Perfect Love Casteth Out Fear: A Look at Motivation
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.”