Are you the kind of Christian who is constantly anxious about your motives?
Do you go out of your way to do a good deed, only to be plagued by doubts about whether your motives were sincere?
Do you sometimes avoid performing acts of kindness simply because you’re afraid of doing it for the wrong reason?
Does Scripture fail to soothe your troubled soul because you just can’t get over your fear that your relationship with God might not be genuine?
Being anxious about motives is one of the most classic symptoms of religious OCD. In this article, I’d like to talk about why God isn’t worried about your motives, and why you shouldn’t be, either.
The Wrong Starting Point for Motives
Most of us with scrupulosity begin with the wrong starting point.
We imagine ourselves in snowy-white clothing, coming to God with perfect motives. God is sitting on His throne, and a chorus of angels are humming a holy tune.
“Hello, God,” you say, “I’ve done everything you asked. I’ve got spotless clothing, and I shined my shoes till you can see your reflection in it. I also passed all the entrance exams for heaven. No cussing, no drinking, and I pay tithe to the church regularly.”
God leans forward on His throne. You turn in a circle so that He can get a good look at how spotless you are. He nods, impressed.
“Not bad,” He says. “What about your motives?”
“Oh, yes,” You reply with a self-confident smile, “My motives are also spotless. I want nothing more than to sacrifice everything for You. I have absolutely zero self-interest. I am motivated purely by my overwhelming adoration for Your divine heart.”
Anxious About Motives: The Real Issue
Um, wait…in your mind, how does this made-up story end?
Does God smile and say, “welcome to the club?”
Does He congratulate you for having pure motives?
Does He say, “glad you made it. I woulda tossed you out if your motives weren’t right?”
See, the real issue with our anxiety about motives is the assumption that it’s possible for us to come to God with perfect motives. We forget our theology for a moment, as if we aren’t totally depraved sinners, dead in the water with no hope.
Motives are just like actions. They can be holy or depraved, good or bad. And so, just like our actions need to be sanctified by God’s grace, our motives need the same.
If Christian behavior is a work in progress, motives are, too.
A Stony Heart
One of my favorite verses, oddly enough, is Jeremiah 17:9.
“The heart is deceitful above all things,Jeremiah 17:9
And desperately wicked;
Who can know it?”
I like this verse because it reminds me of human sinfulness.
Scrupulosity tries to force me on a pedestal of perfectionism and self-powered works. It makes me walk a tightrope of “trying-to-be-perfect-so-God-will-accept-me.”
But Jeremiah reminds me that my basic disposition is one of deceit and wickedness. Therefore, the best thing I can do is to leave the circus–I must cast myself off the tightrope of legalism and fall into the net of God’s grace.
Believing that we can come to God with perfect motives is the wrong starting point, because it’s simply not possible. We must let ourselves fall. We must cry out from the deepest part of our souls and say, “Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to Thy cross I cling!” Not even a pure motive–no, nothing.
It is when we find ourselves in this weak, helpless state that God’s grace takes over.
Why We Shouldn’t Be So Anxious About Motives
I’d like you to remember the Prodigal Son for a moment.
You know the story, so I won’t spend time recapping it here. Let’s just pick it up at the point where the sinful, raggedy boy is in the pigpen, covered in filth and flies. His stomach is rumbling painfully and he surprises himself by feeling tempted to eat pig slop.
The Bible says he suddenly “came to himself.”
He realized that his father’s servants had enough bread to eat, with extra to spare. He determined to get up and go back to his father. He prepared a speech about his sins, hoping to be accepted back as a servant.
Why as a servant?
Because he was hungry, and he knew his father’s servants had enough bread to eat.
Wait–did you catch that? This boy was returning home with the worst possible motives. He wasn’t going home because he wanted to restore broken relationships. He wasn’t returning with pure intentions to recompense his father for all he’d done against him.
Certainly, he was probably sorry to some extent–but his main motive was to get his belly filled.
Here he was, the ever-selfish Prodigal Son, turning towards Goodness because of a primal need. And yet, that selfish motivation was enough to do two things:
- It brought him to the point of reviewing his life and realizing that he had sinned
- It brought him back into proximity with his father
Once he was safely home in his father’s arms, grace erupted in ever-greater flows of mercy. His father spoke blessings and promises over him. “This my son was dead and is alive again!” I can imagine the father shouting with abandon. “He was lost and is found!”
