Which God?

The CEO of one of my clients said “I wonder whether my God is the God of the Old Testament or the God of the New Testament.” At the time I didn’t have an answer for him; I might have one for him today. I emphasize “might” because I have no proof that my answer is correct.

As many of you know, I consider myself to be more spiritual than religious in my leanings, but the CEO’s wonderings posed an interesting question. As I pondered his question, I came to the conclusion that they were the same God illustrating two different approaches to dealing with others. The Old Testament approach is reward and punishment while the New Testament approach is love.

Reward and punishment


To me, the Old Testament is a series of examples of how reward/punishment approaches failed. We see that potential rewards, especially those that are far in the future, don’t motivate people to behave in a more caring, loving manner now.

In our dealings with others we realize that what motivates one person doesn’t motivate others. Even in those instances when people say that they are motivated by the same thing, the level of motivation that exists is as diverse as the people themselves.

It’s been my experience that motivation must come from within. I can nurture it if it exists, but I can’t create it. To me, that’s why incentive/reward programs, in any form, seldom result in long-term behavioral change.

Finally, the joy of reward quickly wanes. If you doubt that recall a major accomplishment in your life. How long was it before the joy of that success was replaced with the allure of a new goal? Rewards have a short shelf-life.


The fear of punishment fails to produce the desired result for several reasons:

  • Absent consistent pressure, which is nearly impossible to maintain, fear wanes and loses it’s effectiveness in altering behavior.
  • Fear, like reward, rarely produces long-term behavioral change.
  • Fear applied too heavily typically results in rebellion; the person feels that they have nothing left to lose. Their fear becomes rebellious anger.

For these reasons the Old Testament illustrates, to me, that the reward/punishment approach is a losing proposition.


The New Testament approach of love, encouragement, support and a servant-leader mentality illustrates the positive long-term changes in others’ behavior that occur when they receive our love.

When we demonstrate our sincere belief in the good others possess, their ability to do good, to be both valued and valuable, to be appreciated by others, they respond in an equally kind, loving manner…not just to us, but to all with whom they interact. People live up to, or down to, our expectations.

When we recognize the good in others and encourage them to use that good in the service of others, they’ll do so because they don’t want to disappoint us. Who among us wants to disappoint someone who believes in us?

Social psychologists refer to this as the law of reciprocity. When we do something nice for someone, they want to do something nice for us…they want to reciprocate. Indeed, some examples offered by social psychologists indicate that the memory of kindness and the desire to reciprocate lasts for decades. Could there be any better indicator of the power of love?

What does all of this mean for you?

For you

We all, by virtue of our humanity, possess a natural tendency to reward and punish. It’s the way we’re wired. Having said that, we also know that this approach often results in fragile, strained relationships, as evidenced by frustration and exhaustion.

Conversely, we know how exhilarating, energizing and joyful love is. We know how it deepens and strengthens our bonds with others. We also know how lasting these feelings are and how favorably love alters our own behavior as well as the behaviors of those with whom we interact.

The next time you feel the desire to punish or to create an incentive to get people to change their behavior, pause. Let these emotions wane, then offer the other person love in the form of recognition of the good within them. Encourage them to use that good in whatever they’re doing. Let them know that you believe in and value them; they will live up to your expectation of them.

For our kids

Whenever you see kids wanting to incentivize (offer a potential reward) or punish others, ask them: “How would you respond to that? Would it be more beneficial to highlight the other person’s good qualities and how those qualities could be employed in the current situation?”

As kids think through these questions, they’ll come to realize that love is more powerful than a reward/punishment approach. They’ll readily embrace this message because they came to the conclusion on their own. As they repeatedly experience the power of love, it’ll become their default way of behaving. In doing so, their lives will become easier, richer, fuller and more joyful.

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Readers would love to see your thoughts and experiences in a comment.

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