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EP 65: Our Motives Matter: Why We Do the Things We Do

Our motives are the underlying reason for any action, yet we don't often give them much thought. Motives matter, and they matter to God. @mferrell

Have you ever been kind to someone outwardly, all the while you were harboring bitterness or anger towards them on the inside? What about thinking the best of others? I fight a critical spirit, and it’s an area I continually pray for the Lord to work in my heart to not judge the motives of others.

You can read the post below (10 minutes) or listen to the podcast (31 minutes) where I share more content.

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God’s work of sanctification comes about by continuing to change us more into the image of Christ. Our motives need to be brought into obedience to God’s Word if we desire to see real change in our lives.

As we take this time to spend in the Sermon on the Mount and in 1 Corinthians 13 my hope is it will get us pondering and asking the Lord to search our hearts and more specifically our heart motives on why we do what we do and how we judge the motives of others.

Motives Matter:

Our motives are the underlying reason for any action, yet we don’t often give them much thought. Motives matter, and they matter to God. God doesn’t just desire us to do the right thing but to do it with the right attitude.

No different than our desire for our children, we want them to do what is required of them with the right attitude. As parents, we care what they do and why they do it.

A motive is defined as a reason for doing something, especially one that is hidden or not obvious.

The heart is the source of our motives. Our desire for happiness, pleasure, comfort, respect, love, or freedom can be the underlying reason for why we do what we do. Our motives can be good or bad. They can be pure or impure. They can be God-honoring or self-honoring.

The Heart of the Matter:

God’s Word is all about our motives. It addresses our hearts and what rules them. Proverbs 4:23 tells us, “the heart is the wellspring of life.” When I hear that verse, it reminds me of Matthew, “where our treasure is, there will our hearts be.” Whatever I treasure is what I will find myself pursuing. It can take over my thoughts and the direction of my life. If I want comfort, I’ll do everything I can to avoid anything that makes me uncomfortable. Whether it be difficult people, inconveniences, or challenging situations.

Whatever I treasure is what I will find myself pursuing. Click to Tweet

To determine what we’re motivated by, ask yourself questions like: What do I want? What makes me happy? What makes me depressed? What do I need to be comfortable? What do I hope for or crave?

We can’t separate our motives and desires; they work together. John MacArthur stated in his commentary on Matthew that the location of our treasure indicates where our heart already is.

For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

~ Matthew 6:21

“The word for heart in Matthew 6:21 (Kardia) does not refer to the physical organ but is always used figuratively in Scripture to refer to the seat and center of human life. The heart is the center of the personality, and it controls the intellect, emotions, and will. No outward obedience is of the slightest value unless the heart turns to God.” (source)

We can easily give the outward appearance of obeying God while inwardly are hearts are hardened. Our motives aren’t pure, and God sees and knows this. First Thessalonians 2:4 says, “Our purpose is to please God, not people. He alone examines the motives of our hearts”.

We may deceive others and even ourselves, but we will not deceive God. Pure motives are only possible as we surrender our lives to the Spirit. As we allow the Spirit to control us is when we will truly desire to please God and not ourselves.

Kingdom Motives:

A bit earlier in Matthew 6 as Jesus is giving the Sermon on the Mount, He brings up three areas that, as believers, everything we do is done in the presence of God. In Matthew 6:1-18, Jesus is addressing giving, prayer, and fasting.

These are practices mentioned (giving, prayer, and fasting) that are meant to worship God, and were the three religious primary pillars to the Jewish audience Jesus was addressing. They were not meant to bring attention to our self-appointed righteousness or religious piety. They aren’t meant to practice, so others will see us and praise us.

“Righteousness before men to be noticed by them is self-righteousness. Righteousness that God accepts is His character reproduced in and through us for His good pleasure. Then when others see this ‘supernatural righteousness’ in our lives, they give the glory to God.” (source)

Our problem isn’t in our practicing these areas in our walk with the Lord because Jesus assumes we will He states “when” not “if” but it’s in the motives behind why we’re doing what we’re doing. In our sinful human hearts, we can so often be doing good things but with the wrong motives. Our lives are tainted with self-centeredness, pride, and self-righteousness.

Ways I can subtly direct praise to myself instead of the Lord may be by boasting about my prayer life. Or maybe I share about a current spiritual fast or what good deed I recently did for someone at church. Guess what, no reward for any of those.

Matthew 6:1 states:
“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.”

The glory went to me and not to God. My deep down desire was I wanted others to think more highly of me. My motives were tainted, sinful. They were not God-focused, they were self-focused.

“There is no reward from God to those who seek it from men.”

~ Charles Spurgeon

Matthew 6:1 starts with the word “Beware,” which can also be translated as take heed or be on guard. It’s in the imperative, which means to do this continually. We need to be continually determining what our motives are behind what we do. Why am I praying? Fasting? Giving? Helping others? Being kind? Is it for the praise of me or to worship God in secret?

As Christians, we need to continue to self-examine ourselves. We will continue to sin, but we also know we have an advocate before the Father to cling to and continue to seek to be filled with the Spirit.

“The Christian is to live in such a way that men looking at him, and seeing the quality of his life, will glorify God.”

~ Martyn Lloyd Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount

As we pray and give and fast in secret, it shows trust and reliance on God.

