When I was a child, my 3rd Grade teacher told my mom that I was struggling with getting work done. She said, “Jimmy needs a fire set under him.” Passivity has been the bane of my existence. It comes naturally to me and I have had to fight it all of my life, in my education, my work, and my marriage. It’s just easier to let things come to me than to initiate. That is my natural bent. 

Of course, life without incentives is a very difficult reality.  Everyone needs reasons to do things, to accomplish things. For students, usually it is grades. They seek good grades for validation and in hopes they will open doors to a career. For the worker, it is a job in order to maintain a certain way of life. They may find satisfaction in it, but the main incentive is a paycheck. For me, a college degree and two advanced degrees were means to an end. I overcame my natural passivity in order to achieve those ends.

These are common incentives in life and there is nothing inherently wrong with them, except that they all fall short of joy, which comes when our incentive in life is to please the Lord. Recently, I read Paul’s first letter to the church at Thessalonica. He begins with an observation of their lives,

“We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1:2-3)

It struck me that their lives were incentivized by three things—faith, love, and hope. First of all, the fruit of their work they viewed as coming from God, not themselves. So many of us think we are the source of what we produce, and that it is up to us to produce it. We forget the words of Jesus, “Apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5) The Thessalonians, instead of trusting in themselves, had faith in the Lord working through them to produce fruit. 

Secondly, theirs was a labor motivated by love for the Lord. They didn’t serve the Lord out of obligation or solely for rewards or recognition from others. They loved God deeply and this was their incentive to serve in his kingdom work.

Thirdly, they kept at it despite tremendous persecution and suffering because they had hope in the Lord. This hope kept them from burnout and discouragement, and enabled them to persevere in the midst of difficult times. 

I think there is a lot to learn from these men and women as we consider the times in which we live. Many of us are struggling with the realities in which we find ourselves. We are facing upheavals in our way of life, in our plans for the future, and in our views of the world. Perhaps it is an ideal time to assess our incentives for following Jesus using those of our Thessalonian brothers and sisters. So, here are three questions to ponder:

*Do you view your service to the Lord as dependent on your efforts and the results as your results, or are they from the Lord to whom you give the credit?

*Is your service motivated by your love for Jesus or is it more out of obligation to be a “good Christian” or in hopes of getting greater rewards?

*Do you find yourself burned out in the midst of serving the Lord, or are you persevering because of your hope in the Lord?

Your answers to these questions will help to reveal what your true incentives are for living the Christian life. If they are anything less than faith, love, and hope, then it’s time for a spiritual realignment. There is no true joy trying to make spiritual things happen with our own efforts, working out of sheer obligation or selfish motives, or our service being pure drudgery because of the difficulties we have to endure. Joy only comes when our incentives are based in our faith in the Lord, our love for him, and the hope that one day he will make things right.

© Jim Musser 2020 All Scripture references are from the English Standard Version.

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