Rewind 20 years or so – here is the quickest way to make me roll my eyes so hard they nearly fall out of my teenaged head: “What’s your motivation?”
This is the question that my parents asked us repeatedly when we were children and particularly when we were teenagers and young adults, learning to make our own decisions. If I was shirking responsibility, if I was allowing other things to take the place of studying, if I was ditching a friend, if we were disrespectful, if I was filling my mind and heart with things that they felt didn’t lined up with my values, whatever – instead of laying down the law and “because I said so!”-ing us, they opened the conversation with that one question. “What’s your motivation for that?”
And then, well, crap. Because now I had some responsibility for the decisions I was making, for the life I was leading. I had to explain myself and my reasons. Sometimes they were legit and once they understood why I was doing what I was doing, they were content to let me get on with it. Other times, that question illuminated my own heart to me and it caused me to make a change.
Even though my sister and I made fun of it, claimed to hate it, made it the butt of our jokes, or denied any motivation whatsoever at times, I’m not at all surprised that I now find myself asking myself often: “What’s your motivation?”
Motivation is a tricky thing. We can’t really assign it to one another, we never truly know what motivates someone else. We can’t truly understand each other’s reasons for doing what we do.
A good thing done with shoddy motivation is still a good thing after all; an imperfect thing done with a pure heart is often still worthy of censure.
Often our motives are mixed to our own selves. So of course motivation is opaque to a world that judges solely on results, a world that often values big more than small, loud over quiet, pretty over plain, big numbers over slow growth.
When Samuel sought out a king for Israel, God cautioned him in this way: Man looks on the outward appearance: God looks at the heart.
This question exposes my motives often – if I’m actually willing to be honest with myself. There’s the tricky part, right? We deceive our own selves just as much as we deceive one another sometimes.
I find myself asking this question a lot as we raise our children. I ask it of our tinies, absolutely. Because like my own parents, I want them to learn how to examine their lives, their hearts.
I am wary of children whose behaviour is immaculate but whose hearts are unknown to them – or to me. I want them to learn how to challenge their own selves instead of relying on outsiders to do that holy work. I want them to hold up their hearts and minds to the light of Scripture and the ways of our Jesus and then ask their own questions of themselves. Only they can answer as to their motives: I can only help them get in the practice of asking.
But I also ask it of myself as I parent them: am I motivated by what is best for them, for their hearts and minds and lives particularly for the long game?
You’d be surprised how often I wrestle with parenting for an unseen and non-existent audience of people judging how I parent, how often I can be deceived into feeling like their goodness will somehow make me good. Am I requiring this or that behaviour because it’s actually best for them? or because its best for me?
I think the Church as a whole would be better off if we asked ourselves a bit more about our motives. And if we were honest about them.
I think there is truth, I do. I don’t think that having a “good motivation” somehow wipes away sin or deception or evil, never ever. Any kind of abuse or wrong-doing is still abhorrent. Claiming “I never meant to hurt anyone” means nothing or “my motives were pure” will not erase consequences.
It’s just that besides that obviousness, I think there is a lot more wiggle room in the faith than we realise. There isn’t one way to pray, one way to worship, one way to encounter God. There isn’t one way to raise good kids or one way to dress or one way to sing or one way to help the world or to work.
I have friends who do this faith-Jesus-church thing very differently than me. I know that they love me even though I jump their fence sometimes with my opinions, my ideas, my beliefs. They give me the benefit of knowing that I love Jesus and if I’m wrong, well, if I keep chasing after Jesus and they do the same, you’d be surprised how often we end up calling it all good.
Make room in your life for the ones who do things in a way you would consider “wrong” or even just differently. Their motivation before God may be pure as snow, as the night sky, as a mountain waterfall. And God will pleased with their heart. Isn’t that beautiful? Isn’t that freedom? Oh, what a relief. To the pure all things are pure.
I am not someone who believes that God has a blueprint for our lives. I think there is freedom and choice for us – this is the great gift and the great difficulty. And so whatever way we go, God is breathing in the path, love will redeem. There is wide open space in our lives and the answers we seek often aren’t “right” or “wrong” but instead, what is wise and what feels like the best choice and where is God leading me? If our motives are to love God and to love people, to not seek our own interests, then the path is wide open. Go with God.
So this way of thinking, this question, has become another way for me to feel my way through the sometimes twilight of this life. A guide perhaps even if it is not the final destination.
I think it’s a question we don’t ask of ourselves enough, we don’t examine our motives. Our fears hide within our motives, our insecurities and our hidden desires. Those aren’t necessarily wrong things, not at all. But isn’t it better to know? Isn’t it better to admit it? I want this because I am scared or because I feel unseen or because I feel neglected or because I want friends or because I want to feel important.
A minor and unimportant case in point: I wrote this post and I originally titled it in a regular sort of way, as I usually do. (I may have finally retired “In which…” as a title prefix but I still write rather boring titles, I think we can all admit that.) So I thought, well, I should try to get better at titling!
How about… “The One Question You Need To Be Asking”?
“This One Simple Question Will Change! Your! Life!!!!”
Sure, why not, right? It feels a bit disingenuous but whatever, right? This is blogging, this is what we do! #ClickBait
What’s your motivation for that sort of a title? because I want people to read it. I want people to click on the post. I want to be popular and well-read and well-liked. I want to be noticed and have a lot of shares on Facebook. If I title things like that then people will read them. It’s basic marketing, folks. And if more people read it, then surely that will make me feel successful!
And I can admit that that motivation flies in the face of what I actually really believe: success is faithfulness, success is obedience, success is the fruit of the Spirit in operation in my life, success is not settling for manipulation or platform-building as a substitute for the organic movement and slow burn of the Spirit that lasts.
But to someone else, someone whose motives are more pure perhaps, it’s not a big deal. Add your exclamation points! and you won’t believe what happens next!
To the pure, all things are pure. This one is all on me and my motives for such things.
Back to boring titles.
And then once we know the truth about our motives for our actions – good or bad – can’t we then hold that up to the fresh air and ask for the wind of the Spirit to blow away the chaff, leaving us with the wheat kernels of goodness? And what remains after we is something pure and good and worthwhile, a seed worth planting, a path worth walking even if we walk alone.
This post is part of an ongoing series about the words and phrases my parents gave to me.