There are several possible motivations for obeying a command, whether a positive command (“do this”) or a negative one (“don’t do that”). First, we might be motivated by fear of punishment. Now clearly we would prefer if someone obeyed the “thou shalt not murder” command for nobler reasons than simply to stay out of jail, but nonetheless, it is both logical and appropriate to fear judgment, especially the judgment of God. Though the believer need not fear final condemnation, there are plenty of New Testament passages reminding us that the fear of the Lord remains just as important in the new covenant era (e.g. 1 Pet 2:17, Acts 9:31).
A second possible motivation is desire for reward. This is the inverse of fear of punishment. A person can be persuaded to obey a command they might otherwise ignore if sufficient incentive is offered. Like fear of punishment, this is hardly the most noble of all motives for obedience. And yet Jesus doesn’t seem to see a problem with holding out rewards as encouragements for us (e.g. Matt 6:4,6,18).
A third possible motivation is a sense of duty. It may be that you do not particularly want to obey a command, but you do so out of a sense of obligation, because of the authority of the one who gave it. But a sense of duty is not a bad thing; and obeying God because it is your duty finds scriptural support (e.g. Luke 17:10). In fact, one of the main ways the New Testament presents the believer’s relationship with Christ is that of a slave and master. We belong to Jesus, and it is our duty to obey him.
So all three of these motivations are in one sense appropriate and biblical. Yet they fall short of being the highest and most noble motivations for obedience. I want to consider two final motivations, both of which crop up in Psalm 119.
The first of these is that we sometimes obey because we are in agreement with the command. If someone commands you to do something you already want to do anyway, or forbids you to do something you don’t want to do, obedience is effortless. In fact, we hardly perceive it as being obedience. If our goals are perfectly aligned with the one we need to submit to, then submission is not a burden, but a delight. The Psalmist expresses this in several places. For example in Ps 119:128 he says “I consider all your precepts right”. In other words, he has become fully convinced of the rightness of God’s commands. He has reached the place where he genuinely wants to do what God commands, not because he is being told to do it, but because he is convinced it is the right thing to do.
However, I would say that the highest and greatest motivation for obedience is love (in fact, I have previously blogged that obedience is one of Jesus’ “love languages”). Ultimately, the Psalmist obeys God because he loves God. It is this love for God that has led him to love God’s commands. He delights in obeying God because he desires to please God. This theme crops up a few times in the delightfully named “Sin and Shin” section of Ps 119, but most notably in verse 167:
I obey your statutes, for I love them greatly.
All five of the motivations I have listed are valid, but it seems to me that love must come right at the top of the list. The believer should be able to agree with all five of the following statements, and not just stop after the first few:
I obey your statutes, for I know you are a God who lovingly disciplines me when I disobey
I obey your statutes, for I know you are a God who graciously rewards me when I obey
I obey your statutes, for I know that you are my Master and I am your servant
I obey your statutes, for I am convinced that they are the best and most blessed way to live
I obey your statutes, for I love them greatly, because I love you greatly