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The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it? (Jeremiah 17:9)
Being born this sort of person, it’s no wonder my natural motivations are all wrong.
In college, I led worship for our Christian fellowship group. One night, a guest speaker was sitting next to our regional director while I sang and played. He turned to our director and said, “That guy is up there for himself, not God.”
Later, when I heard this, I was incensed. How could this speaker, who had never met me, know what my motivations were? However he knew, I eventually realized he was right. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to serve Jesus—I just wanted to glorify myself more.
The Holy Spirit used him to open up this dark, ugly part of me; I didn’t deal with it well. I started to see selfish motivations everywhere and in everything. I was disheartened and despondent. I started to wonder if it was even possible for a Christian to have pure motives.
The War for Our Motivations
For Christians, the work of the Spirit is a daily work, and never finished. We are still at war with sin, so our motivations are suspect and must be interrogated and investigated constantly.
As we war, we must remember: Jesus Christ graciously came to die a death that pays the penalty for our sinful motives. He then rose from the grave, conquering death. He ascended into heaven to prepare us a place with God, and to send his Holy Spirit to live inside of us.
If we love and follow Jesus, we are given new hearts through his death, the promise of life through his resurrection, and the gift of help from the Spirit. This gives us the possibility of being motivated out of the love and glory of God rather than from love and glory of self.
We must start here, with the gospel, to know why our misguided motivations are, and what we can do about them.
Identify Your Misguided Motivations
When I fall into the wrong motives, I find that they commonly fall into one—or both—of two groups. The first is subtle, the second is pervasive; both, if left to fester, can destroy the integrity of our service to Christ.
1. Are you seeking to repay Jesus, or to please him out of love for him?
And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. (Hebrews 11:6)
Do we seek to appease God out of gratitude for what he’s done? Such gratitude can lead to thinking that God must be repaid, but God’s grace and Jesus’ sacrifice are well beyond repayment. Thinking this way leads to believing that salvation can be earned through works.
Or do we seek to please him because it’s the right thing to do? Atheists do many morally right things, but they can’t please God.
Faith in God is required in order to please him, so atheists can never do so, nor can simple moral acts for their own sake. And gratitude to God should primarily inspire love, not action. Love and faith drive our desires; and as 1 Corinthians 13 tells us, love is paramount because, while faith will turn to sight at Jesus’ coming, love will never pass away.
Letting gratitude deepen our love and dependence on Christ will lead to a purification of our motives, rather than having us act from a feeling of debt. Love of Jesus will cause us do right things, not just because they are right, but because we love him.
The desire to please God should spring from ever-increasing love for him, not from indebtedness or from simple rigid morality.
2. Are you seeking acclaim from man, or from God?
Nevertheless, many even of the authorities believed in him, but for fear of the Pharisees they did not confess it, so that they would not be put out of the synagogue; for they loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God. (John 12:42-43)
Acclaim from men rather than love of God is always the wrong motivation. Many have used the scriptures and the name of God to satisfy their own ends. In God’s grace, such people can still be used by God to spread the gospel, as Paul notes in Philippians 1:17-18, but through such improper motives, many have been confused and led astray.
This is not an exhaustive list of wrong motives, just a sample of how our flesh tries to ruin our walk with Jesus. So how can we start to take every thought captive to Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5)?
Check Your Heart
Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. (Psalm 139:23-24)
The indwelling Spirit gives believers the ability to purify our motives, through dependence on him in every decision and consistent vigilance in discerning if love of Christ is the true motivation for whatever we do.
Sometimes sin and selfishness will be evident as soon as we begin. Other times, it will be more subtle. In a moment when required to decide quickly, fear or self-preservation may drive us more than love. Or perhaps motives seemed pure at first, but doubts have crept in over time.
Here are some questions you can ask yourself:
- If there was no immediate reward (praise, good feelings, gratitude, repayment, advancement), would I still do this?
- If this hurt me (physically, emotionally, financially, relationally), would I still do it?
- If I don’t accomplish this, would I still do it?
Such questions are meant to help identify and address heart issues, but they are not a catch-all. In whatever circumstance, we work with the Holy Spirit to love Jesus more and to become more like him. Everything we do should reflect that.
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus… (Romans 8:1)
There will always be temptation to make our service and our actions about ourselves. If we wait for our minds and hearts to be fully clear before we follow where Christ leads, we risk never following at all.
Christ’s power is made perfect in our weakness: When a worship leader purposefully draws recognition away from herself and to God; when a pastor writes his sermons to teach hard truths in a loving way, regardless of popularity; when a believer befriends someone who seems unlovable, even though it may invite ridicule; whenever we share the truth about Jesus with someone, risking rejection or scorn—in all these, Christ’s power is displayed.
We will always be tempted to act in ways that aren’t rooted in love for Jesus. There may be times we are called to flee these temptations, and times when we must stand against them. Regardless of our feelings or fears, we are free to put aside sinful motivations and act in confidence, motivated by love for our Savior, who gave himself up for this, our freedom.