Conformity to God’s Will: Why Punishment Doesn’t Work

Church history is replete with examples of power plays and fear tactics to induce people to conform to what some particular authority believes is the will of God.  Sadly, these efforts have resulted, at times, in brutal physical, spiritual, and psychological terror.  Some people never seem to learn the lesson that one cannot be forced to obey God against his or her will.  Perhaps the most famous campaign to terrorize people into correct living and correct believing is the Inquisition, where the church used unspeakable torture or threats of torture to produce conformity.  In this blog post, I want to examine the three ways that social psychologists posit that conformity can be stimulated and relate it to the subject of following God’s will in discipleship.  I hope to demonstrate that the fear of punishment, still ever so popular in many Christian circles, is not effective in producing life-changing results.

There are three ways to bring about conformity: compliance, identification, and internalization (Aronson, 2008).  I will briefly discuss each of these and give an example.  Compliance “describes the behavior of a person who is motivated by a desire to gain reward or avoid punishment” (pg. 35).  If a mother hopes to convince her teenage son to clean his bedroom, she may promise him use of the family car on the weekend so that he can go out with his friends.  On the flip side, she may threaten him with the punishment of grounding for the weekend if he does not clean his room.  In either case, the son will be driven to comply with his mother’s request by the desire to obtain the reward or avoid the punishment.  This form of social conformity contains an element of power (Aronson).  The mother is using her power to inflict pain or grant blessing in order to attain compliance in her son.  Identification “describes a response to a social influence brought about by an individual’s desire to be like the influencer” (pg. 35). Aronson notes, “In identification, as in compliance, we do not behave in a particular way because such behavior is intrinsically satisfying; rather, we adopt a particular behavior because it puts us in a satisfying relationship to the person or persons with whom we are identifying” (pp. 35-36).  Identification is at work when a daughter admires her mother so much that she wishes to be like her.  She then imitates or takes on the behaviors of her mother such as speaking to people a certain way or having a certain manner with children.  The motivating factor in this case of conformity is the daughter’s liking for her mother.  The daughter most likely has not thought through the beliefs and actions of her mother to determine a reasonable basis for adopting them; she adopts them to resemble someone she likes.  The final way to conform, internalization, is when we take inside of us a particular belief or behavior for the purpose of being the right kind of person or simply to be right (Aronson).  Returning to the mother-daughter illustration again, if the daughter is convinced that her mother represents the right way of living and the right way of believing, then she will internalize those behaviors and beliefs and “integrate [them] into [her] system of values” (pg. 37).  In this instance, the daughter adopts the mother’s behaviors and beliefs not just because she likes her, but because she believes her mother is right in living and believing in such a way.

Identification and Internalization produce behaviors and belief systems that are more enduring than compliance, with internalization being the most durable.  In identification, our liking or respect for a person moves us to mimic their behavior or adopt their beliefs because it makes us just like them.  The issue is the attractiveness of the person (Aronson).  With internalization, we truly make those behaviors and beliefs our own because experience has taught us, either directly or through another person, that those ways of behaving and believing are right or the most beneficial to ourselves and others. Here, the issue is one of credibility (Aronson).  

So, what’s wrong with compliance?  The problem is that in complying with a demand or request out of fear of punishment or the attainment of a reward “the person’s behavior is only as long-lived as the promise of reward or the threat of punishment” (pg. 35).  The issue in compliance is one of a person exerting power over another (Aronson).  As long as the punishment is looming or the carrot is dangling at the end of the stick, you can be sure person will conform.   However, if the carrot disappears or the threat evaporates, then the person will return to doing what they want and what comes natural to them.

The application of these insights into social conformity to a life of Christian discipleship provides us with a model of what works and what doesn’t.  As I said at the beginning of this post, the church has a near obsession with trying to scare people into doing things that they would not otherwise do.  Often guilt is used as a form of psychological punishment to those who might transgress a moral law that a preacher or denomination deems to be God’s will.  Sometimes, the threat is more overt in that preachers and teachers will warn of God’s retribution and punishment in our lives when we don’t do the things He has (supposedly) commanded.  And then, there’s the ultimate admonishment, the threat of all threats, the terror to replace all terrors:  “If you do not do what God wants (either through behavior or belief), then when you die, He’ll send you to hell.”  This is the supernatural gun to the head threat.  “God loves you and desires a relationship with you and invites you to partake of his love, but if you don’t then he’s going to blow your soul’s head off.”  Nice, huh?

