It was a rare moment of quiet intensity. She bent over her paper, tongue between her teeth, deep in concentration. She carefully dipped the swirly stamp in the ink and pressed it onto the paper, covering the page with rows of alternating colored designs. She didn’t leave much space uncovered; the page was full.
I smiled when she ran to me with her creation. “Wow! Look what you made! Great job!”
“I covered the whole page. I wanted to work hard so you would know that I love you,” she said. She was beaming.
I paused. Wait. There’s something theologically wrong with this, right? Sounds kind of performance-based. I should shut this down. I wanted to correct her with something like, “I know you love me, silly. You don’t have to work hard to show me.”
I then stopped and thought about what she actually said. My four year old was onto something big.
What initially sounded like a works-based mentality was actually the gospel. Performance-based righteousness would have said, “I worked hard so that you would love me.” The gospel frees us to say, “Because I love you and I know you love me, I want to work hard for you. I want to please you.” My preschooler’s motivation was absolutely correct.
We live in an age where hard work is kind of given a bad rap. Hard work can get swept under the label of self-righteousness, of trying to earn God’s favor, so the inclination of the day is to be suspicious of it. But throughout scripture, God calls us to work hard, not to earn His love, but because of His love, and because we love Him.
“But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me” (I Corinthians 15:10).
“This is love for God: to obey His commands. And His commands are not burdensome…” (1 John 5:3).
“Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men” (Colossians 3:23).
Motivation in obedience—in hard work—is everything, and we get it wrong sometimes. We get mixed up and think we have to earn God’s favor with our performance. This grieves Him. If my little girl had brought me her picture and said, “I made this so that you would love me,” my heart would have broken just like the Father’s. “She thinks she has to work so that I’ll love her? So that I’ll be pleased with her?” (I’ve had that conversation with another child, and it ripped me in two.) But that’s not what she said. Instead, she essentially gushed, “I love you! Because I love you, I wanted to work hard for you. To bless you.” Her hard work was an expression of love, not a desperate plea for love.
“If you love me, you’ll obey me,” Jesus said. Hard work, under the right motivation, is right and good, in faith and in life. When we pour ourselves out as an expression of our love for Him—heads bent, tongues between our teeth, focused on doing our very best with the resources given us, freely loved and free to love—it is a beautiful thing.
What would you like to offer the Father today, not so that He’ll love you, but because you love Him? Because you’re secure in His love? Because you’re grateful and free? Consider the task before you today, whatever that may be, and work at it with all your heart. Offer your labors to Him as a sweet sacrifice of praise. This offering isn’t about performance-based righteousness; it is simply love on display.