperfections I had. I became a perfectionist, wishing to cleanse myself of sin, to suffer as Jesus suffered, to shed my metaphorical 1,000 drops of blood, so that the Savior would not have to suffer for me. I convinced myself that I did this out of love for the Savior. But now as I look back on it, I think I was actually trying to cover my bases in case the Savior rejected me. I’d never really had a spiritual manifestation of his forgiveness, so all I had were my works to speak for me.
In the New Testament, Jesus uses the motivations of punishment, reward, and love. He occasionally talks of hellfire, holds out reward of heaven an earth in the beatitudes, and lets us know that when we really are in tune with love, we’ll have peace, friendship/neighborliness, and spiritual feasting. I recognize that Jesus is able to live in a meld of seemingly conflicting ideas much better than I am, as I tend to experience one at a time.
In graduate school, one of my colleagues introduced me to the idea that we don’t keep the commandments to earn a reward such as salvation, but that we keep the commandments because we love the Savior and have faith that he will take care of our salvation—afterall, that is his job. This was a radical shift from the way I had structured the whole system in my mind. Taking the idea of earning rewards or punishments out of my hands and filling myself with love and faith at first seemed to completely remove my control over my spirituality. Could love really be enough of a motivation to live a good life? Over time, I let this thought of love slip into my heart more and more. Eventually, it’s became my primary motivation for doing what I do. It’s even why it has taken me this long to feel good about conceiving this child I’m expecting in January—I waited until I felt so full of love and so devoid of fear that this monumental change seemed to work in my life.
When I look at the world, there is plenty to fear. At the same time, there is plenty to bless. Those two flip sides are enough to keep me engaged for a long time as I go back and forth. But focusing on love is like a peaceful respite through that process, a rest which takes me right to the core of where I need to be, centered and grounded. As John said in his first epistle: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casteth out fear… We love him, because he first loved us.”


Alisa is a professional adult educator and corporate manager who enjoys spending time with her husband and son.

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17 Responses

  1. mb says:

    “…he felt that the upper-division course is all about being motivated by mercy and love, which are the motivations he ascribes to Jesus and God.”

    Amen. Bless your father for making that transition. It’s one we must all make at some time in the continuum of our existence. Some get it as young as teenagehood, some when they are grey-haired, some not until another eon or so afterwards.

    Blessed are the children whose parents understand it. That can make their relationship with God so much clearer and sweeter.

  2. Emily U says:

    That was really lovely. Thanks for posting it.

  3. Gwen says:

    This was wonderful, thank you sharing. I especially loved this line: “…we don’t keep the commandments to earn a reward such as salvation, but that we keep the commandments because we love the Savior and have faith that he will take care of our salvation—afterall, that is his job.” Like you, I went through a period where I thought I deserved to be unhappy. I drank in high school, but sincerely repented before going to school at BYU. I struggled with feeling like I was “less than” some of the other BYU students who I perceived were squeaky clean. I came to understand I was missing the point of the gospel entirely, that the Lord will fight our battles for us, so to speak, so that we don’t have to live our lives constantly berating ourselves for past mistakes. Thanks for sharing your insights.

  4. Jocelyn says:

    I’ve watched my parents make a similar transition the last few years. They lived such obedient and dedicated lives and then they watched their children choose alternate paths. They learned new lessons of love and compassion through my sisters’ and my rebelliousness. As they’ve transitioned from “Gospel 101” to the upper division courses, they’ve been able to tutor me in a new understanding of motivation. I can accept the gospel in its beauty of grace, charity, and compassion without feeling the overwhelming guilt of inadequacy, marginalization, and rejection.

  5. Dora says:

    Alisa, this is wonderful.

    I’ve been contemplating this paradigm shift for some years now, but it really came home during the last elections. I became quite sad and disgusted with how fear was used to manipulate the voters. Fear, not caution or planning or discretion, and purported saviors from fear.

    The intriguing thing is that fear and love are so diametrically opposed. Fear would make us small, closed against growth and isolates. Love brings us out, inspired us to explore and grow and learn, and to share.

    What a different place the world would be, if we were all motivated by love and … instead of fear, selfishness, greed and envy. We would be a more giving, kind, lovely and Christ-like people. Thanks for the reminder. Again, I will start with myself.

  6. Jessawhy says:

    Thank you, Alisa.
    This post is so eloquently written and so personal it makes me want to give you a hug.

    With the joys and sorrows you are experiencing right now, I’m glad that you can find love as the central motivation for your choices in life.

    I feel so much peace reading your post. I will come back to it again and again.

  7. Mindy says:

    Thank you for this post. Beautiful.

  8. chelseaw says:

    Amen and amen.

