Should we ditch the carrot and stick?

The book “Punished by rewards” argues that rewards and punishments can be counterproductive. The basic idea is this: If you give someone a gold star or even an iphone for doing their maths homework well, they are more likely to focus on the reward than the subject. Their eye will be on the prize and miss any enjoyment that numbers might have given them. Instead of diving deep, engaging with the problem and coming up with a creative solution, they will skim across the surface,  doing as little as possible in order to avoid the stick and get the carrot. What’s more when the punishments and pressies go away, so, more often than not, do a person’s interest and motivation  in the subject.

Sensing some truth in these claims I have been considering them in the light of the Christian faith and the truth revealed in the bible. I’ll start through with Richard Dawkins who argues that it is more of a virtue to do the right thing because it is the right thing rather than because someone else will reward you for it or punish you if you don’t do it. He says it like it sinks Christianity for good but he’s shooting at the wrong target. Christians do not act out of fear of punishment and here is why:

1) God is not looking for external conformance but internal affection

2) He knows that rules and regulations, punishments and rewards cannot change a person on the inside.

3) He therefore changes and motivates us by grace. Jesus took the biggest stick himself and gave the juiciest carrot to us for free.

4) Our hearts are changed in the context of God’s unconditional love for us in Christ. “We love because he first loved us.”

5) We obey Jesus because we love Jesus. “If you loved me you would obey my commands” says Jesus.

In the light of that I think one could make a case for obedience out of love being a greater virtue than obedience to an impersonal moral system.

There is a catch though. “God disciplines those he loves”. Isn’t that a kind of stick? Well, yes it is but it’s worth noting a few points:

1) God’s discipline is in the context of his unconditional love. When we mess up we do not lose our status in his family.

2) God’s discipline is often a closely related consequence of an action taken. If you pick up a red hot poker you are going to get burnt. If you lie or steel or cheat on your husband or wife then God may let you feel the consequences of that in some way. I guess he could rescue us from the effects but sometimes he chooses not to and in fact works out his discipline directly though the consequences.

The bible also talks about rewards. “great will be your reward in heaven”. So is there therefore a place for gold stars and detention in the class room and the kingdom of heaven?

Coincidentally, while reading “Punished by Rewards”  I was also reading another book called “Loving you kids on purpose”. While the former was a secular book the latter was written by a Christian and gives a helpful perspective on discipline that kind of joined the dots a bit for me.

The basic idea behind the book is that of parenting by presenting choices. Recognising that punishment and payment are largely unhelpful ways of bringing up children it presents an alternative. The idea is this: You present various choices and ensure the consequences are experienced, while staying in loving relationship. Punishment, anger, withholding love etc are removed. There is no external carrot and stick. The “carrotyness” and “stickiness” are intimately linked with the actions and come out of them as coherent consequences. That does not mean that the parent is not involved in enforcing them but that there should be a “natural” connection between the choice and the consequence. “You can clean your room or I will. Only thing is I charge for the service. To you £10 and hour!”.

Could this be a way of understanding God’s discipline? It’s not that the natural consequences of our actions are somehow out of God’s hands, rather he makes sure they happen. Yet, at the same time their happening is intimately linked with our actions and the way he has set up the world to work.

Going back to “Punished by Rewards”, a teacher who lets children experience the intrinsic consequences of their choices, both good and bad, will be more likely to produce greater internal motivation and engagement in a subject. Arbitrarily introducing unrelated extrinsic consequences merely muddies the waters and confuses our internal motivational compass. We will be torn away from the real relationship between our choices  and their outcomes and captivated by a momentary unrelated shiny thing. Any punishment or reward therefore, must come out of the very nature of the task.

Heavenly rewards could therefore also be intimately linked with our choices, rather than arbitrary gold stars or medals for our performance. Looking at the reward passages this could be the case. If I give up brothers, mothers, etc for Jesus I will get Brothers and mothers back…If I am responsible in small things I will be given responsibly in greater things. It’s not a water tight case but the rewards are strongly linked to the actions.

At the heart of it all though is relationship. God is our reward. We love Jesus and so obey him and as we do we get to know him better. If we disobey Jesus and do our own thing then we will not be enjoying our relationship with him. God will allow us to experience some of the natural consequences of that in various ways but ultimately it will be an internal thing. A lostness, a loneliness, a hole, a meaninglessness, an ebbing away of the fullness of life, joy, peace, etc…These are very natural consequences of a life away for Jesus who is the source of all these things. Ultimately if we are determined to go our own way we will experience the full consequences of that but if we seek God through Jesus then our reward is finding him.


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