One of the strangest objections to religion I’ve heard is, “The only reason you are religious/good is so that you get into Heaven. Not because you actually want or like righteousness.” It’s so ridiculous you just want to laugh and forget about it. Yet like a paper cut, it’s insignificant, but it just nags at you in the back of your mind: you want to address it completely.
Well, it’s true that we often don’t do something wrong because, well, we’d be in trouble otherwise. The same goes for any violation of anything with consequences. Does looking to this extent of the motivation for an action reduce its value? Weren’t we all children who had no regard but our own self-interest until we learned otherwise through punishment from our parents or teachers? And then we grew up to respect the rules because we valued them and not merely because of fear of the consequences, which sometimes we knew full well we could escape? Or is someone a hypocrite because he or she values education only because it’ll help them in life and not for its own sake (which naturally develops with anything in such a situation)?
Yet, one can’t help but feel there’s something left to this. For example, the 9th century Muslim poetess, Rabi’a al-‘Adawiyya, writes:
“O God! If I worship You for fear of Hell, burn me in Hell
and if I worship You in hope of Paradise, exclude me from Paradise.
But if I worship You for Your Own sake,
grudge me not Your everlasting Beauty.”
Paul says something similar in hopes of his fellow Israelites becoming Christians:
“I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit— that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh. They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen.” (Romans 9:1-5, ESV)
Certainly we should like and want to do righteousness for its own sake – because we are righteous. The good tree produces fruit because it’s good; not for fear of being chopped down. And the Bible agrees! The Gospel of John tells us:
“And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.” (John 3:19-21)
In another place Jesus also says: “I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness.” (John 12:46)
Clearly people don’t do wicked things because they hate God or want to be masochistically punished by Him, but because they prefer it. “Whoever does what is true comes to the light,” not because of any artificial means or motivation, but because they prefer to follow their conscience rather than their evil nature and desires (Romans 7:5). We all have a conscience and on the opposite end, wicked inclinations (which don’t go beyond what we’re able to bear – 1 Cor. 10:13). Some choose good, some choose bad, and it’s these choices that reveal whether they prefer light or darkness (John 3:19). Otherwise, we’re presuming that someone had unfair influence to help them achieve something not of their own will. After all, none of us have seen God and the vast majority of us don’t believe we’ve even seen proof of His existence, so for someone to prefer doing good on a daily basis generally throughout the remainder of their life, it’s hardly because he or she is genuinely afraid of punishment by an invisible force some time in the far future only. Even if they were raised in such a home or similar circumstances and had such a habit from that in the beginning; it would fade away to a certain degree. And this is why God tests us all: not because He’s malicious or sadistic, but to expose what He knows is true.