Judging motives is common sense

Imagine this. After finishing a $15 lunch, you put $20 on the table and leave the restaurant. The waiter assumes the extra $5 is for him and pockets it. You walk across the street and pick up a $15 bouquet of flowers. Handing $20 to the cashier you walk out. The cashier does not assume the extra $5 is for him, and he calls after you that you forgot your change.

We all know what they say about assuming, yet somehow both the waiter and the cashier were entirely correct in their assumptions. You never said a word about the extra $5 to either of them, yet they each managed to judge your intent correctly. No hesitation whatsoever.

If the cashier had silently pocketed the extra $5, we would confidently say that greed was his motive, and his intent was to take advantage of you.

Judging intent is something we do all the time. In the NBA, there are “intentional fouls,” and the referee’s job is to judge intent. In real life, some actions are legal or illegal on the basis of your intent. Was your “intent to defraud”? Judges and juries decide all the time. This work simply can’t be done without looking at possible motives.

[click_to_tweet tweet=”In the NBA, there are ‘intentional fouls,’ and the referee’s job is to judge intent. Only in the church have we retreated entirely from judging motives.” quote=”In the NBA, there are ‘intentional fouls,’ and the referee’s job is to judge intent. Only in the church have we retreated entirely from judging motives.”]

Yet if many modern Christians are to be believed, judging intent is something we should never do. Some are even more extreme, claiming we should always assume the men we are interacting with have good motives, at least if they are Christians.

In theological and spiritual conflicts, if you dare to impugn somebody’s motives you will be accused of committing an ad hominem attack, an accusation that serves the dual purpose of allowing your opponent to ignore the entirety of your argument and marking you as a man of bad character—possibly even (gasp) bad motives.

To be sure, man can only look at the outward appearance. It is the Lord who ultimately judges our hearts. NBA referees make mistakes. Judges and juries err, and sometimes men are even executed for crimes they did not commit.

And yet we still require these men to judge intent based on motives. Only in the church have we retreated entirely from making such judgments.

Christians are required to judge motives

Faithful servants of God have always been required to attribute motives, first to themselves, then to others.

“Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven. So when you give to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be honored by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But when you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving will be in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you. “When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full.” (Matthew 6:1–5, NASB95)

Making sense of what Jesus said required his hearers to evaluate the motives of particular men they went to church with. Jesus takes it for granted that we can tell who the hypocrites are. They are the men who do things “before men.” But not just anybody doing works in public. Particularly those doing public work whose motive is to be “noticed” and “honored.” Elsewhere Jesus warns us not to be like the men who “love the place of honor at banquets and the chief seats in the synagogues, and respectful greetings in the market places, and being called Rabbi by men” (Matthew 23:6-7).

Of course, Jesus is God, so He can judge the secret thoughts and intentions of the hearts of these men. When Simon, the inhospitable Pharisee, thought to himself that Jesus was a fraud, Jesus knew Simon’s thoughts and He responded out loud. But in the passages above we are not to just take Jesus’ word for it. We are expected to be able to see the evidence for ourselves. Part of Jesus’ proof of the sinful motives of the Pharisees in Matthew 23 is the style of their haircut and clothes.

Broad phylacteries and long tassels are long gone, but once upon a time they were all the rage—the hipster glasses and skinny jeans of Jesus’ day. A certain style intended to be seen by others, to communicate a certain something. Intended to give a certain cachet to the man who wore them.

Nothing is likely to get you charged with Phariseeism today as quickly as pointing to the way certain men dress as evidence of their bad character, yet Jesus did precisely this in order to fight Phariseeism.

Why is it that today if you point out the way men dress as evidence of what is in their heart, you get accused of being a legalist, of being too focused on externals?

How have we gotten to the point that doing what Jesus did in order to fight Phariseeism gets you accused of being a Pharisee?

And denying that we can infer anything from the clothes somebody chooses to wear and the haircut they choose to get is just one example of the broader problem. Again, the bigger picture is that Jesus requires us to judge intent. Motive.

[click_to_tweet tweet=”Why is it that today if you point to the way men dress as evidence of bad motives, you get accused of being a legalist? How have we gotten to the point that doing what Jesus did to fight Phariseeism gets you accused of being a Pharisee?” quote=”Why is it that today if you point out the way men dress as evidence of what is in their heart, you get accused of being a legalist? How have we gotten to the point that doing what Jesus did in order to fight Phariseeism gets you accused of being a Pharisee?”]

If we don’t actually believe that the Pharisees have evil motives, we will never be wary of the leaven of the Pharisees the way Jesus requires us to. Jesus didn’t command us to treat the Pharisees like well-meaning but mistaken brothers. That’s a completely different problem. The proper response to the well meaning brother is demonstrated by Priscilla and Aquila when they run into Apollos in Ephesus. In Acts 16:26 we read that “they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately.”

