Understanding our motives

tsslogo.jpgUnderstanding our motives

One of the deepest questions we can ask of ourselves is very simple: Why do we do what we do? Here are some thoughts on the topic.

Scripture addresses our motives in a profound way. Take James 4 for example: “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?” (v. 1). Our quarrels with others spring from our own hearts because we entertain self-centered desires. James tells us that we fight, not because we have enemies without, rather, we fight because we have a sinful heart within. The conflict problem is me. At some level, I start every fight. And this angry heart rages hot because our sinful motives arise from unmet idolatrous desires: “You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel” (v. 2). In verses 3-10, James says our motives cause conflict because we are worldly, because we fail to ask God for His grace, because we fail to pursue humility and fail to resist Satan’s temptations. Motives are at the root of all conflict. The evil of fighting is not that we land punches. The evil of fighting is that it reveals worldly idols and pridefulness towards God in the heart. Conflict with others is profoundly theological.

In a series of articles comparing modern psychotherapies with the cure of souls, Dr. David Powlison writes, “…the dynamics of human intention and desire cannot be defined in purely psychological terms (or psycho-social terms, or psycho-social-somatic terms). Motivational dynamics do not simply operate within or between persons. The human heart has to do with God. So when the Bible describes the desires that obviously play within our souls and rule our lives, it does not portray them as hard-wired psychological or physiological givens: as needs, instincts, drives, longings, wishes. It speaks of them as morally freighted vis-à-vis God, as moral-covenantal choices: we are ruled either by cravings of the flesh or by repentance-faith-obedience to God’s desires. Our desires are tilted one way or the other, either toward the true God or toward the host of idols we fabricate both collectively and idiosyncratically. Our mastering desires are relationally and morally qualified. … In sum, the human heart – the answer to why we do what we do – must be understood as an active-verb-with-respect-to-God. Climb inside any emotional reaction, any behavioral choice or habit, any cognitive content, any reaction pattern to suffering, and you are meant to hear and see active verbs working out. Love God or anything else. Fear God or anything else. Want God or anything else. Need God or anything else. Hope in God or anything else. Take refuge in God or anything else. Obey God or anything else. Trust God or anything else. Seek God or anything else. Serve God or anything else. The Bible’s motivation theory shouts from every page – but it does not look like a motivation theory to those whose gaze has been bent and blinded by sin’s intellectual logic” [The Journal of Biblical Counseling (Spring 2007, vol. 25, No. 2) p. 24].

It’s no exaggeration to say Instruments in the Hand’s of the Redeemer (P&R: 2002) is on my top ten list of favorite books. Without hesitation, I would consider this book essential reading for pastors, fellowship group leaders, and really any thinking and reading Christian. In it author Paul David Tripp writes, “We must humbly admit we are sinners while we lay hold of the hope of our union with Christ. We don’t simply suffer; we suffer as sinners with a deep propensity to run after god-replacements. And, as believers, we don’t just suffer as sinners, but as those who have been united with Christ and therefore no longer live under the mastery of sin. We bring these two realities to times of blessing as well. Holding onto both truths is the only way to do battle with our own hearts, and the only way to be part of what God is doing in our lives and others’. This is a perspective on life that only those who believe God’s Word will ever embrace. Ist is the heart of biblical personal ministry. It is more than a topical list of problem-solving principles, more than a collection of morals on how to live life, more than an empathetic relationship or a dynamic therapeutic encounter. Biblical personal ministry is rooted in the story of a war and a Savior King. As we place our stories within this great story of the compassion and love of Christ, we will understand who we are and live as we were meant to live” (pp. 93-94).

We act and sin in certain ways because of the idolatrous motives of our hearts. This is our biggest problem: We expect to get what we want and what we naturally (and sinfully) want is an idolatrous replacement for God to steal His glory for ourselves. We are at war. “For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh” (Gal. 5:17). At a very deep level of motive-confrontation God calls us to fight worldliness, ask for more Cross-purchased grace, pursue personal humility and resist Satan’s temptations. Scripture lays for us a profound understanding of our personal motives and — in light of the precious Cross of Christ — what to do about it.

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Excellent biblical counseling resources for further study…

*** Paul David Tripp. Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands: People in Need of Change Helping People in Need of Change (P&R: 2002) 362 pp. More conceptual in nature. One of the most important contemporary Christian books in print. Essential reading for pastors and fellowship group leaders.

*** David Powlison, editor. The Journal of Biblical Counseling. A 60- page journal published quarterly with subscriptions starting at $23/year for new subscribers. Essential reading for pastors and fellowship group leaders. In our church every small group leader receives a subscription.

** Timothy S. Lane and Paul David Tripp. How People Change (New Growth Press: 2006) 258 pp. The text font and layout for this book is simply awful but a very helpful book with excellent illustrations. Written on an easier level and more application-oriented than Instruments.

** David Powlison. Seeing with New Eyes: Counseling and the Human Condition Through the Lens of Scripture (P&R 2003) 274 pp. A conceptual book it “unfolds Scripture’s view of people and problems. It reinterprets common counseling phenomena through God’s eyes, as revealed in Scripture” (p. 7).

** David Powlison. Speaking the Truth in Love: Counsel in Community (Punch Press: 2005) 202 pp. The follow-up to Seeing with New Eyes, this book focuses on the act of counseling. “This second book describes living right. We will glimpse essential dynamics of relationship and sketch the shape of communities that pursue such relationships” (p. 2).

6 thoughts on “Understanding our motives

  1. Thanks Tony, I needed to be reminded of this today. I am fighting a battle that I should be winning. The reason I am not is because I keep taking my eyes off the cross of grace.

  2. Thank you Bill for your comment here. I will be praying for you. Isn’t it great that our victories are based in our union with Christ?! Apart from Him we can do nothing. If I can encourage you with anything maybe it’s Galatians 2:20: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” To live daily by faith in the work of Christ is our source of life in our new life. Make sense? Abide in Christ’s love, press close to Him. Find your joy in Him. In Him is found the victory. Blessings to you, my friend! Tony

  3. Tony,

    This is a great word and reminder of the true enemy we face in pastoral conseling – the human heart. In my reading of Mark 7 this morning I thought of this post when I read in 7:15, “There is nothing that enters a man from outside which can defile him; but the things which come out of him, those are the things that defile a man.” Thank you so much for this reminder – it causes me to look within my own heart!

  4. Tony:
    Thanks for your encouragement. It has been a real blessing knowing you this past year. I am praying for the safe and healthy birth of your new baby. What a cool household that God has decided to place this precious new one.

  5. Bill thank you for these kind and encouraging words. And thank you for your prayers. When you get a chance I would love to hear an update on the church in S. Orange Co. Blessings, my friend! Tony

  6. Tony, I seem to recall hearing a sermon/lecture from Powlison on James 4, but I can’t find it anywhere. Any idea where that might be?

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