My three-year-old son is currently going through a phase in which he fixates on something he wants. He won’t give up until he gets it. In driven, ambitious adults this would be admired. In a three-year-old, however, it’s typically accompanied by a tantrum. He wants the toy his brother is using, the extra cookie, or to go to Nana and Bapa’s house so badly. And in his mind there’s no reason that shouldn’t happen... immediately.
He doesn’t understand the reason he can’t get what he wants, and it frustrates him. I’m the same way. But as an adult, the frustration is typically accompanied by justification and rationalization. I only want quiet time to sit and read or write. Then, I hear nothing but screams and a parade of terror just outside the door as my sons frustrate each other for the fifth time in 10 minutes. I can’t get what I want.
Then comes the justification and rationalization. I tell myself my wife should’ve handled the situation differently or that having kids was a bad decision. But both of those statements are really attempts make myself feel better. If it’s not my fault, I can, in a sense, feel and be motivated by any whimsy that happens to cross my mind.
The Trouble With Motives
That’s the problem a lot of us face. We’re all motivated by something. Even our smallest actions have motives. For example, as I write this, I’m sitting in my office, on a weekend, while my wife graciously watches the kids. But the decision to leave the house and go to the office was motivated by a LOT of little desires along the way.
First, I feel stressed. If I’m honest with myself, I’ve pushed too hard during the past 6 months or so (my wife claims 18 months, and she’s probably more right than I am). So when I wake up in the morning on a weekend to boys screaming, a messy house, and the inability to even focus on deciding what sounds good for lunch, I’m pretty motivated to leave the house. I can claim I want to write and read so I can help someone or some other seemingly altruistic reason. In reality, stress was the primary motive though.
Second, I’m selfish. There are times as a husband when you wake up in the morning and all you want is to be close to your wife (yes, that means what you think it means). When kids get in the way, I’m filled with a few feelings, typically frustration and a desire to blame my wife.
It may be enough to recognize the frustration and blame as sinful, but I want to dig a little deeper at this point. If I ask myself why I’m frustrated, I find it comes from being selfish because I didn’t get what I wanted. I’m still a little boy at times who doesn’t understand why he can’t have his way. When I ask myself why I want to blame my wife, it’s typically because I believe I have the ultimate power of knowing exactly what to do in any and every situation. I believe I could’ve avoided the problem altogether and put Solomon’s wisdom to shame. It then becomes my job to make sure my wife knows exactly what she did wrong and how psychologists should be writing books on my parenting skills. Of course, I do that because I want to make sure she has the opportunity to grow and progress to my level. It’s not at all motivated by a desire to prove that I’m better than she is or to prove that I don’t have a sense of inferiority and helplessness on occasion.
As a kid, I vividly remember several situations where I was told that I couldn’t do something because I wasn’t old enough. One day came when I was finally old enough, and my first response was to make sure my friends who were younger than me knew I could do something they couldn’t yet because they weren’t old enough.
That sense of inferiority hasn’t quite left me yet. When my wife handles the kids brilliantly but they still manage to scream, I fight to ensure she knows I’m better than she is and that if she wants to be better, she’ll listen to what I have to say. It’s a desire to be qualified as “good enough” in and of myself, by my own merit. I’m old enough, I’m smart enough, I’m good enough; and that means God will treat me like I’m good enough.
All this to say, my broken, sinful nature motivated a simple decision to leave the house for a few hours to write and read. Beneath every desire, no matter how deeply I examined myself, was my sinful nature. It was pride, a desire to be like God in and of my own power, as though I had the ability to speak myself into existence and continue living forever as ruler of my own destiny.
In Mere Christianity, Lewis said, “How many of [my good actions] were done for the right motive? How many for fear of public opinion, or a desire to show off? How many from a sort of obstinacy or sense of superiority which, in different circumstances, might equally had led to some very bad act? But I cannot, by direct moral effort, give myself new motives. After the first few steps in the Christian life we realise that everything which really needs to be done in our souls can be done only by God.”
What I’m Learning
I’m finding it’s possible to learn to control our actions. The Law of Moses in the Old Testament holds up a mirror to our sinful actions and shows us right behavior, and some (the Pharisees) became pretty good and making the mirror image look good. But it also points us to the right heart that should be in each of us, a circumcised heart that is governed by right motives at its core.
This is what Jesus talked about in the Sermon on the Mount. It’s not enough to not kill your neighbor, even the hatred within you exposes your sinful nature. It’s not enough to not sleep with your neighbor’s wife, even the thoughts of lust that jump into your mind uninvited expose your sinful nature.
Deuteronomy 30:6 says a heart like this comes from God’s work, not our own. He’s the one who changes our hearts and the motives that drive us, even without our knowledge. We can never dig so deep as to completely eradicate our sinful nature by willpower or practice. A changed heart comes from God’s work.
I’m also beginning to find he doesn’t make that change instantaneously. There may be great changes that take place in our hearts. But I’ve never met someone who went from having bad motives to nothing but pure motives in their entire being. That’s a lifelong process that God undertakes for his own glory. If we could get there on our own, he wouldn’t receive the glory. Thinking we can is a prideful stance in opposition to our Creator. If he did it instantaneously, I believe our character wouldn’t be developed enough to accept the change and we would devolve back into the state we were in before the change (but that’s another discussion for another post).
Helping Your Motives Grow Daily
Spiritual growth, then, is about two things: behavior and motives. Behavior is what we do, motives are a part of who we are. Pure behavior only flows from pure motives. Spiritual disciplines help us manage behavior as well as allow God to gradually make our motives more like his.
Spiritual growth is the process that occurs when we stay close to Jesus and allow his character to transform ours. He’s not so much concerned about right behavior as he is right motives, a circumcised heart. If the heart is right, the actions it produces will be right as well. This change is only something he can do.
This means my son’s tantrums, my responses to my wife, and everything in between are symptoms of a broken, sinful nature that needs God’s work.
The next time you make a decision, even a simple or innocuous one, take a few minutes and analyze the motives and the desires that drove you to make that decision. Even something like choosing where to eat lunch can be motivated by a sinful heart.
If you choose to eat out for lunch instead of eating the lunch you made, ask yourself why you made that choice. If it was for convenience, why are you looking for convenience? Is it because you want more time to do something else? Why do you want to do that other thing? If it was because it sounded good, are you trying to make yourself feel better because something is causing you stress or frustration?
I’m not saying a decision to eat at one restaurant over another is always a demonstration of your sinful nature. I am saying, though, that sometimes even the decisions we think are innocuous CAN be motivated by our sinful nature. It’s a reminder that our true growth doesn’t come from our own willpower. It’s a gradual change that occurs as we stay close to Jesus, letting him change our hearts.
Choose to make a habit of discovering your motives and examining them with Jesus. This won’t change them instantly, but it is a step toward allowing God to replace your sinful motives with his motives. It allows him to circumcise your heart. It gradually changes you from a boy with tantrum into a loving, unselfish parent.
Examining my motives along with you,