A lot is at stake when we misjudge motives, but refusing to judge motives, the favored policy of certain self-styled “academic” or “intelligent” Christians, is not the way forward.

In fact, to get in a little practice, ask yourself this: What are the possible motives behind such a policy? What are the likely motives?

Don’t worry. You aren’t sinning by thinking about motives. In fact, Jesus condemns as hypocrites those who are able to examine nature and learn from it but refuse to “analyze this present time” (Luke 12:56). You know what else makes you a hypocrite? Claiming to love God’s word while refusing to analyze your own motives and the motives of others.

Motives matter. They matter even when they don’t matter. Paul condemns the motives of certain men in their preaching in Philippians 1:15-18. He says they are preaching Christ “from envy and strife” and “selfish ambition rather than from pure motives, thinking to cause me distress in my imprisonment.” What pathetic, wicked, men! Paul doesn’t dismiss the sin in their motives. He highlights it! It’s just that he doesn’t care what the consequences are for himself, as long as “Christ is proclaimed.”

Motives of false prophets

All through the Bible we see motives being highlighted. In Mark, we are told the motives of the Pharisees in talking to Jesus was “to trap Him in a statement” (Mark 12:13). Motives are not just central to Jesus’ warning against the Pharisees, but to every other warning against false teachers and prophets as well. Faithful shepherds, like Jesus and the Apostles, will not simply explain the difference between good and bad doctrine to the sheep. They will name the false teachers and warn the sheep about these teachers’ wicked motives.

Part of the warning against false prophets is telling people what the false prophets are trying to do. We are not just told that false Christs and false prophets will perform signs, but why: “in order to lead astray, if possible, the elect” (Mark 13:21–23).

In Galatians, the Apostle Paul tells us the motives of the false brethren: “to spy out our liberty… in order to bring us into bondage” (Galatians 2:4–5).

[click_to_tweet tweet=”The more Christians object that their motives are spotless, the less you should believe them.” quote=”The more Christians object that their motives are spotless, the less you should believe them.”]

But this work of revealing and judging motives is not limited to something for Jesus and the Apostles, or even pastors to do. At least it’s not supposed to be. Paul explains that pastors and teachers exist in part so that we will all “mature” to the point that we can see through “the trickery of men” and their “craftiness in deceitful scheming” (Ephesians 4:11–14). Such maturity requires us to be able to judge the motives of those we are listening to. Pastors are not just to warn their congregations against the men who are attempting to trick them. The congregation is actually required to recognize the voice of the True Shepherd and learn to see wolves for what they really are.

Do you recognize those who are attempting to “delude you with persuasive arguments” (Colossians 2:4)? Do you “keep your eye on” those who “by their smooth and flattering speech… deceive the hearts of the unsuspecting” (Romans 16:17–18)? You aren’t just supposed to beware of their persuasive arguments, but also remember that that’s their desire.

Many people can recognize teaching that “does not agree with sound words, those of our Lord Jesus Christ, and with the doctrine conforming to godliness.” Sadly, few are willing to affirm what the Holy Spirit says about the man teaching such things—that he “has a morbid interest in controversial questions and disputes about words” and that his motive is the “gain” he supposes “godliness is the means of” (1 Timothy 6:3–5).

Motives of the average Joe

It’s one thing to speak about the wicked motives of Pharisees, false shepherds and false prophets, but surely it’s different with the average Joe, right? False prophets are probably a special case where the danger is particularly high, so we need to focus on their motives to eat us so we are properly scared away from them.

On the contrary, Jesus speaks to the Jews who are most sympathetic to Him, who even “believed Him” (John 8:31) that He was sent by the Father, but were refusing to acknowledge their own sinful nature and need of a Savior. And he blasts their motives back in their face:

“You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth because there is no truth in him. Whenever he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” (John 8:44)

Jesus has no qualms in pointing out the evil motives of the average Joe.

But perhaps it’s different when we are talking about Christians?

Motives of Christians

It’s easy enough to grant that non-Christians must always have bad motives, since we are told that “without faith it is impossible to please God” (Hebrews 11:6), but if we are talking about our Christian brothers surely we should always assume the best about them, right? After all, “love believes all things and hopes all things” (1 Cor. 13:7).

It is not uncommon for me to be talking to a fellow Christian, warning or even just asking him about a particular sin I judge to be a danger to him. There are several responses that people have. Some respond with thankfulness and tell you that it is a temptation, or even that they’ve already fallen into it. Others respond with thankfulness and tell you that it is not a temptation they face, but that they will continue be careful. Still others respond with shock and even outrage that you would ever for a second think they could be capable of being tempted by that sin, much less commit it.

