Home Menu

The Great Motivator

I stepped to the edge of the patio and screamed, "Try harder!"

My neighbor stuck his forehead and eyes over the stockade fence, "I beg your pardon?" he said.

"I wasn’t talking to you. I was talking to him," I grunted with hostility, glowering at first one and then the other. Great! Trying to resolve one problem. I’ve created another by offending my over-the-back-fence buddy. The thought was not helping my boiling and ponderous efforts to get some motivation going.

Figuring that my neighbor had learned his lesson—that if I wanted to yell at him I’d stick my head over the fence and do so—I decided to advance with my plan for seven days. I thought that number had a nice biblical ring to it: seven, the perfect number. So, for seven days, at least once a day, I gathered my glowering face and righteous indignation about me and stepped onto the patio, screaming with acid in my voice, and fire in my eyes, "I said, try harder!"

But as near as I could tell, all of my ranting and raving produced little, if any, observable change. There was nothing to conclude but that I must try another approach. Perhaps a velvet tongue would be more persuasive and motivational?

I carried my aluminum lawn chair out to the back yard and sat down beside him sporting a smile that said with reassurance, "Trust me. I have your best interest at heart." With a perfect balance of sweetness and firmness, I began. "You have been on my mind lately, and I thought I’d come out here and share my thoughts with you. We both have a common goal, but to realize that goal you must think. That’s right. Think. Think. Think. If you ever hope to be all that you can be, you must think about the goal. You should focus your thoughts on the common objective and try harder to reach what you and I both know to be your level of potential. Dormant with you is everything you ought to work toward exemplifying."

There wasn’t much response, so I said, "I’m glad we’ve had this little talk. And, I know I can count on you." With an encouraging pat, I folded up my lawn chair and made my way across the yard to the patio and the sliding door.

For seven days, and seven times on the seventh day, I sat in my lawn chair and in at least seven different ways pumped up my potential-ridden friend with the latent possibilities of what he could be. With physical and emotional strokes, I motivated him with "oughts" and "shoulds" and "musts" to think about the possibilities and opportunities before him, and then to do the right thing.

But this approach was working no better than the first one. We were no closer to the goal than we had been two weeks earlier; that is, no closer than what you would normally expect in two weeks. But we weren’t interested in the norm; we wanted true motivation and production… at least that’s what I wanted. I was beginning to question whether we had a common goal or not.

At any rate, it was quite obvious that a new plan was needed. Intimidation hadn’t worked and neither had velvet-tongued challenges. No. It was time for the trump card to fall. It was time for the ace, the final stroke, the consummate wake-up call. Enough of this preliminary skirmishing. Bring out the big guns. It’s time for the heavyweights to fight, I concluded. No more yelling from the edge of the patio. No more rational approaches to motivation. The lawn chair stays on the porch. It’s time for a demonstration of authority.

I’m not much of one for red ties, but a black suit with a red tie seemed appropriate and carried with it more authority than anything else I could conjure up. I thought about my graduation robe and mortarboard cap, but decided against that. A cap and gown weren’t my style and didn’t really seem appropriate. So black suit and red tie it was.

I stepped up on the highest thing I could find, a rock wall about two rounds tall, pointed my finger, my bass voice resonating, and said, "Allow me to paraphrase God for you my friend…" (There really is no higher appeal than to have God on your side. After all, only a fool would argue with the Creator.)

After a rousing appeal based upon the inexorable fact that God was on my side, I concluded with what sounded like a biblical passage. "If you don’t follow through and do the right thing, I will spew you out of my mouth; but not before I jerk you up by your roots and remove you from the kingdom."

I stepped indignantly from the rock wall and thought to myself, "That should get him off of the dime and produce the desired results". But it didn’t. "After all I’ve done for you, it seems that the least you could do for me…" I mumbled, bathing this last motivational admonishment with guilt.

