These two magic questions are based on two deeply held convictions. I have talked to thousands of believers about these convictions, and they all agree with them. But, they stand in stark contrast to the conversations that often go on in small groups. Here are the convictions:
- It is always in our best interest to live the Christian life.
- We are irrevocably hard-wired to pursue what we believe to be in our best interest. In the long run, we will do what we believe to be in our best interest. This is why our belief is so important to the Christian faith.
I have asked thousands of believers if they agree with the first statement. They all agree. I press them: always? Are there ever any exceptions? Won’t you pay more taxes? Won’t you get there later? Mightn’t a little lie get you out of a bind from time to time? Is it always in your best interest to live the Christian life?
Over the long run, it is. In the short run, it might cost you. In the short run it might be painful, but it is always in our best interest to follow God in the long run.
The Bible says, “This is love for God: to obey his commands. And his commands are not burdensome.” 1 John 5:3 [NIV] Not burdensome. In the long run, it is always in our best interest to live the Christian life.
In Deuteronomy it says, “See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction.” Deut. 30:15 [NIV] If you want life, here is one word formula: obedience. If you don’t care about life, go the other way, choose disobedience. But, the end is death.
Stating the same thing from the back side, it goes like this: Self-discipline is generally over-rated in Christian teaching. Not that there is not a place of self-discipline. There is. But, it is like a spare tire. Sometimes you need a spare tire. Spare tires are good. But, if you try to live your whole life on a spare tire, you will soon be in trouble.
Self-discipline, by which I mean forcing yourself to do what you basically do not want to do is over-rated. It is a spare tire. Sometimes, you and I will need to do that. But if we try to live our whole life forcing ourselves to do what we basically don’t want to do, eventually we will get tired and we do what we want to do.
You must come to love the Christian life, or you will never come to live the Christian life. You must discover what the hymn writer had in mind when he wrote, “Sweet hour of prayer” or you are likely not praying very well. We either learn to “love to tell the story” or we don’t tell the story much. We must love it, or we will never live it.
This is not only my opinion, but also the opinion of smart people. One of them is C. S. Lewis. Observe what he says about self-discipline, or, in his words, self-denial.
The New Testament has lots to say about self-denial, but not about self-denial as an end in itself. We are told to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses in order that we may follow Christ; and nearly every description of what we shall ultimately find if we do so contains an appeal to desire.
If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith. Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased. (C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965], pp. 1–2.)1
The reference to Kant, by the way, is explained by Ayn Rand this way:
Ayn Rand (novelist and atheistic philosopher): “An action is moral, said Kant, only if one has no desire to perform it, but performs it out of a sense of duty and derives no benefit from it of any sort, neither material nor spiritual. A benefit destroys the moral value of an action. (Thus if one has no desire to be evil, one cannot be good, if one has, one can.).” (For the Intellectual, New York: Signet, 1961, p.32)2
Why the juxtaposition?
It is always in our best interest to live the Christian life. Why then, do we so often hear teaching along these lines:
- Choose God’s way, not your way!
- It is not about you. It is about pleasing and glorifying God.
If it is in our best interest to live the Christian life, it seems this creates an artificial tension. It creates an imaginary choice that, on the surface, sounds spiritual: chose God’s way, not your way! Sounds good, but, if we are thinking rightly we understand that God’s way is always good for me. It is always in my best interest to live the Christian life. Choosing God’s way is the best thing I can do for me. If I want the best life for me, I will always choose God’s way.
In a way, if I were truly pursuing my self-interest, and were thinking rightly about it, I would always pursue obedience. This is what John Piper means when he says, “let your passion be single.” It is one single desire to please God and to please myself. Here is Piper’s way of saying it:
A Summary of Christian Hedonism in Five Statements
- The longing to be happy is a universal human experience, and it is good, not sinful.
