Figuring out morality from a Christian perspective sometimes feels like an exercise in paradox. Not so much how to be good; that's fairly straightforward in theory, if not always in practice – love God and your neighbor; do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with your God; etc. Of course it can be a challenge to figure out what it means to love your neighbor in particular circumstances, let alone when you have more than one neighbor and their needs seem to be in conflict. But that's not what I'm concerned with here. Instead I'm concerned with why we try.
I do think we should try, but I find that I can run myself in circles trying to explain why. I don't think it's about avoiding punishment, trying not to go to hell, that sort of thing. That's commonly given as an explanation for Christian morality, and often levied as criticism of the Church – that it tries to manipulate people's behavior by threatening them with eternal punishment. But I don't think that's the case. I think that salvation, defined as reconciliation with God and promise of being part of the new creation, has already been accomplished for everyone through Jesus, and the only way to lose it is to refuse it constantly forever and ever.
So I don't think moral behavior is about trying to avoid divine punishment at all. Some of it might be about avoiding punishment in the here and now, by legal enforcement or social sanctions, but that only scratches the surface of the full depth of a well-lived life. I've been reading a good bit of N.T. Wright's work lately, and I find meaning in his presentation of the idea that we're called to build for God's kingdom, even as we live in the old creation. I especially like the idea that no good work will be wasted, all goodness begun here will be affirmed and find its full meaning in the new creation. And I also like his explanation that yes, we'll be rewarded for our good works, but that the reward will consist of something more like satisfaction and increased ability to perform and enjoy the work of the new creation – more like the reward of practicing a skill than of earning a wage.
The difficulty I have with that description is that it doesn't seem to do a lot for discipline, at least to me. It's wonderful to think that doing good is making a permanent contribution to God's kingdom, as well as helping out in the here and now. But that alone doesn't make it particularly clear why I should try to be more good than I feel like being at any given time. Why I should be attentive to others even when I'm tired, why I should work to keep and open mind and heart about whether the way I live is in accordance with God's will, why I should fight the temptation to brag or gossip or manipulate – especially if I can get away with it.
Yet I do think that I should do all of the above, and that when I don't, that's a failing I should repent of and ask God for strength to overcome. And even though I fail quite often, I think it's really important that I keep trying. But not because I think I'll go to hell if I don't, or that I'll be punished in any other way (natural consequences aside). I sometimes laugh at my struggles of trying to figure out if this or that behavior is okay or not, given these or those circumstances – and I laugh because part of my mind asks “according to who?” I find myself really truly not thinking of it in terms of avoiding punishment but still really truly being very concerned with what God wants – even though there's a large sense in which I don't think it'll affect my happiness at all.
And of course that's not quite true – if I didn't think it would affect my happiness somehow, I imagine I wouldn't care. Some sense of what we call happiness I think is just an internal motivation scale. I guess what I mean is that I don't think that happiness will be externally given to or taken from me based on my actions (again, natural consequences aside). The reason it still matters very much what I do and how I behave, even though I won't be punished for my failings, is that it's not about me. It's about God and God's kingdom and living out God's goodness. Serving God is in fact an end in itself – not serving God in order to be saved, to avoid going to hell, to have high standing in the new creation – but because God is God and is our very reason for existing and our only true life and fulfillment.