I have been bothered lately by a seeming conundrum regarding the methods God employs to teach His subjects the lessons of life. One such method is that for which I can find no other appellation than Divine Bribery. Let me explain...
Is not true love that which gives with no expectation of return? Are we exhorted - even commanded - in Scripture to love unconditionally, regardless of how we may be recompensed? Christ is, as usual, our prime role model who, putting Himself and His desires last, gave Himself up for us all, that He might bear the brunt of the Fathers disgust for sin. After all, was not Christs prayer in the garden prior to his capture a prayer of deliverance from that which He knew was coming? My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me...
It seems that even Christ possessed a certain self-centeredness, not in the selfish form you and I possess, but out of concern for self-preservation and a desire to avoid pain and suffering. Why did He go through with it? Why did He not call His legions of angels to save Him? Why was the Son of God able to honestly finish His prayer that fateful evening? "...yet not as I will, but as you will" (Matthew 26:39).
I believe the answer is found in Hebrews 12:3: Who for the joy set before Him, endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. The joy set before Him was the redemption of mankind, His unspeakable gift of love, a gift of life to the dead, and His future reign at the place He had left behind 33 years earlier when he stooped to becoming a miserable human being.
The point I am trying to make here is that even Christ seemedto have a selfish motive for doing what He did. God did not expect Him to die for nothing. The ultimate reward was well known to Him at the time He was experiencing His suffering, and it gave Him strength to complete His task. This brings us mere mortals face to face with the topic of Divine Bribery.
Does not God give us the same luxury? Are we not encouraged to do right because of the promise of future rewards we might obtain? Of course we are! The bible is full of promises of rewards in heaven if we live according to Gods precepts. For those who perform well, we are promised crowns.
Do you not know that in a race, all the runners run but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. (1 Corinthians 9:24-25)
So Divine Bribery - I apologize for the negative connotation, but I can think of no better term - seems to be alive and well within the Christian doctrine. The question is not whether such bribery exists, but what are we to make of it? Either (1) we are to reject my argument and abhor the idea that God would use such means to get us to obey His laws, or (2) we must reconcile our negative opinion of the word bribery with the truth of Gods will for us in this matter.
A bribe is also known as compensation or enticement. Enough said. God obviously bribes us to behave, since he promises certain future compensations. Therefore, argument number 1 above can be rejected, leaving us with the task of having to deal with the fact that obedience by coercion is indeed part of Gods plan for His children. But this should come as no big surprise. God, in His infinite wisdom and His infinite love, knows our weaknesses. He knows that we need encouragement to live His will, sometimes in the form of bribery (promises of future rewards), sometimes in the form of discipline (whom God loves He disciplines), sometimes in the form of an outright slap in the face (Pauls encounter on the road to Damascus).
This does not prove God to be some twisted master, dangling carrots to get us to do tricks in a certain manner. On the contrary, Gods attempt to use the promise of future gain as a method of encouraging our good works in this life is a loving gesture, designed to accommodate the weaknesses that He knows are inherent in the human flesh and spirit. Yes, even though our spirit is alive with the life of Christ, we still have the battle going on within us - the battle with that old sinful nature who requires daily crucifixion. God in His love and grace does not require perfection from us, only a heart that is right with Him.
If Jesus Christ Himself used the promise of future gain (the redemption of mankind) as encouragement to endure persecution, how much more should we - being so much more imperfect, weak, evil and incapable of good than He was - rely on the promises of God to get us through hard times? There is nothing wrong with Divine Bribery, only in our faulty conception of what it really is.
Okay, maybe I could have chosen a more user-friendly term like Divine Encouragement, Holy Motivation or Blessed Bait. Call it what you will, God helps us in our weakness by giving us a goal to fight for, an end result for the hardships, the hard work and the sacrifices He expects us to make in this life. But isnt that just like Him? He understands our weakness, especially since He was once a man in the flesh.
To help us cope in this state of weakness and evil that we find ourselves confronted with, God provides two more divine gifts, this time much more valuable than the motivation provided by future rewards. Romans 8:26-27 describe the first gift:
...the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express...the Spirit intercedes for us in accordance with Gods will.
Not only does the Holy Spirit pray for us in times of anguish, but His prayers are in accordance with Gods will! And we would do well to remember that this divine care is not contingent upon our good works or living up to some standard of righteousness. This gift pours forth from the well of Gods grace.
The second gift is similar, even identical to the first, but it regards another source of moral support. Romans 8:34 describes this gift:
Christ Jesus...is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.
Can we truly grasp such a concept? Jesus Christ Himself, while seated beside the throne of God, intercedes for us. With the Holy Spirit and Jesus Christ both presenting their requests to the Father on our behalf, how can anything harm us without Gods prior permission? Romans 8:38 describes the results of such divine care. It says that nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God. Nothing.
So now we have this incredible statement from God regarding His understanding of our weak condition. First, although perfect love ought to give without thought of rewards, God nevertheless provides a motivational tool for us to use - the promise of future gain - to help us live a life dedicated to Christ. Second, because of our severe weakness, two holy beings, on equal footing with God the Father, intercede for His children, asking for the things needed to help our lives align with the will of God.
God Himself interceding for us, the motivation of crowns and rewards for those who overcome in this life - what a patient, understanding and loving God we serve!