- We should never try to deny or resist our longing to be happy, as though it were a bad impulse. Instead we should seek to intensify this longing and nourish it with whatever will provide the deepest and most enduring satisfaction.
- The deepest and most enduring happiness is found only in God.
- The happiness we find in God reaches its consummation when it expands to meet the needs of others in the manifold ways of love.
- To the extent we try to abandon the pursuit of our own pleasure, we fail to honor God and love people. Or, to put it positively: the pursuit of pleasure is a necessary part of all worship and virtue.3
Another saint that saw this truth was George Muller:
The point is this: I saw more clearly than ever, that the first great and primary business to which I ought to attend every day was, to have my soul happy in the Lord. The first thing to be concerned about was not, how much I might serve the Lord, how I might glorify the Lord; but how I might get my soul into a happy state, and how my inner man might be nourished. For I might seek to set the truth before the unconverted, I might seek to benefit believers, I might seek to relieve the distressed, I might in other ways seek to behave myself as it becomes a child of God in this world; and yet, not being happy in the Lord, and not being nourished and strengthened in my inner man day by day, all this might not be attended to in a right spirit (Autobiography of George Mueller, compiled by Fred Bergen, [London: J. Nisbet Co., 1906], pp. 152–154].4
An everyday example
Most of us struggle to one degree or another with issues of health—eating healthful foods, exercising and maintaining our weight. Have you ever known someone that didn’t seem to struggle?
I have a friend that doesn’t seem to struggle with these issues. I have known him for twenty-five years and for twenty-five years he has exercised at least five times a week. We have gone out to eat hundreds of times over the years and nine times out of ten he gets salad or grilled chicken and broccoli. He is slim, trim and in-shape.
Do you know anyone like that? How do they feel about fatty foods? How do they feel about healthful foods? How do they feel about exercise? My friend tells me he just loves this warm feeling he has in his muscles after a good work-out. (I don’t actually know what that feeling is!)
People that win the war of healthful living always feel this way. They love it. They love eating healthful food. They love exercise. We either come to love it, or we never do it consistently.
I had another friend who represents the opposite. He told me he had just LOST FORTY POUNDS going through the Weigh-Down workshop. We were sharing a meal and one of those greasy spoon diners in central Texas. The parking lot was packed. He explained to me that people came from all over to enjoy the incredible chicken-fried steak they had at this place. He described it as being bigger than Texas—a big old fried steak with greasy gravy all over it and mashed potatoes and greasy gravy all over that and it was like heart attack on a plate but it was sooooooo good! What would my friend do? He was torn. He wanted the chicken fried steak with the greasy gravy and mashed potatoes and greasy gravy all over that, but he should have grilled chicken and broccoli.
Now, the real question is not what did he do that day. The real question is this. What chances do you give my friend of keeping that weight off? What chances do you give him of being slim, trim and in shape a year later?
I give him no chance at all. Why? What does he believe to be in his best interest? He believes that life is about eating chicken fried steak with grease gravy but he should eat grilled chicken and broccoli. And as long as he believes that, in the long run he will do what he believes is in his best interest. He is hard wired for that.
It is like the auto-pilot on a plane. You can set an auto-pilot to take you from Dallas to Chicago. You can turn the stick on the plane and force it to go South instead. But, eventually, you will get tired and the plane will make its way North again. So it is with our desires. We can force ourselves to do what we don’t want to do for a time, but eventually, what we want to do wins out. Eventually we do what we want.
I knew a woman once that was deeply in love with a man that was not her husband. The man was married as well. They were both active church members in the same church. This is the way she saw life. “I know I should cut off this relationship, but it just feels like life to me. I know pursuing that relationship doesn’t honor God, and God would be happier with me if I would break it off, but he just makes me feel so alive. I should choose God’s way, but I want so badly to choose my way.”
As long as she feels this way, there is not enough will power in the world to keep them apart. Eventually we all do what we believe to be in our best interest. We must come to love the Christian life, or we will never come to live the Christian life.