As we pray and give and fast in secret, it shows trust and reliance on God. Click to Tweet

The Lord Jesus Christ lived a life that focused on only pleasing God. His motives were pure and not self-centered or self-righteous but purely righteous. His whole life was given to bring glory to God. Bringing glory to God is to be the purpose of our lives.

We will never completely meet the standard set before us in the Sermon on the Mount, but as believers, our character will reflect the nature of those in God’s kingdom. We are equipped as believers to live out these kingdom characteristics. Humility and a desire to think and act rightly will be present, and although we will fail many times, our lives will reflect God’s righteousness.

There are times when it is not possible too fast, pray or give in secret—people are going to know and may need to know. Fasting is an area where others may need to know, especially within our families, but it comes down to our motives again; our heart attitude should be one of only seeking the approval of God.

One way to get inside our true motives is to ask ourselves, “Would I still do this if no one ever knew I did it?”

Or when praying in a group, ask ourselves, “Do we desire our prayers in a group setting to sound more holy or spiritual so others will think more highly of us?”

We need to keep our eyes on Christ and live to please an audience of One.

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The Motives of Others:

Have you ever determined you know exactly why someone did or said what they did? Have you ever had someone judge your motives, and you know they were nowhere close as to why you did or said what you did?

One example from God’s Word that comes to my mind is when Hannah is praying in the temple in 1 Samuel 1:9-28, and Eli thinks she is drunk.

The text says in verse 13:
“Hannah was speaking in her heart; only her lips moved, and her voice was not heard. Therefore Eli took her to be a drunken woman.”

Eli was not thinking the best and determined he knew what was going on in her heart. Here was a godly woman pouring out her heart to the Lord in prayer and being taken for a drunk.

First Corinthians 13:7 helps us to understand how God desires us to think the best of others. It says, “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

Love hopes the best, it believes the best and doesn’t presume the worst. It isn’t suspicious of others’ motives.

Vines dictionary defines “believe all things as” it does not mean that it accepts as true all that is stated. Love is never taken in thus. It is, however, ready to impute the best motives even to one whose act is unkind or detrimental. In bearing with evil conduct, it seeks to avoid undue suspicion. Where there is any element of doubt as to the real intention, love decides to regard it as good and honest.

Love does to others what we would desire others to do to us. I don’t appreciate when someone questions my motives or motives are attributed to me that aren’t there.

We can too often read into another’s motives. If my bent is to think negative thoughts, I can easily think others are feeling this way, and it may not be the case at all.

I have been guilty of jumping to conclusions only to realize I completely misjudged a situation. Determining we know the motives of others probably happens most within our own homes and specifically within our marriages.

We’ve been with this person and lived with them for a long time so we can think we know what they’re thinking and the reason behind their actions. Our marriages are the relationship we need to prioritize not to judge motives because it will get us into trouble. We need to think the best of our spouses. We love them, they love us, and their desire is most likely not to hurt us.

And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.

~ Luke 6:31

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

~ Philippians 2:3-4

Love always thinks the best. It never presumes the worst.

In our flesh, we are ready to think the worst, but love as the verse in 1 Corinthians 13:7 reminds us, does the opposite and believes the best. It is a love that has faith in God that He will work all things out together according to His divine plans. This love gives the benefit of the doubt. It seeks to see people at their best and not at their worst.

Thinking the best is not being gullible, and if there is a sin that needs to be addressed, then love addresses it with grace and truth. A great way to think about it is someone is innocent until proven guilty. We don’t know all the details, and we can’t see into the heart of another.

Our pride would instead determine that we know best, and we know all.

So on the motives of others, let’s believe well of them unless it is evident that is not the case, and even so, we need to deal with truth in a godly and right manner.

As we do this, we are trusting the Lord.

Change from the Heart:

So, we see this sin in ourselves, and we don’t like it because it’s a sin and as a believer, I want to hate my sin and turn from it, where do we begin?

In Christ, we have all we need to change.

Psalm 51:17
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

and Matthew 15:8 tells us:
‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me;

We need to begin by getting honest with the Lord and examining our hearts before Him. Real change needs to start with us seeing our sin, realizing we are helpless in our strength to change and looking to Jesus.

True change begins with a person, and His name is Jesus.

Ed Welch shares in his helpful little booklet called Motives: Why Do I Do the Things I Do?:

“That is why the path of change goes through the heart and continues on to the gospel where God chose to most fully reveal himself in the death and resurrection of Christ. It is in Jesus that the Father ultimately displays his goodness, his power and his glory. And it is in Jesus that we find the power to change.”

As we come to know true forgiveness and the love of God in the gospel of Jesus Christ, here is where we can begin to respond to others in love and trust.

It begins as we get to know more of this Heavenly Father, and He delights in revealing Himself to us:

Ephesians 3:17-19:
so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, 18 may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

Let me end with some words from Ed Welch again:

“More important than knowing your motives is knowing God, and God is very generous in revealing himself. He should be your primary focus. We should be spending more time looking at Christ than inspecting our own hearts. Because if you are growing in the knowledge of God, you will be changed—even to the depths of your heart.”

Look to the cross, dear friends

“To know that God knows everything about me and yet loves me is indeed my ultimate consolation.”

~ R. C. Sproul


Studies in the Sermon on the Mount by Martyn Lloyd Jones

Motives: Why Do I Do the Things I Do? by Edward Welch

Sermon on the Mount Study Resources by Jen Wilkin

Resource of the Month: Women’s Hope Podcast