I’ll never forget the time a man told me that he wasn’t in any danger of falling into the sin I brought up because he was a Christian. I pressed him, saying that Christians sin all the time, even in the way I had brought up. He scoffed and said that he had been regenerated. Being a Christian, somebody who has been regenerated, meant not just that he had been freed from the power of sin over his heart, but also the possibility of having wrong motives in his heart.

Did I mention that this man was reformed? That his mentor went to Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary? Another man was strategizing to plant a CREC church.1 When I met with him he was irritated with me for asking him whether he was resisting the quintessential temptation of his profession. I will leave it as an exercise to the reader to think about possible motives behind the reactions of these men, but I wasn’t even trying to address their motives.

If that’s a common response by Christians to a simple caution against sin and temptation, imagine how people react when you try to address motives! It is infinitely worse. Talking about people’s hearts is the unpardonable sin today.

But do our fellow Christians always have pure motives? Of course not! And as such, we are not required to assume that they have pure motives, even if they swear up one side and down the other that their motives are only always good all the time. In fact, the more they object that their motives are spotless, the less you should believe them. Want some biblical evidence that regenerated Christians can still have bad motives?

When James writes to the saints, he does not stop with confronting them about their quarreling and fighting with one another. Instead he goes on to describe the cause of these fights—the “pleasures,” “lusts,” and “envy” in their hearts. In fact, he goes on to say that even their prayers have “wrong motives.” As if it wasn’t offensive enough to declare that these Christians’ prayers were not being answered because of their wrong motives, he then gets very specific about this motive. He doesn’t just leave it at “lusts.” He names them. Describes them. Their desire was to have “friendship with the world” (James 4:1-4).

Motives of pastors

Is there anything special about pastors then, that would exempt us from having our motives evaluated? Of course not. Once I asked a fellow reformed pastor whether his response to a particular situation was motivated by fear of the world’s persecution on the issue of homosexuality. He got offended and said that he would never question my motives, and that instead he would always assume I had good motives. I asked him why, and his response was that I was not just a Christian, but a reformed pastor, set apart to the work of preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

[click_to_tweet tweet=”Somehow my office as pastor meant that my motives were off limits. If this is what we communicate to our people as pastors, is it any wonder that they are adopting the same attitude themselves?” quote=”Somehow my office as pastor meant that my motives were off limits. If this is what we communicate to our people as pastors, is it any wonder that they are adopting the same attitude themselves?”]

Somehow my office as pastor meant that my motives were off limits. If this is what we communicate to our people as pastors, is it any wonder that they are adopting the same attitude themselves? Everybody with half an ounce of common sense knows their pastor isn’t more holy than them. As Calvin is fond of saying, pastors are inferior to their people. So if pastors’ motives are automatically good, then our people’s must be doubly so!

But that is not the biblical record. Paul has no trouble calling out the bad motives of his fellow apostle, Peter, as well as his fellow church planter missionary, Barnabas, attributing the hypocrisy of their changed behavior to fear:

But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For prior to the coming of certain men from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he began to withdraw and hold himself aloof, fearing the party of the circumcision. The rest of the Jews joined him in hypocrisy, with the result that even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy.” (Galatians 2:11–13)

Motives of you

Remember way back at the beginning I said that we need to examine motives, starting with our own? We’ve been working our way backwards down the line to that point. No more stories about other people from me. No more looking down on them and feeling smug for you. What’s in your heart?

God has told you clearly.

The heart is more deceitful than all else
And is desperately sick;
Who can understand it? (Jeremiah 17:9)

Regeneration and being “seated in the heavenlies” can’t change the fact that our hearts will never be fully sanctified until Heaven. The good news is that growing in sanctification will mean you improve at judging the fruit and motives of yourself and others.

It’s easy to lie to yourself about why you’re doing something. But every time somebody brings your heart into view on the basis of your actions, remind yourself that this is essential for Christians. Because even though God is the only one who can look at the heart directly—meaning that hypocrisy can sometimes hide until Heaven—still we are called to recognize and then reveal the hypocrisy of liars, seared in their own conscience.

And if you want to dismiss this article by claiming that it isn’t careful enough, generalizes too much, doesn’t warn against the opposite problem, or even that it is published on a “discernment blog,” well, then I would ask you to examine your own motives. I certainly know what I think of them.

Motives of me

So what about my motives? Why am I writing this? Partly I want to be known as smart. Clever, even. Partly I want to get vengeance, to make people pay who have sinned against me and my brothers in arms.

Like everything I do, I have mixed motives. But mostly I just want to blow up one of the road blocks standing in the way of Christ’s Church being built up.

Won’t you join me in the biblical work of keeping the heart and its motives forefront in your mind, and using the outward to judge the inward rather than ignoring both?

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1I mention the institutions these men were connected to not to bash them, but rather to demonstrate that there is no camp where this error has not crept. And that includes my own.