Not long ago, I heard a sermon about the practical application of biblical money teachings. The pastor's overall message about debt, saving and giving was spot on. But twice, I noticed a common rhetorical tendency that bothers me in church teachings.
When using anecdotes to back his points, this pastor occasionally slipped into giving justification or proof that obeying God works. He told of a friend who once had to majorly sacrifice comfort in order to tithe. He chose to go God’s way and now “he’s sitting on a big pile of cash.” He told of the time that secular financial experts scoffed at his declaration that loaners are always enslaved to lenders and added: “Now I’m worth six times what they are.”
Yes, the Bible make promises of blessings when it comes to how we use God’s resources. But obeying God is “worth” it whether or not there’s a happy ending to show how profitable it was. I am concerned that justifying how well God’s way for living works can make it sound like that’s the reason to do it.
Perhaps I am sensitive to this issue because I’ve worked for years in church youth groups. In “selling” young people on living God’s way, the American church (I am at fault as well) can often stumble into using happy results to punch home the point. Especially in the arena of sexuality. You should remain a virgin, Christians could be understood as saying, because your wedding night will be awesome. Because true love waits. Because you won’t get pregnant. Because your heart won’t get broken. Because unmarried sex isn’t as good as married sex. In the end, the reason for purity (which of course is different than virginity) is to obey God. Period.
Obviously God does want us to obey the life instructions in his Word out of love—he knows the way to better, less harmful results in our sin-soaked world. He knows handling our finances his way will yield more resources with which we can do his work. And he knows sexual purity can prevent pain and create a certain marital bond. But I fear that our rhetoric can, at times, make this the point. Instead, those results are a side benefit. Not the reason. Obeying God is the reason. Living so our focus is him is the reason. Setting ourselves apart from the world to let him shine is the reason. Obeying God because it draws us nearer to him and helps us care about what he cares about should be and is enough—regardless of the outcome.
When we try prove that God’s way "works," we can actually create an obstacle to the message. If a guy tithes expecting the storehouses to open and put him in the lap of luxury, what happens to his perception of God when he instead gets laid off? If a teen experiments with sex and discovers nothing bad happens—and it actually feels just fine outside of marriage—could his or her perception of God’s Word be lessened? Or, on the other hand, if a person remains a virgin and is totally disillusioned by marital sex, he or she may wonder, “This was the reward?”
No, the “reward” is being in union with God. The reward is obedience in and of itself. The reward is being in God’s will despite what happens next.
The big question that comes up in all this—and perhaps a hole in my logic—is this: How do we communicate why a non-believer should follow God’s way when the words “because God says so” mean nothing to them? How do we verbalize why they should care about the commands of a God they don’t believe in without relying on benefits to convince them?