This is why the conservative church is becoming more of a laughing stock in this country.  It is not due to some prophesied apostasy.  People are waking up to the manipulative and coercive approaches to getting people to “obey.”  The problem is not a populace that is repulsed by the life that Jesus offers, but with a church leadership ensconced in moralism and legalism, that holds to a form of Godliness, but denies its working power (2 Tim 3:5).  The power of life change in the gospel is through identification with Jesus Christ, because you’ve come to like who he is and love the God He represents.  You have an internalization of the lived experience of God’s love in your own heart.  You see the compassion and kindness that Jesus shows to the lost, weak, and marginalized and you identify with his heart and seek to become like him in ministering to these same social outcasts.  And, as you experience the love of God poured out in your heart, you are changed and internalize this love to become someone loving yourself (Rom 5:5, 1 Jn 4:8, 16).  This is law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus (Rom 8:2), the royal law of Love (Rom 13:8-10; James 2:12).  Transformation happens from the inside out as we build a relationship with Jesus in the Spirit and internalize His love for us.

If we continue to conform out of compliance, then we will never experience the abundant life Jesus promised to those who believe in Him (John 10:10).  Furthermore, we will never truly be changed.  Once we realize that the threatened punishments aren’t befalling us or that the health and wealth promises of reward are not landing in our bank account, then we will abandon the faith, disillusioned and demoralized, and return back to a life absent an experience of the love of God.  It goes to show that a god who flaunts his power to manipulate and force people into doing what he desires is, in the end, unable to bring about the change for which the gospel calls.  Any god that would scare you or threaten to harm you if you don’t perform the way he asks is not worthy of worship.

I would encourage you to examine yourself and ask, “Why am I doing what I’m doing?”  Is it because you love Jesus and want to be like him and trust Him as your teacher and guide?  Is it because you’ve had a life-changing and healing experience of God’s love in your heart that you hope to bring to the lives of other people?  Or, is it because you are afraid that God’s going to be angry and “get ya” either in this life or in hell afterward if you don’t do it?”  This is why I submit that Universalism is the only solution to getting the terror out of our religion once and for all.  If we realize that God corrects us when we make mistakes and that He will train us and guide us into a wholesome spirituality throughout this life and the one to come, it removes the fear that paralyzes us and prohibits us from truly changing. 

God loves everyone just as much as He loves Jesus (John 17:23b) and he is committed to bringing salvation and the fullness of life to all (Rom 5:18-19; Col 1:16-20).  The guilt-mongers and Pharisees in our ranks may continue to try and scare us into obedience, showing it to be a path to avert destruction, but we will continue to promote obedience as a prescription for finding life free of any temporary or  eternal  divine existential threat.  Punishment doesn’t work because it can’t change the heart.  Only God’s love can and that’s why we embrace it.


Aronson, E. (2008). The Social Animal.  New York: Worth Publishers.


7 thoughts on “Conformity to God’s Will: Why Punishment Doesn’t Work

  1. I just finished a psychology course on learning as part of my teaching program and I was thinking about this very topic when we studied behaviorism…I think you’re right that punishment doesn’t work, but how do we square that with all that reward and punishment stuff in the old testament??? Or am I still looking at the bible through the wrong lens???

