Achieving Spiritual Goals … Why?

By Kenneth L. Higbee

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    Why do we strive to achieve goals? Psychological research on achievement motivation has suggested that for many people the answer to this question may be found in one of two motives: the motive to succeed and the motive to avoid failure. Both of these motives may exist to some extent in the same person, and both of them may motivate him toward accomplishment—but for entirely different reasons.

    A person with a high motive to succeed strives to achieve a goal because of a positive attraction toward success. He evaluates his accomplishments in terms of a standard of excellence that he sets for himself, and he is motivated by the good feeling he gets from having achieved a worthwhile goal.

    A person with a high motive to avoid failure may also want to be successful. However, he is motivated not so much by the positive attracting power of success as by the negative repelling power of failure. Whenever his performance will be evaluated and failure is possible, he feels anxiety. In some situations his anxiety may be so strong that he does not even try, for fear he might fail. He is more worried about not failing than he is concerned with succeeding.

    Why do we strive to achieve spiritual goals? Why do we try to live God’s commandments? The behavior of many people suggests that the motive to succeed and the motive to avoid failure have their counterparts in the spiritual realm.

    A person with a high spiritual motive to succeed may be characterized by a love of righteousness, a positive force attracting him toward exaltation. He seeks to attain a spiritual standard of excellence. He strives to achieve spiritual goals because he loves the Lord and his commandments.

    A person with a high spiritual motive to avoid failure may also have a desire to live the commandments. However, he is motivated more by a negative force repelling him away from the punishments of hell than he is by the positive attraction of the rewards of heaven. If he lives the Lord’s commandments, it is because he feels he ought to rather than because he really wants to.

    The apostle Paul wrote, “For the wages of sin is deat;h but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Rom. 6:23.) The person with a high motive to avoid failure is motivated primarily by the first part of Paul’s statement, while the person with the high motive to succeed is motivated more by the second part of the statement. Both of these types of people may hate sin and desire to live the Lord’s commandments, but the former hates sin through fear of punishment, whereas the latter hates sin through love of virtue.

    Although both kinds of people may desire to live the Lord’s commandments, we might expect that they would be more receptive to different types of commandments. The person with a high motive to succeed would be concerned with knowing the things he should do, so that he can do those things to prepare himself for exaltation. On the other hand, the person with a high motive to avoid failure would be more concerned with knowing the things he should not do, so that he can avoid those things and the resulting punishments.

    The Lord has indeed given commandments that seem to be directed at both kinds of people. Some commandments tell us what not to do. We might call these “thou shalt not” commandments. For example, eight of the Ten Commandments emphasize things we should not do. A latter-day example of a “thou shalt not” commandment is, “… cease from … your lustful desires, from all your pride and light-mindedness, and from all your wicked doings.” (D&C 88:121.)

    On the other hand, there are commandments that emphasize the positive, telling us what to do rather than what not to do. We might call these “thou shalt” commandments. Examples of such commandments are, “men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause” (D&C 58:27), and “let virtue garnish thy thoughts unceasingly” (D&C 121:45).

    Most people probably have a little of each kind of motive and thus are motivated by both kinds of commandments, those telling us what to do and those telling us what not to do. But which kind is easier to obey?

    Try a simple experiment on yourself. Count to yourself slowly from one to ten. Do it now, before you read any further. Now try it again, with one modification: this time count to yourself slowly from one to ten without thinking of money. Could you do it? Which of these two “commandments” was easier to obey? The first was probably easier because you were told what to do with no mention of what not to do. Consequently, you did not have to concern yourself with not doing what you were not supposed to do; doing what you were supposed to do took care of that problem.

    The person with a high spiritual motive to avoid failure, who is going through life worrying about avoiding all the things he is not supposed to be doing (or thinking about), may find himself in a similar situation. Just as it is easier to count from one to ten than to count from one to ten without thinking of money, so it would be easier to “let virtue garnish thy thoughts unceasingly” than to “cease from your lustful desires.”

    Not only may it be easier to obey a “thou shalt” commandment than to obey a “thou shalt not” commandment, but it may also be more desirable. The motive to succeed may be on a higher spiritual level than the motive to avoid failure. Paul suggested that many “thou shalt not” commandments can be satisfied by obeying one “thou shalt” commandment when he wrote to the Romans: “For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” (Rom. 13:9.) When Christ was asked which was the greatest of all the commandments in the law, he replied with two “thou shalt” commandments: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” (Matt. 22:37–39.)

    If we truly love God, then, we will want to live his commandments. We will do so because it gives us a good feeling to do so, not because we fear the consequences of not doing so. This gives a new meaning to John’s statement, “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear; because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love.” (1 Jn. 4:18.)

    If the commandments that tell us the things we should do to attain exaltation are easier to obey and also on a higher spiritual level, why would the Lord even give us commandments telling us what not to do? One reason is suggested by Jacob’s exhortation to the people of Nephi: “Behold, if ye were holy I would speak unto you of holiness; but as ye are not holy, … it must needs be that I teach you the consequences of sin.” (2 Ne. 9:48.)

    In too many people the motive to avoid failure is stronger than the motive to succeed. They are more worried about avoiding sin than they are concerned with developing spirituality, and thus they respond better to commandments telling them what not to do. For example, instead of being satisfied with a commandment to keep the Sabbath day holy, they want to be given a list of specific things that they should not do on the Sabbath.

    Each member of the Lord’s church should ask himself why he lives God’s commandments and what motivates him to seek the spiritual goals he has set for himself. Remember that fear of punishment, a spiritual motive to avoid failure, is not bad. It is better to obey the commandments because of fear of punishment than to not obey the commandments at all. We will surely be happier if we obey God’s commandments than if we do not, but that happiness will likely be increased if we are motivated to do so by love of virtue rather than by fear of punishment. We will likely find more joy in the achievement of our spiritual goals if we seek them because we want to rather than because we ought to.

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    • Brother Higbee is an assistant professor of psychology at Brigham Young University and a high councilor in Provo Stake.