What determines or motivates a person’s moral behavior?
Moral behavior is acting rightly in a way that is pleasing to God. But what motivates that right moral behavior? A careful study of Scripture reveals four levels of motivation for moral behavior. This study follows a progression of lower to higher motivation for moral behavior.
Moral Behavior is Determined by the Known Consequences
In Genesis 2:16-17, The LORD commanded Adam not to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, “for when you eat of it you will surely die.” The right moral behavior was not to eat the fruit of the tree, and such right behavior was motivated by known consequences. This is the lowest form of motivation for moral behavior. Threatening little children with consequences for their behavior is the first motivator we all learn. Unfortunately, some cultures and sub-cultural groups never get beyond it.
Moral Behavior is Determined by Specific Rules or Commands
In Exodus 20:1-17, The LORD gives the Ten Commandments, specific rules regarding moral behavior; consequences for failure to obey are rarely mentioned. Accordingly, most religious people are motivated to right moral behavior by specific rules or commands, the do’s and don’ts. And for many religious people, if a specific rule does not exist, they will make one up.
Moral Behavior is Determined by General Principles
In Matthew 7:12, Jesus summaries the Law of Moses and the teaching of the Prophets as: “in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you.” This is a general principle and often called the Golden Rule. While not denying the importance of the Law of Moses, the do’s and don’ts, Jesus constantly pushed people, especially the pharisees, to be motivated by a higher principle. This is clearly taught by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, specifically Matthew 5:17-7:12.
Moral Behavior is Determined by a Higher Value
In Genesis 1:26-27, we are told that man is created in the image of God. As a result, Jesus explained in Mark 12:28-34 that men and women are to love the Lord their God with all of their heart, soul, mind and strength, and love their neighbor as themselves. Throughout the Gospel of Luke, we see example after example of Jesus showing by word and deed that people are made in the image of God and should be treated as such. Loving your neighbor, and everyone is your neighbor, goes beyond the Golden Rule.
Slaves of God know that men and women are created in the image of God, and as a result, they are commanded to love the Lord their God with all of their heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love their neighbor as themselves. This is a greater effort than observing the Ten Commandments or the Golden Rule.
Following the higher value, that men and women are created in image of God, changes everything. For example, abortion is not bad simply because life starts at conception and abortion amounts to murder, no, abortion is worse than bad because it kills one made in the image of the living God. Also, charity to the poor motivated by the higher value would result not in our driving by their neighborhood, slowing our car down long enough to push out some food and clothes, no, such motivation would charge the slaves of God to engage the poor as friends and family.