    • BJ ~ First, how about them Red Sox? FIrst place. I’m assuming you’re a Sox fan if you’re from Boston. Haha. Second, regarding your comment, the Old Testament is a very tricky topic. I have several working theories about how to interpret the Old Testament. Jesus seemed to indicate, at least when it came to the laws on divorce, that it was Moses that gave them the rule they had because of the “hardness of your hearts” (Matt. 19:8), which, in my opinion, casts some doubt on how much of that OT law was given by God directly. I heard one version that says that God gave the Ten Commandments and Moses worked out the rest on the basis of those ten within the cultural ideas of the time. I’ve also heard a progressive idea that states that in redemption history God has slowly been moving people toward what Jesus embodies and the royal law of love. In other words, revelation is progressive and, in the OT, there is this progression of understanding of what God’s will was. First, God curbed the wild bunch he brought out of Egypt by giving them a law they could handle for that time and that place, including temple sacrifices. However, by the time the prophets came along, they were calling for genuine repentance and arguing that God wanted true justice and not sacrifice. Then Jesus comes along and condemns the temple system (in driving out the money changers) and dies as the scapegoat of the nation, showing what scapegoating and sacrifice does to the innocent. It is one of the “powers” that He overcomes through the resurrection (See the post “Saved from What?”). In this whole view, it’s like a developmental theory. You give children a certain set of parameters that they can handle at the time and then as they grow the rules change until they reach adulthood and are guided by mature ideas. We can then see the people in the Old Testament progressing from a childhood understanding of God to a mature understanding of God through the Prophets and Jesus and the New Testament Church and even to the Church today. It’s perfectly in line with psychological views on moral development, ironically. I know that’s a really long answer, but I wanted to lay it out for you the best I could explain it right now. I may do a post on this subject in the near future. Thanks for the comment!

  2. lol…yep..Sox in first. It’s about time. I think the Yankees had a chance to run away with it, but they blew it. I think we got the division for sure….I thought the developmental view of the OT was interesting. I’ll have to think about it more…I’d say definitely do the post on it…it would be interesting…so if I understand the theory right, we would be saying that the church today can supercede what the apostles say??? Maybe I’m reading too much into what you siad, but it sounds like progress can still happen. What say you???

  3. I find it interesting, Jordan, that you’re basing your views of the Word of God on secular psychology. Punishment is for the purpose of justice. When we break a law of God we are punished as part of God’s justice. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Sure, God is merciful, but that mercy has a limit and it only comes with repentance. The Scriptures say there is a punishment worse than death.

    • Bill, your conception of justice is Latin-based and western. The Biblical writers were eastern in their understanding of justice. Justice to them was putting things back into right relationship; bringing things into harmony that had previously been strained or separated. God does not require punishment for sin. He certainly disciplines those who get out of line, but this is corrective and instructive, not punitive. Forgiveness is how one brings about justice. Remember that Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount “that you have heard it said to you, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but I say to you, forgive those who injure you” (rough paraphrase). Forgiveness brings about justice in that it restores relationship and is the right thing to do. This is what God does to us. And regarding secular psychology – psychological science has more than confirmed the findings of Biblical Christianity. The problem is not that it contradicts the Bible, but as I’ve told you numerous times, it contradicts your interpretation of it. See my post entitled “The Mind of the Christian Independent (Part 02): Rubric for Truth” where I discuss the ideas of using scholarship in our search for the truth.

  4. Hello!
    I think that most religions have a punishment aspect in them (mostly fear of the afterlife) in order to keep the people in line. What greater fear could there be except to be endlessly tortured in the searing heat of literal flames forever and ever? It is unlikely, despite your valiant efforts, that you will ever move Christianity, a religion I had followed for many years, away from its punitive mindset. If you think about it, the religion itself posits that even the son of God had to be punished. Without punishment, there is no salvation. That’s great for all those who take Jesus as savior, but the rest of us, I guess we’re going to get punishment. Never did make any sense to me how we could still be punished if Jesus was punished already, but I guess that’s one of the contradictions of religion. Sorry to be so cynical, but that’s where life has led me.

    • Jeff, it’s true that most religions have this, but you have to understand that religion is a developmental thing where God slowly breaks into the culture to right the wrongs of those cultures and bring us to maturity. Jesus’ death was a punishment by the authorities of his day for supposed blasphemy (at least in the eyes of the Jewish leaders). This was an example of a just person being punished unjustly (another argument against penal-substition). You’re right that if Jesus paid some divine penalty then it’s automatic universalism and you would have no penalty to pay. They do try to have it both ways, although the particular redemptionists (Jesus died only for the elect) are more consistent on that point. Again, keep in mind that the maturity of God’s people was a developmental process that led to its ultimate expression in Christ. Thanks for the post and it’s good to see you again on the blog!

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