Sometimes people follow God out of fear. And sometimes, we follow because of what we think we'll get from him.
Believe me, I could write plenty about the idea that God will give us material blessings if we follow him. Suffice it to say that I don't think that's how God works, and regardless, it's not a great reason for following him. What kind of relationship is it if we're doing things just so we'll get a reward?
No, I want to talk about something that seems so much more innocuous on the surface, something I do all the time and have only recently realized it.
Many times I've written that we cannot change our own hearts by simply changing our outward actions; God is the one who changes hearts, and then true heart changes are naturally reflected in outward actions. And this may be true-- but I've realized that a lot of times I've been guilty of viewing my relationship with God as a means of self-improvement. And maybe that doesn't even sound like such a big deal, but when you're more or less addicted to perfectionism and self-improvement, it is a big deal.
I see where I am weak, I see where I fail, I see where I want to improve, and all my efforts and striving make very little difference in my heart. And so I see that I need to turn to God and stop trying so hard to be righteous on my own-- and that's true-- but then I simply substitute God as my means of self-improvement. If I can't do it on my own, maybe God will do it for me if I just follow him properly.
Do you see how this is not a great thing? On the outside, it looks perfectly reasonable and it sounds spiritual enough, so what could the problem be? But underneath the surface, it's still the wrong motivation for following God.
I'm not saying that God won't change our hearts; I think he does. I'm saying that this should not be our primary focus in pursuing a relationship with him. Suppose God never changes me in the ways I think he should or the ways I wish he would-- would I still follow him? The truth is, even when God does change our hearts, and even when those changes are reflected in our actions, we still are not going to be perfect in this life, because it isn't possible.
So instead of following God in pursuit of that thing we want to get from the relationship or out of fear of punishment, we are free to follow him out of love. It's that simple and that complicated-- simple because it is just that, no strings attached, and complicated because our humanness is constantly telling us there must be more to it and so we are continually tempted to focus on the wrong things.