An extreme example
“Always?” you might be wondering. Is it always in your best interest to live the Christian life? Aren’t there some exceptions?
Take the case of Cassie Bernall. She was one of the High School students who was gunned down in Littleton, Colorado. Before he shot her, her killer pointed a gun in her face and asked her a simple question: Do you believe in God? (The forensic evidence suggested the gun was touching her face when he pulled the trigger.) Cassie had a simple choice. It is fairly clear what God would have her do. The Bible says, “If anyone is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.” Luke 9:26 [NIV] God’s calling on her life is pretty easy to understand at the point.
I have a biography on Cassie’s life. The title is She Said Yes. She said yes, and he blew her head off with the gun pushing against her face.
One might be tempted to ask, “Mightn’t it been in her best interest to not be so bold? Mightn’t it be in her best interest to cave? Mightn’t it have been in her best interest to say, ‘I don’t want any trouble. Please spare my life.’?”
The Bible teaches that reality is like a line that stretches forever and ever.
Not just to the edge of this page, but forever. All of time can be pictured as a dot that sits on the line.
All of time sits on that dot—from Adam and Eve to the disasters to Abraham to Jesus to Columbus to you and I and our great-great-great grand kids if Christ waits that long. All of time fits in the dot and the lines lasts forever.
Those who are martyred for their faith will receive a greater reward in heaven—throughout the whole line—than will the rest of us. (Revelation 4)
I am not exactly sure what is involved in that greater reward, but I picture it is\n somewhat material terms:
- When we go to a concert, Cassie will get a front row seat and a back stage pass. We might be sitting in the balcony.
- When we get in line to eat, she will get in the front of the line.
- When we go on a trip, she will get to sit in those big seats up front.
That may not be exactly right, but the Bible does teach she will get a greater reward in heaven. And heaven is the line. It is forever. Ten million years from now, she is still getting in the front of the line.
I think if Cassie could listen in on this, she would say, “Yes, yes, a thousand times yes, it is always in your best interest to live the Christian life over the long run. In the short run it might cost you and cost you dearly. In the long run, you will always be glad you lived the Christian life.”
Making the two magic questions work
It is always in our best interest to live the Christian life. It is always in our best interest to:
- Forgive when we are tempted to hang onto our bitterness.
- Serve when we would rather not.
- Give when we would rather spend on ourselves.
- Pray when we would rather sleep in.
Your job, as a teacher is to get your students in touch with this. Your job is to make them believe it. We do this by asking two magic questions:
- How will it benefit you to live for God?
- What will it cost you if you don’t live for God?
So, imagine several topics where this might work:
- How does it benefit the forgiver to forgive?
- What does it cost us if we don’t forgive?
- How does it help us to help others?
- How does selfishness cost us?
- How is it that “it will be given to us” as we give? (Luke 6:38)
- How do the stingy harm themselves?
- Describe a time when prayer became for you a sweet hour.
- How would you describe what happens to our soul as we neglect prayer?
Why don’t we get this?
You might think that if we are naturally predisposed to pursue what is in our best interest, and if it is always in our best interest to live the Christian life, that we would naturally and normally—somewhat automatically—live the Christian life. Why don’t we?
Why don’t we live the Christian life easily if we tend to pursue what is good for us and it is good for us to follow God? I have asked a number of groups this question. The most lucid answer I have had came from a pastor, “Because people are stupid, that’s why!” Well, that pretty well says it.
2 Corinthians 4:4 teaches that the evil one blinds our eyes. He makes what is bad for us look good. He puts the poison in sugar. People are blinded. The people you teach are blinded. Your job is to open their eyes. Your job is to convince them to the core of their beings that is always, always, always in our best interest to live the Christian life.
Josh Hunt, How to Use Questions to Stimulate Life-Changing Discussions, Good Questions Have Small Groups Talking (Las Cruces, NM: Josh Hunt, 2010), 87–96.