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.

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).

Confess your sins to one another (part 3)

No man is more ready to charge the church
than she is to confess her infirmities.
She never hideth them,
she never justifieth them;
she is black,
she hath afflictions,
she kept not her own vine,
she wants [lacks]
She never denies it,
but confesses all freely from her heart;
she hides not her sin,
but tells what she is,
what she hath done,
that so she may give glory to the Lord God of Israel.
And indeed, it makes much for the honor of Christ,
and commends his grace,
that he, such a king,
will set his heart and his eye
upon such a deformed slut as the world deems her to be.
It makes for the comfort of her poor children,
and much stayeth [sustains] them,
when they shall hear the church in all ages,
and in her Abraham, David, and Paul, saying,
‘I am black,’
I have affliction,
as well as others.
It makes for the silencing of all saucy [flippant] daughters
that will upbraid her;
an ingenuous confession,
stops their mouths,
and puts them all to silence.
It much quickens her to the use of the means,
and maketh her cry,
‘Shew me, O thou whom my soul loveth, where thou feedest.’
And to seek her comfort in Christ Jesus.
Oh it doth her good to receive the sentence of
in herself,
that so she may be found in Christ,
arrayed with the rich robes of his righteousness.
Hence her plain-hearted openness in her confession.
Let us do the like,
and leave it to the harlot and whore of Babylon
to say herself is a queen, she is glorious, she cannot err.
But let us say with the church, we are black;
yea, let us see it,
let us speak it
with sorrow,
with shame,
as the saints have done,
and be so affected with our estate,
that it may truly humble us,
and cause us to say,
‘It is the Lord’s mercies that we are not consumed.’
And let us so confess it in ourselves,
that we pity others,
and bear with them,
though full of sins and miseries;
so confess it,
that we stir up others thereby to run,
as Paul did,
and use the ordinances with all diligence,
to pray much,
to read much,
to hear,
to confer,
to advise,
and be humble
and sincere.
A verbal confession of frailties,
without humility,
without the use of the means,
is hypocrisy.
If we will speak with the church,
we must feel what we say,
and so well understand ourselves and our estate,
that we may gain
and watchfulness
by it.

Richard Sibbes, Works 7:97-98

Confess your sins to one another (part 2)

We may observe the ingeniousness of the church in laying open her own state. It is the disposition of God’s people to be ingenious in opening their state to God, as in David, Nehemiah, Ezra, etc.

The reason is thus:

(1.) By a free and full confession we give God the honor of his wisdom in knowing of our own condition, secret and open. We give him the honor of mercy that will not take advantage against us, the honor of power and authority over us, if he should show his strength against us [in judgment]. We yield unto him the glory of all his chief prerogatives; whereupon Joshua moved Achan to a free confession, ‘My son, give gory to God,’ Joshua 7:19.

(2.) We shame Satan, who first takes away shame of sinning, and then takes away shame for sin. He tempts us not to be ashamed to do that we are ashamed to confess, so we, by silence, keep Satan’s council against our own souls. If we accuse ourselves, we put him out of office who is the ‘accuser of the brethren,’ Rev. 12:10.

(3.) We prevent, likewise, malicious imputations from the world. Augustine answered roundly and well when he was upbraided with the sins of his former age: ‘What thou,’ saith he, ‘findest fault with, I have condemned myself before.’

(4.) This ingenious dealing eases the soul, giving vent to the grief of it. While the arrow’s head sticks in the wound, it will not heal. Sin unconfessed is like a broken piece of rusty iron in the body. It must be gotten out, or else it will, by ranking and festering, cause more danger. It is like poison in the stomach, if it be not presently cast up it will infect the whole body. Is it not better to take shame to ourselves now, than to be shamed hereafter before angels, devils, and men?

– Richard Sibbes, Works 2:38-39

Confess your sins to one another (part 1)

“Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” – James 5:16

If he had the opportunity to revise his famous book (The Enemy Within), what would Kris Lundgaard add? At the final session of The Enemy Within conference in Omaha, he said he would add a chapter on sanctification within the community, specifically the importance of confessing sin to one another. (Listen to session 4 of the Lundgaard audio here).

He opened session four by reading large sections of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s parable, The Minister’s Black Veil, a story of a pastor who lives out the end of his life under a black veil seeking to hide his own personal sin from the rest of the church.

But I was especially interested in Lundgaard’s reference to a small book by Dietrich Bonhoeffer by the title, Life Together. I was not familiar with this book and so the following quotes hit me.

“Sin demands to have a man by himself. It withdraws him from the community. The more isolated a person is, the more destructive will be the power of sin over him, and the more deeply he becomes involved in it, the more disastrous is his isolation… This can happen even in the midst of a pious community. In confession the light of the Gospel breaks into the darkness and seclusion of the heart. The sin must be brought into the light. The unexpressed must be openly spoken and acknowledged. All that is secret and hidden is made manifest. It is a hard struggle until the sin is openly admitted. But God breaks gates of brass and bars of iron (Ps. 107:16)…”

“The root of all sin is pride… I want to be my own law, I have a right to my self, my hatred and my desires, my life and my death. The mind and flesh of man are set on fire by pride; for it is precisely in his wickedness that man wants to be as God … In the confession of concrete sins the old man dies a painful, shameful death before the eyes of a brother. Because this humiliation is so hard we continually scheme to evade confessing to a brother. Our eyes are so blinded that they no longer see the promise and the glory in such abasement.”

“Since the confession of sin is made in the presence of a Christian brother, the last stronghold of self-justification is abandoned. The sinner surrenders; he gives up all his evil. He gives his heart to God, and he finds the forgiveness of all his sin in the fellowship of Jesus Christ and his brother… Now he stands in the fellowship of sinners who live by the grace of God in the Cross of Jesus Christ.”

– Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together

These quotes remind me of C.J. Mahaney’s presentation at the Together for the Gospel 2006 conference where he encouraged pastors to be (discreetly) willing to confess sin from the pulpit in a way that builds honesty and openness with our hearers.

Likewise, it reminds me of the Psalmist. Asaph in Psalm 73 openly declared and confessed sins (sin that would otherwise remained hidden from sight). In fact he says, I almost went public with my confession (v. 15). But he didn’t. He was willing to lay his heart sins open and compose one of the most cherished of all the Psalms.

Asaph, Mahaney, Lundgaard and now Bonhoeffer have taught me much about the dynamics of Christian community. By hiding our sins under a black veil, our Christian lives are un-authentic and sin grows unhindered. We must work to be more open, to lay bare the heart, to confess “concrete sins,” build communion with our brothers and sisters, to be freed from the sinful pride that veils our personal sin. By the graciousness of God, if we can die to self here we will build a “fellowship of sinners who live by the grace of God in the Cross of Jesus Christ.”

O, that God, while seemingly blessing our age with great doctrine, will also open our hearts to bless our communities and pulpits with pride-killing honesty and humility.