    I’m wondering now if there is some reason that we need to learn “Gospel 101” first before transitioning to the Gospel of Love. I don’t think there is (and I think much harm can be done from teaching the Gospel 101 model). That’s certainly not the way Christ himself taught. But I guess I’m trying to give church leaders the benefit of the doubt. Any ideas?

  9. CatherineWO says:

    A beautiful post. Thank you.

  10. Alisa says:

    Thank you all so much for your comments and encouragement.

    chelseaw, when I spoke to my dad, I actually mentioned the same thing! I don’t think that rewards and punishments have to be part of the Gospel 101, and that love is later learned. I certainly think that if we can start off kids with a center in love, their experience with the gospel would be better. However, I know that I used to be such a black and white person. I wanted boundaries. I wanted things clear cut. Maybe that was part of my psycological development?

    While I can’t say my path was the ideal way, the feelings of peace and relief that have come after my new perspective is so sweet when contrasted to the feelings of my past. I would never know that feeling of liberation had I not had that struggle.

  11. Alisa says:

    mb and Jocelyn, isn’t it great seeing that our parents can change? I hope that I’m as self-examining as my father when I’m his age.

    Gwen, I’m so glad you eventually reached the understanding. The point isn’t to avoid using the atonement (none of us can do that), the point is to learn where to go when we need it! I think the Savior’s love is always there, but we have to care enough for ourselves to utilize it.

  12. Alisa says:

    Dora, I feel the same way about applying this generally to society (and politics!). There’s something in human nature that responds to fear. It’s sad to think how much we talk past each other when we could really be working on making things better.

    Jess, I’ll take that virtual hug anytime!

  13. D'Arcy says:


    Simply stunning writing as usual. I love the journey of your father, and each of us has such a journey in every day we live. It’s sad when people have to bring fear into your life by saying your should discount people for marriage just because their parents didn’t stay together.

    My parents stuck it out, and they had about 25 years of the worst marriage I had ever seen. I am not married, and often when my mother would pressure me as to why I wasn’t being with this boy or didn’t accept this proposal, I just looked at her and thought “really, so I can have what you have?”

    Life is messy. People make mistakes. I also think that that is what makes life beautiful and the people who live their lives strong. I would hate to promote an idea of not associating with people just because of their beautiful trials.

    love you.

  14. mb says:

    I think you are right in your notion of it being a part of our psychological development. Certainly many psychologists recognize a hierarchy of motivations that most people at least partially go through in their lifetimes. In one of it’s more common forms it looks like this:
    1. fear of punishment or discomfort
    2. hoping for a reward
    3. sense of duty or obligation
    4. commitment to principles/integrity
    5. love/compassion

    Most of us start our infancy in stage 1. That’s just human. Hopefully as we mature we move from stage to stage. Some of us do it sooner than others. I’ve got a ways to go, finding myself multi-leveled, governing some areas of my life with motivations from one level and other areas of my life on others.

    I hope to become totally love/compassion-motivated, but I’m certainly not there yet. Having that as the vision, however, is soooo good. And tapping into that love from Jesus is the best catalyst for becoming more so.

    Parents who have that vision of divine motivation can teach it to their children. That way, thought they will likely not fully get it at first, when their children are ready to learn it, it is there for them.

  15. Alisa says:

    mb, thanks for posting that list. I agree with that approach and taking time for the development steps. It’s a funny thing, now that I’m at the place where I am, I want everyone else to be there right away (like the RS teacher I mentioned initially). But, we’re all in different places.

  16. Kelly Ann says:

    Alisa, This is beautiful! Thank you for sharing. I really like the focus on love and mercy as motivation rather than fear.

    My mission president had a saying that faith and fear can’t exist together. I disagree. He was trying to help us overcome the fear of rejection and the trials of being a missionary. However, I like the verse in John that says love casteth out fear. But I think you can still be a bit afraid. Faith, love, mercy, and some fear can all exist together. I don’t think life is so simple.

  17. Paddy says:

    What a wonderful post! That is the Heavenly Father and jesus Christ that I believe in! I think the difference is are we choosing a lifestyle which to me equates letter of the law, fear etc or do we love Jesus? which equates to love, mercy etc. We are too hung up on the ‘perfect’ picture of righteousness, that is all the outward manifestations. I too have had an epiphany lately about how I want to teach the Gospel to my kids. I am trying to cultivate more of a ‘feeling’ rather than all the outward manifestations which of course have their place, but seem somewhat trite and hollow if not accompanied with feeling. I recently became involved in a project to help kids outside of my home and was ‘rebuked’ by an avid Church going friend for not focusing on my ‘own’ childrens spirituality first. By focusing on others I feel I am doing more for their future spirituality, whatever form that may take as opposed to not letting them have the opportunity to love others. Hope those women in your class did not go home feeling awful, teachers need to be more mindful of this and obviously this poorly delivered comment did not account for abuse etc. Thanks for your story, I wish your, your dad and new arrival all the very best.

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