Hymn text by Philip Doddridge, 1702-1751. View the full text of this hymn.

You know the old object lesson of the stick and the carrot, where both reward and punishment are used to motivate a mule? I feel like our church, in modern days, loves to talk about the carrot God offers us, but we don’t often mention the stick. This often comes out in discussions of the Old Testament; how could such an angry, vengeful God be the same as our dear, kind, gracious, merciful one? Yet of course they are the same God, and what’s more, the nature of God hasn’t changed.

It confuses me; why talk about one aspect and ignore the other? But at the same time, I think this approach works for me. Maybe which aspect we focus on is a matter of what holds more weight, culturally? When I feel bullied, I get stubborn. However, when I feel loved and welcomed and like my tasks are manageable, I am much more likely to be patient and motivated. Plus, if I can get all carrot and no stick, isn’t that ideal? Shouldn’t I prefer pleasant guidance to painful guidance?

In my struggle to understand the nature of God, sometimes I wonder if God’s “stick” is more the natural consequences of our actions than his vindictive punishment. I don’t see God as a guy who likes to take out petty revenges on his own (still rather idiotic) infant children. It’s easier for me to see him as similar to my own earthly father, who once responded to my observation that he didn’t worry about what I was eating at college with, “well, I figure if you don’t eat well, you’ll get sick, and then you’ll learn to eat well.” I know it’s tempting to paint our heavenly parents after the mold of our earthly parents, and probably inaccurate, but it’s the best I’ve got, and it makes sense to me.

If I’m right, and God’s “stick” is just letting us experience the bad things in life, then this hymn has both stick and carrot. If you think I’m wrong, just stick to the parts about the carrot, and we’ll still be good. But keeping this analogy in mind, I’d like to separate this hymn into both types of encouragement.

gentle commands
kind precepts
constant care
community of Saints
security: guarded by God’s hand
sweet refreshment
God’s approved, unchanging goodness
a song

anxious load pushing down your weary mind

It looks to me like by trading in awful things, you get fantastic things. Imagine if you went to the car dealership, and they encouraged you to trade in your old junky ’87 car with no heater and bad gas mileage and a radio that gets only static for a new, sleek, modern, efficient, FancyCar in good working order. It’s a great deal! If you give up your right to the stick, you get the carrot. If you move forward, it doesn’t hurt as much, plus you get a delicious snack, plus you ultimately make it to your amazing destination. It should be an easy choice.

Like a mule, though, we can get stubborn and tired, and we forget to think it out logically. But if you remember to act instead of being acted upon, and you follow the advice of this hymn, I expect you’ll find the journey a little more pleasant.

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