The word motive often brings to mind police-related/superhero-related TV shows where the good guys are trying to figure out why the bad guys are doing what they do. Sometimes the bad guys act out of what they perceive as good intentions, but the results are far from good.
The Bible also teaches about the importance of one’s motives. Many people separate the Old and New Testaments because they appear to be disjointed when in reality they share the same message: Mankind has sinned and fallen away from God, but God has provided a way for His people to be close to Him.
In the Old Testament we often read about sacrifices. Offering sacrifices is a foreign concept for most of us, and we often think that Israel was commanded to offer them for God; however, they were for the people. Sacrifices were God’s way of bringing His children in right relationship with Him, but He desired them to be given with the right motive. Let’s look at King Saul. He was officially chosen to be king in 1 Samuel 10 (although He was chosen by God prior to that occasion), and he proved himself to be a worthy king (in the eyes of the people) in 1 Samuel 11 by defeating Nahash the Ammonite. Not too long after this, Saul also destroyed a Philistine garrison, which caused the Philistines to rise up against Israel. Instead of waiting for Samuel to offer sacrifices at Gilgal, Saul was impatient and offered them himself. We find out in 1 Sam. 13: 8-12 that Saul offered sacrifices because he was afraid of the Philistines and his own people were scattering from him. Saul offered out of impatience and fear, but he also blatantly disobeyed the command of the Lord (v. 13). Something that seemed to be good (offering sacrifices) had bad results because of Saul’s motives. Unfortunately, it cost him his kingdom (v. 14). Jump ahead to 1 Sam. 15, and we see a similar situation. God wants Saul to destroy the city of Amalek and destroy every person and animal in it. The instructions are clear that nothing should live. Yet Saul disobeys once again. He captures Agag the king of the Amalekites instead of killing him, and he and the people spared the best livestock and “all that was good” (v. 9). It seems like God was giving Saul a second chance, but he blew it. God relays His disappointment to Samuel who then has to confront Saul. Saul tries to explain that he made his decisions to glorify God: “Samuel came to Saul, and Saul said to him, ‘Blessed are you of the Lord! I have carried out the command of the Lord.’ But Samuel said, ‘What then is this bleating of the sheep in my ears, and the lowing of the oxen which I hear?’ Saul said, ‘They (note: notice how Saul excludes himself here) have brought them from the Amalekites, for the people spared the best of the sheep and oxen, to sacrifice to the Lord your God; but the rest we have utterly destroyed (note: he includes himself again when it comes to the destruction part)'” (1 Sam. 15:13-15).
When we read this, part of us wants to agree with Saul. Saving the best for the Lord sounds great. Offering sacrifices seems like what he should have done. Saul even tries to defend himself against Samuel again in vv. 20-21 by saying that he did obey the voice of the Lord. But Samuel imparts a different message: “Has the Lord as much delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams. For rebellion is as the sin of divination, and insubordination is as iniquity and idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, He has also rejected you from being king” (v. 22). Only after this message did Saul finally relent and ask for forgiveness. He tried to make excuses for disobeying God. He may have thought his intentions were good, but God was not honored or pleased. Instead, He took away Saul’s kingship and gave it to David who would eventually become king after Saul’s death. David is described as a man after God’s own heart whereas Saul feared his own people and his enemies. Saul is just one example in the OT. Adam and Eve are the first people to act out of their own selfish motives, which gets passed on to the rest of mankind. Sacrifices were a way of drawing close to the Lord and being made right with Him, but He didn’t want these sacrifices if the person offering had the wrong motive. God desires obedience above all else. Well let’s see what the NT has to offer.
I can’t help but think of the Pharisees when discussing the topic of motive. In Matt. 5:20 Jesus tells His disciples, “For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” He follows that by a number of short teachings, but then in Matt. 6:1 He expounds on the message given in 5:20, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven.” He gives examples about giving to the poor, prayer, and fasting. All of these things are great to do. But how are they supposed to be done? The hypocrites (I believe Jesus is alluding to the scribes and Pharisees here) make their giving obvious in the synagogues and in the streets. They toot their own horns, so to speak. Notice, these are men who know the Scriptures and believe they are following God (and the Law). In today’s terms, these are some church-goers who want to be acknowledged for their giving. Jesus says that such people have their reward in full now (Matt. 6:2). Their intentions may be good, but they only honor themselves. Jesus says that those who give in secret will be rewarded by their Father eventually. The same is true for prayer and fasting. No true disciple of Christ should make a spectacle of himself in practicing righteousness (Matt. 6:5, 7, 16). If we practice righteousness in a way that honors God, people will see our good fruit. If we do it to be honored by men, we already have our reward. I think it’s safe to say that we’ve all done something good so that others will honor our actions. We want the praise. We probably have good intentions, but remember that the Lord should be honored in all things.
I want to look at one more example because I think it’s often been misunderstood. In Luke 18:18-25, Jesus is asked by a rich ruler, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” People tend to skip over v. 19, but I think it’s important. Jesus asks the ruler, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone.” Some people may be confused by what Jesus says here, but in my opinion, Jesus is telling the ruler who He really is. He’s testing the man. In answer to the ruler’s original question, Jesus then mentions a few of the commandments and the ruler states that he has kept them from his youth. Now here comes the statement that many people have misunderstood in my opinion: “When Jesus heard this, He said to him, ‘One thing you still lack; sell all that you possess and distribute it to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me'” (v. 22). We read that the ruler became sad because of his great wealth (v. 23). Jesus has basically told the man that He’s God (v. 19). The man has already stated that he’s kept all of the commandments. Jesus is giving the man the opportunity to follow Him. Many people read that the man is rich, and Jesus wants to him to give his possessions away; therefore, being rich is not good, and we should all do what Jesus says here. I think these people are missing the point. Jesus is basically giving the man two choices: follow your wealth or follow Me. The ruler wanted to know what he should do to inherit eternal life. The answer is to follow God wholeheartedly. He knew God was asking him to do something, but he still couldn’t do it (In Matt. and Mark the man is described as going away grieving; Matt. 19:22, Mark 10:22). When Jesus says that the rich have a hard time entering the kingdom of God it’s because many are unwilling to follow God at all costs. The poor have little to lose, but the rich have much to lose. However, we see further in the NT how the church is made up of rich and poor Christians alike. The difference is that their motive is to serve God with whatever they have.
These are just a few examples out of many from Scripture, but I think you understand what I’m getting at. God is interested in our hearts. He desires complete obedience and repentance when we fall short. He doesn’t want excuses like Saul (I’m guilty of this). He doesn’t want outward righteousness with alternative motives. If God asks us to do something, we should do it wholeheartedly, and even cheerfully because He has chosen us for His purposes. He instituted sacrifices in the OT so that His people could be close to Him. He also gave us His final sacrifice, Jesus, not for His sake, but for ours. So that we may have eternal life with Him. Does He not deserve our obedience? Should He not take precedence in our hearts and minds? Let us serve the Lord with the right motives. May He be glorified above all else.
One last thought. Let us also pray for those in the Middle East and in other places around the world who are experiencing persecution. Some have chosen Christ instead of recanting their faith, and now they are with Him. Let’s hope that more people will come to knowledge of Christ because of their bravery and sacrifice. May we pray for them to have courage, and for the Lord’s will to be done in all things.
© Lauren Heiligenthal