The Willing and Eager Heart of Christianity
One of the most liberating discoveries of my life has been coming to find that God does not pursue his people through coercion but by winning us from the heart. True Christianity cannot be coerced. God works — through his word and his Spirit — from the inside out. The faith “once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3) is indeed at its heart a faith, not an action, as it advances not by the sword of coercion and military campaign, but by the sword of the Spirit and the movement of souls.
What God says to, and expects from, pastors tells us how he wins people. It’s powerfully revealing. Church leaders are first and foremost sheep, and not above the flock. “Do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you,” says the good shepherd, “but rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10:20). And what Peter has to say about how pastors should serve is an insightful description of the heart of the everyday Christian life: “not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly” (1 Peter 5:2).
Linger with me over what it means for our faith not to be “under compulsion” or “for shameful gain,” but willing and eager.
Where do we find compulsion in the New Testament? On the darkest day in the history of the world, Roman soldiers compelled a passerby, Simon of Cyrene, to carry Jesus’s cross (Matthew 27:32; Mark 15:21). And three times in Galatians, Paul mentions false teachers trying to force Gentile Christians to do what they do not want to do, namely, be circumcised (Galatians 2:3, 14; 6:12). Roman soldiers and false teachers don’t major on making appeals to the heart. They aim at external conformity, not the joy of faith (Philippians 1:25; 2 Corinthians 1:24). They seek to force or compel others to do what they don’t want to do. But such is not the case with Christianity.
Rather, when Paul, as an apostle, could have commanded Philemon, he chooses instead, for love’s sake, to appeal to him (Philemon 8–10). “I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord” (Philemon 14). And when he invites the Corinthians to contribute to the relief of the impoverished saints in Jerusalem, he wants each person to “give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7).
God wants us to be willing, not feel obligated. His people rejoice to give willingly, with their whole hearts, “offering freely and joyously” to him (1 Chronicles 29:9, 17). He wants our generosity to be “as a willing gift, not as an exaction” (2 Corinthians 9:5). It is “a willing spirit” that tastes the joy of his salvation (Psalm 51:12), and it is a glory to our King when his people “offer themselves freely” to his worship and service (Psalm 110:3). Christian faith cannot be forced. God wants to win us from within, and empower Christians by his Spirit to live willing, freely, from the heart.
But “inside out” alone is not enough. Some desires of the heart are holy, righteous, and good; others are not. Whereas “compulsion” or “force” comes from the outside, the desire for “shameful gain” comes from within. So 1 Peter 5:2 is not just saying don’t be forced from without, but also don’t be driven from within by sinful (selfish) desires, but rather by righteous desire.
So, what does it mean to be motivated by shameless desire, instead of shameful? C.S. Lewis helps us with the nature of rewards and righteous desire in the Christian life:
It is not enough that we would live simply from desire and willingness, and not compulsion and obligation. We want to live from righteous desire, not for shameful or sinful gain — desire that is fitting to its object. But don’t think that means we do not live for gain!
God wants us to be eager. He commends those who, like the faithful Bereans, receive his word “with all eagerness” (Acts 17:11). Paul himself modeled it: eager to preach the gospel (Romans 1:15), eager to remember the poor (Galatians 2:10), eager to see his converts face to face (1 Thessalonians 2:17), eager to honor Christ in life and in death (Philippians 1:20). Paul lived with a kind of heart hunger, a kind of holy discontent, and a kind of contagious eagerness that came from his pursuit of shameless (not shameful) gain. He lived out a life of righteous desire given by the Spirit, with love for, and enjoyment in, the object of his pursuit.
But the best phrase of all in 1 Peter 5:2 sits right in the middle: “not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly.” God himself is like this. God himself does not act from compulsion. God himself is not moved by shameful gain. And this is how he wants it to be for us too.
The one true God is the willing and eager God. “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases” (Psalm 115:3). “Whatever the Lord pleases, he does, in heaven and on earth, in the seas and all deeps” (Psalm 135:6). God does not save his people reluctantly or under compulsion. “I will rejoice in doing them good,” he says in Jeremiah 32:41, “with all my heart and all my soul.”
He is not like the gods of the nations. We cannot force his hand. We cannot compel him by our actions to do anything contrary to his heart. We don’t change him. He changes us. Which is magnificent when he is, literally, “the happy God” (1 Timothy 1:11).
God lives and works in our world, and in our lives, not from obligation or from shady motives, but willingly and eagerly, free and shameless, unforced and indomitably happy. Our God is not constrained by duty. He is the God of great delight. And so he would have it be for us as well — not just for pastors, but for all who call upon his name.