We may come to obey God for many reasons, but not all reasons are created equal.
A new convert may rush to obedience out of fear of hell-fire and punishment. This is a reasonable motivation. A rude awakening to the reality of sin and its consequence should produce in us a burst of activity and humility. It would indeed be irrational not to “fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28).
However, a disciple should not be forever motivated primarily by sin’s consequence. While one may begin with fear, it is a demonstration of failed growth to remain in a perpetual state of terror toward God or to diminish the gospel as a mere get-out-of-hell-free card. God does not intend for us to live by the empty strength of fear, but rather in the power, love, and self-discipline of the true gospel (2 Timothy 1:7). “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love” (1 John 4:18). Surely God’s love is this perfect, fear conquering love John speaks of. After all, is it not the kindness of God which leads us to repentance (Romans 2:4)?
As a disciple grows, desire for reward may replace the more primal fear of punishment in the human heart. This is a good step, showing the maturity that allows a new motivation to overcome mere fear of loss. If our traditional hymns are any indication, most Christians are perfectly happy to grow to this state and there remain. How many Sunday mornings have we spent singing about golden streets, pearly gates, and mansions over the hilltop? Again, I add that this is a reasonable motivation at some point in a Christian life. Too much of the Scriptures are concerned with the blessings in store for the righteous for us to ignore them. A treasure stored in heaven is our reasonable desire, even a noble one compared to so many faulty treasures here below (Matthew 6:19-21).
However, just like fear of hell, longing for heavenly reward is a motivation which should be passed through on the way to a hope far greater. Ultimately, if heaven is no more than the place of our eternal bank account, then we have only grown into a more noble sort of sinner, one who has not given up greed but rather translated it upward to a more profitable investment. Does it even make sense for God to tell us to give up avarice in exchange for which he will reward us with riches? Surely a purer desire remains for us to find.
Christians too often fail to see that Heaven’s glory is Heaven’s God. In Scripture, “heaven” is primarily a term which simply denotes the abode of God, much as “earth” primarily denotes the abode of man. “The heavens are the Lord’s heavens, but the earth he has given to the children of man” (Psalm 115:16). “For God is in heaven and you are on earth” (Ecclesiastes 5:2). The emphasis of Scripture points toward who – not what – is in each place. Without God, Heaven would just be another region of discontent. With God, humans will find the satisfaction of our very being. This surely shows us that it is not a place of reward we long for but a person, the Person our heart seeks.
Listen to our Lord explain our true hope to his disciples. Yes, Jesus goes “to prepare a place” for us in the Father’s house (John 14:2). But keep reading! The majesty of that place is not in its trappings but in its Resident! “If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (John 14:3). To Christ himself we go, not to his celestial real estate! To be with the Lord our God is our greatest calling and hope. John the apostle evidently learned this lesson well. When he expresses his own hope, he states, “what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). Him! Not his handouts or his riches but Him! Seeing Him is the one true and purifying hope, whereas all other expectations keep us from growing into who and what we ought to be (1 John 3:3). This hope alone must become our highest hope. “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” (Philippians 1:23).
This knowledge also helps to sort out the mystery of some of the Bible’s strange terminology. We read Matthew 6:19-21 speak of “heaven,” whereas passages such as 2 Peter 3:10-13 speak of one heaven and earth passing to be replaced by “new heavens and new earth.” What are we to make of this? If it is intended as a cosmic geography lesson, then it is far too confusing for me. If instead it tells us not where but with whom we shall be, then it can be understood. Our true and most perfect desire is to be with God, and his eternal will is to be with us. He promises a day when the realms we know, “heavens” and “earth,” shall pass. In that day, his people will inhabit one new reality created by the reconciliation of Jesus Christ. In it, God is not separated any longer from his people by space or by sin. Heaven (the abode of God) and earth (the abode of man) are one. Every soul there will say, “We have gone to heaven,” not because of its riches but because they live there with their God. The whole order of the cosmos we have known in our separation passes away to be replaced by a world without the ocean-sized barrier of sin and death between us and our God. “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more” (Revelation 21:1). The terminology of location is sometimes vague because the location is simply not that significant. Whether a passage calls it “going to heaven” or a “new heavens and new earth,” only the residents are the concern! “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man” (Revelation 21:3).
I want to develop as a disciple beyond fear of punishment and beyond lust for reward. I want to grow until I can truly say, “I’m not going to heaven. I’m going to God.”