The Right Motive

Can you discern your motives? In ministry with college students I often hear this idea repeated in one form or another: “Before I do this thing or go in this direction, I want to be sure I’m doing it with the right motives”; “Is it only something I want to do, or is God really calling me to do it?”

I have thought about this over the years both in pastoral conversations and in my own discipleship. More than once I can remember spending a significant amount of time wrestling in prayer over a decision just trying to figure out whether my motives were right and pure. Some time ago I came to think that its silly to spend much time wrestling down my motives for decisions to see if they come from God or my are the product of own desires. What’s more, I see this more as a lack of courage to step out in faith.

While it is virtuous to live an introspective life, to seek to know the real reasons we act, I think we need to think differently about the role motives play in our actions as well as our assessment of their rightness or wrongness.

First, I believe distinguishing between the origin of an idea, whether it emerged from God’s prompting or from our own desires is based on a mistaken notion of human nature. It posits too strong a distinction between God’s will and my own. While there is clearly a difference in the abstract, these are often merged within our hearts much like tributaries of a river. We could no more separate various tributaries out after they have merged down stream than we can our own motives from God’s impulses once they have flowed together in our heart. I like what Jonathan Edwards said in one of his 70 Resolutions “Resolved, To live so, at all times, as I think is best in my most devout frames, and when I have the clearest notions of the things of the gospel, and another world”.

Second, the truth is with the most important things in life we can’t know ourselves well enough to differentiate between good or selfish motives. In less significant things it is easier perhaps, but in the more complex and personal kinds of decisions often we never really know for sure what our true motives are.

Third, often in life the selfish elements in our nature are the very things that give us the capacity for accomplishment. For me, just this kind of thing can be seen in my drive to earn a Ph.D. Did I pursue a Ph.D. at Cambridge because I felt God’s call? Yes. But did I pursue a Ph.D. because I have a real need to feel significant and that significance can be felt by attaining high goals. Yes. So did I pursue a Ph.D. for God or for myself? Yes.

In Rabbinic Judaism there is an interesting perspective on this. The Talmud understands human nature as consisting of both a yetzer hatov (good inclination), and a yetzer hara (an evil inclination). The Rabbis interestingly did not believe that the goal of a good person should be to fully eradicate the “evil inclination” for within it resides the aggressive instincts that prompt so much creativity and achievement. The Rabbis speculate that without the yetzer hara, we would not engage in business, build homes, marry, or have children (Gen. Rab. 9:7). As Rabbi Telushkin recently explained “our motives for engaging in sexual relations emanate from lust no less than love, but out of such mixed and somewhat impure, motives sometimes very pure, a new life, emerges” (You Be Holy, 35).

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  • Chris Tilling

    Thanks for this helpful post, Joel, love the link with the Rabbis

  • Our motives are subjective (by definition), so our desire to judge anything (including our motives) must be also subjective. As you write (First, Second and Third), objective God can not be distilled from it, so we can’t be sure (or else we would have proof of God, not faith in God), at least with this attitude.

  • Phillip Cary

    Students at my college often try to make decisions by discerning their own motives. But this is getting things backwards. What we need to discern is not our motives but the difference between good and bad (that’s the wisdom Solomon prays for in 1 Kings 3:9). If you’re trying to do what’s good rather than bad, then your motivations are good enough to be getting on with. It is very freeing to recognize this.

    • You have a book about that, no? (Love it BTW)

      • Phillip Cary

        Yes, I devote a whole chapter to this issue in Good News for Anxious Christians.

  • Rev Thom

    I too have found the insecurity and ambiguity that arises from too much motive-analysis. On the other hand, discerning motives in others is encouraged in scripture. Peter discerned that Simon “was a prisoner of bitterness”(Acts 8:23). People will flatter to gain information or an advantage of some kind. Though too much ‘naval gazing’ produces spiritual paralysis, the naive never question the motives of others.