I had coffee with a sweet friend a few months back. She was telling me about a struggle in her life where a close family member sinned against her in a painfully devastating way. We started talking about forgiveness, and she made a very wise observation. She told me that people often told her that she should forgive because it would allow her to move on, heal, and experience and freedom from bitterness. This advice troubled my friend because she wanted to be in a place where she could sincerely forgive her loved one for his sake, not for hers.
How right her thinking was! I have often heard the same thing--that forgiveness is for the forgiver. Still, I have never unpacked this thought to consider…well, the selfishness of it. One of the benefits of forgiving is that it benefits me, but that motive alone is not coming from love for God or for others.
Scripture tells me that the only thing that counts in my acts of obedience is faith expressing itself through love. Galatians 5:6 references this concept in the context of circumcision:
“For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.”
The Lord cares about my heart and motives. I can “obey” God’s commands without a heart of love for God or a love for people--this is what the Pharisees did. This misses the heart of God’s commands which is that: God-honoring obedience flows from sincere love in our hearts for God and others. This is what Jesus meant when He told the lawyer in Matthew 22:34-40 that all the law and all the prophets hang on two commandments: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind,” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
This is not to say that God-honoring obedience does not benefit the one who obeys, or that it is wrong to desire or enjoy these benefits. God in His graciousness has ordered the world in such a way that our obedience to his commands does benefit us. These benefits are temporal and eternal. Obedience often results in a better life for the one who obeys--the forgiver receives peace, the one who loves receives joy, the one who does not lust after another man’s wife enjoys intimacy with his wife, the one who respects and obeys her husband enjoys a her husband’s acts of lavish love, etc. The child who obeys his parents, is protected and enjoys his relationship with his parents. However, true God-honoring obedience is not motivated primarily by these types of benefits. Indeed, obedience does not always even result in these types of benefits. Forgiveness is given, but not received and reconciliation does not occur. The one who loves gets their heart broken into pieces. The one who is faithful to his wife is demeaned, degraded, and despised by his wife. The one who respects and obeys her husband is demeaned, degraded, and despised by her husband. The child who obeys his parents has indifferent parents who do not engage with him or protect him. Still, for the one who obeys out of love, there is a benefit that does manifest both in this life and in the next. I think this is what Paul is referring to when he says that we are to live our lives in such a way as to receive a prize:
1 Corinthians 23-25 “I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings. 24Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. 25Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable.”
What is the prize to which Paul is referring? We get a glimpse of the answer in Philippians 3:
12Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. 15Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. 16Only let us hold true to what we have attained.
17Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. 18For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. 20But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.
1 Peter 1 further sheds light on what the prize is:
3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, 5 who by God's power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. 6 In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, 7 so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. 8 Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, 9 obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.
The prize is Paul’s unfettered joy in the object of his first love--God Himself! He experiences a taste of this joy in his earthly life, and he anticipates one day when he will experience this joy more fully--free of sin, his earthly body, and all such fetters of this life that restrain his ability to enjoy our Great God! All obedience borne of love also bears the benefit of joy to the one who obeys. Jesus endured the cross out of love for the Father and for us, and for the joy that was set before Him (Hebrews 12:1-2). While our joy in God has its fullness in the life to come, we get to taste this inexpressible glorious joy today as well because we love Him, even though we have not seen Him with our eyes! Our love for God (and His love for us) is inextricably tied to our joy (and His)! This is the joy of being “in love”. This joy, while it benefits ourselves, comes only from looking beyond ourselves!
Dear Heavenly Father,
Thank you for your love! Thank you that you delight in us, the objects of your love. Thank you that we delight in you, the object of our love. Thank you for the inexpressible and glorious joy you bring to our lives, here and in heaven, as we consider who you are—Our Mighty God, Compassionate, Gracious, Slow to Anger, Righteous, True and the One from whom we get our definition of Love by your character! Thank you for engaging with us and even conforming us to the image of your Glorious Son! We love you, Father, Son, and Spirit. In Jesus’ Mighty Name, Amen
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