My over-the-back-fence neighbor seemed amused by all of this. If nothing else, I think it took his mind off of his hurt feelings, thinking I was yelling at him three weeks ago. But my little plum tree, the real object of my concern, was still without a single purple plum. In all honesty, I noticed that he was actually looking a little ratty. In my zeal to motivate him through legalistic demands, I had neglected to trim and tend the little tree. He was wilting under my legalistic tactics.

Legalism is a system used to motivate people to live up to the standard of the law. If you grew up in a legalistic home, then your parent imposed legalistic demands upon you so that you would live up to your family law. Perhaps you work for a legalistic company and the design is to create legalistic standards that will ensure compliance with company law. In biblical times, there was a ritualistic system designed to motivate people to live according to the Mosaic Law. The Pharisees were the experts, and everyone else tried hard to measure up. All fell short. While we have been freed from the Law through the work of Christ on the cross, there are still many well-meaning religious folks who try to employ legalism in order to bring about compliance with the law (i.e. church law, biblical law, societal law, family law, ad infinitum). But that’s a subject for another article.

Christ set us free from the law not by abolishing its necessity, but by fulfilling its demands on our behalf and making intercession for us with God the Father. That is grace, but only the beginning of it. Christ didn’t just set us free from trying to gain acceptance with God through better performance and production. He blesses us with a new heritage and a new heart, complete with unrestricted access to his riches. In other words, it is no longer necessary for us to be controlled through legalism. We are actually new people who desire very much to do the right thing and please Him in the process.

As is always the case, the enemy of God tries his best to deceive us into thinking that God’s system is unworkable and ineffective. In this case, the enemy’s opinion is that legalism is absolutely essential. Not so! Paul instructed us that the purpose of the law was to supervise us on our way to discovering the sufficiency of Christ (Gal. 3:24). The law was to deliver us to the foot of the cross in order that we might cry out to the Lord Jesus for grace and mercy.

Here is the principle: Each of us has a record of varying length describing those experiences that were a direct result of legalistic harangues, rituals, and standards. These have come from our homes, churches, friends, bosses, siblings, etc. But guess what? The more legalism is imposed, the greater the foothold given to Satan and sin. Romans 5:20 says that transgression increased when the law came. In other words, sinning increases in direct proportion to the amount of legalism promulgated. Now don’t forget, sin can look ugly and gross but it can also be as pretty as a picture. Just because a person responds to legalism doesn’t invalidate the truth of Romans 5:20. Pretty sin is just as sinful as ugly sin. Legalism always plays directly into the Devil’s hand.

While others may try the tactics described earlier in this article, God never will. For those of us who know Christ, the law served its purpose; it led us to Christ and we are now recipients of our Father’s grace. It is not necessary for Him to motivate us with legalism [harangue with legalistic demands] in order to bring about compliance with His standards. We are not the rebels we used to be. We graciously have been given new hearts and our deepest desire is to please the Lord by living lives of obedience that bring honor to Him. By grace, He appeals to us upon the basis of our new heart in accordance with our godly desires, challenging us to take note of who we really are as a result of His grace. No veiled threats. No false guilt. No velvet-tongued manipulation. No shoulds, oughts, musts, "if you really love Me…" or condemnations for falling short of the mark. Correction, yes–condemnation, no. This is grace.

Each morning as I look out my bedroom window, the first thing I see is my little plum tree. Quite often he is harboring a Mockingbird who is busily singing his full repertoire. Late in the spring, the tree produces a nice selection of plums; the Lord has created him to do as much. While I have only used my plum tree as an analogy, the implications of living under a legalistic standard are anything but fictional. Make no mistake about it. Legalism, no matter how it is packaged, is not the key to living the Christian life. Legalism fuels sin. Grace is the great motivator.

Preston Gillham

About the Author

As a co-founder, Preston Gillham led Lifetime for 30 years. Preston is a writer, speaker, and leadership guide. He has authored numerous articles and several books including No Mercy and Battle for the Round Tower. He blogs on “Life and Leadership”. More about Preston, his writings, speaking, and his consulting practice can be located at PrestonGillham.com.