I remember I conversation I had with a friend while I was in the middle of writing my PhD. He said he’d never be able to do what I was doing because he wasn’t an intrinsically-motivated person.
It was the first time I’d come across the term.
But the more I looked into it, the more I realised I wasn’t one either!
An intrinsically-motivated person is someone who doesn’t need external goals, rewards or extra accountability. They do things because they enjoy them, or because they simply need to be done.
This wasn’t how I approached my PhD. In fact, my approach was entirely the opposite. In order for me to get the 90,000 words written over the 4 years, I had to set a series of external goals and accountability for myself. Often, this would take the form of sending an email to my academic supervisors, promising them a chapter draft by a specific deadline. With the deadline set, I was free to procrastinate all I wanted – as long as I got the work done by the deadline (most of the time, at least!).
Extrinsic motivation wasn’t just limited to the way I studied. When I started a fitness regime 6 months ago, I did the same thing. I knew I wouldn’t exercise unless I had some form of external reason to, so I created a small group on Facebook Messenger – my “accountability crew”, and checked in with them every time I made it to the gym.
But after a while, something strange happened. After a few months, I had stopped checking in with my crew, but I didn’t stop exercising. By the power of habit and routine I had transformed from being extrinsically-motivated to intrinsically-motivated. I was going to the gym not because I knew I had to, but because I enjoyed it. I wanted to exercise – something I never thought I’d ever hear myself say!
One of the turning points in my Christian life took a similar form. For many years, my motivation for godliness was entirely extrinsic. When I was in high school, my youth group leaders would tell me I should read the Bible, so I did. When I left high school and became a youth leader myself, my minister made clear the expectations he had of his leadership teams, so I obeyed. I clearly remember being 17, struggling with alcohol, having had way too much to drink on New Year’s Eve and telling myself “you’re going to be a youth leader this year, so you can’t get drunk anymore”. And I didn’t. That year.
My youth group leaders and my minister functioned in the same way as my PhD supervisors and my exercise “crew”. Accountability systems have their place and can be helpful.
But extrinsic motivation is not the goal of the Christian life.
The most radical shift in my obedience to Jesus Christ did not take the form of a program, or a deadline, or even a group of people to report in with. It took place when I realised this simple truth, expressed by Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:17
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away, and look, new things have come.
A similar thought is expressed in Romans 6:11
In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.
And also in Romans 8:11
And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you.
The motivation for Christian living isn’t extrinsic. But it isn’t intrinsic either. It is a radical transformation that can only come from God.
In Christ, I have been made new. I am not my old self. In fact, my old self died to sin. More than that, the very spirit who raised Jesus from the dead has given new life to my formerly dead body.
This is greater than extrinsic accountability systems. This is more powerful even than the intrinsic desire to want to be more like Jesus. This is the very power of God working in me to transform my life, my actions, my will and my desires.
I’m still a work in progress. I still make mistakes every day. But God’s spirit is at work in me, and it’s more powerful than any system, strategy, accountability process or goal I can come up with.