You’ve probably heard people quote Psalm 8:2 (“Out of the mouth of babes...”) when our complex adult theologies are sometimes put to shame by a child’s simple wisdom. But even before they can utter a word, they can still teach us what is probably the least understood and most important basis for our relationship to God.
When my kids were each in their first year of life, I began to teach them an important aspect of humanity: empathy. If the child did something potentially harmful or mean, I’d pretend to be sad. Now he already knew, even in his limited experience, that when something is wrong he cries. And when he cries, someone comes to comfort him. And being comforted is a good thing. So by pretending to be sad, I was trying to get him to return the favor. That is, he would come to comfort me. He would also remember this shocking turn of events, and hopefully not want to repeat whatever he had done to make me sad. And the reason he would not want me to be sad is because he did not like being sad.
All very basic and life-affecting stuff. So what does this teach us about God and how we relate to him?
Our motivation for living the Christian life should be the very same as the one I tried to instill in my children: empathy. God expressly states his ability to be hurt, grieved, saddened etc. His heart breaks when we turn away from him and bring trouble upon ourselves. So the reason we do not want to sin against God is supposed to be primarily because we do not want to hurt him. Instead, we typically hear a thousand other reasons for not sinning, most of them quite legalistic. People sometimes perceive God just the way they perceive of “good parenting”: “I’m in charge, and I’m bigger than you, so do as I say!”
Of course this is not to deny that God really is bigger than us and certainly in charge. But this is not the aspect of his character that he uses to encourage proper behavior. Not even the threat of hell is used by God as the first reason to turn to him. Instead, he appeals to us as one who is made vulnerable to hurt because of his love.
So we each need to ask ourselves, “What’s my motivation?” Why we obey God is at least as important as whether we obey God.