Were the boy’s motives entirely pure? Probably not. But grace spoke words of confidence over him. The father believed in him. He didn’t receive him home with hesitancy, wondering if he’d just come home for more resources to run off with. No–he declared with confidence, “he is found!”
And whatever the son’s motivations had been, in that moment of paternal acceptance, he was found.
Your Motives Are Not Your Problem
What does it mean to be saved by grace through faith?
We reach out by faith to grasp the incredible work of forgiveness, cleansing, and transformation that God’s grace is working in our lives. Our only “work” is to “fight the good fight of faith” (1 Timothy 6:12). Our struggle isn’t to perfect ourselves; our daily struggle is to believe that God is doing in us what He said He would do. For those of us with religious OCD, we fight the fight of faith as we lay down our self-dependent compulsions and release the need to ruminate. It is a fight to rest in Him.
It is for this reason that I say your motives are not your problem.
Just like any other sinful propensity, your bad motives need to be fixed by God, not by you.
Stop self-medicating and self-fixing.
What we need to do is to come, just as we are, and ask God to fix our motives for us. Being anxious about motives and doing all kinds of compulsions to fix them will not work.
Can I just say a bold statement? I don’t think God cares very much WHY we come to Him.
Look in Scripture, and you’ll see people came to Jesus for all kinds of reasons. His disciples came to Him because they believed they’d be part of a new earthly kingdom. Crowds followed Him to get free food or to have their medical problems fixed. We might even argue that the Apostle Paul’s initial motivation for following Christ was abject terror when he was blinded on the road to Damascus–a reaction which quickly turned to conviction as he realized who Jesus really was. But make no mistake, Paul didn’t have it all together in an instant. The Bible tells us that after his conversion, he spent three years in Arabia, most likely reviewing Scripture with new eyes and trying to figure out this new allegiance.
It doesn’t seem to matter much what our motive is in coming. What matters is that we COME. Once we are with Christ, He changes what needs changing.
Letting God Fix Our Motives
What does it look like to allow God to fix our motives?
It shouldn’t be overly complicated; we would definitely want to avoid ruminating and navel-gazing on this topic. Constantly analyzing ourselves only leads to despair.
Instead, I would recommend calmly asking God to fix whatever needs to be fixed with your motives. Then, turn your mind to a picture of God’s grace. Think of the father receiving the Prodigal Son. Use the creative powers of your mind to imagine God accepting you in that way. Thank Him for doing so. Claim His promises.
And yes, reach out and grasp the freedom that can be found in admitting your own helplessness.
Dear scrupulous soul, you’ve been fighting so hard and so long to maintain the facade that you can hold together a perfect spirituality. But the only One who can perfect your life, in any of its facets, is Jesus Christ.
Anxious About Your Motives: The Power of Letting Go
A little girl once came to her mother in frantic tears. Her hand was stuck inside a narrow-mouthed porcelain vase.
Mother quickly became frantic as well. The lovely white vase with delicate flowers and gold trim had been in the family for generations. She began attempting by all means to extricate her daughter’s hand. She tried to lubricate her wrist with water, soap, and even oil–but all to no avail.
Soon, they were both in tears of frustration. “It’s no use,” Mother said, “We’ll just have to break the vase.” She called the fire department to come, hoping they could break it safely without injuring her daughter.
When they arrived, one of the firefighters decided to give it one more try. He hunkered down next to the little girl.
“Can you try to do this with your hand?” He asked, stretching his fingers out as narrowly as possible.
“Oh, I couldn’t,” the little girl replied with a tearful hiccup.
“Why not?” he asked.
“Because I’d drop the marble I’m holding!”
Alas, the child was stuck because she didn’t want to let go. But once she agreed to let go of the marble, her hand slid free without the slightest trouble.
How many of us are like this little girl? We’re caught by our obsessions and compulsions, desperate to prove to God that our motives are pure–and yet, the only way to get unstuck is to let go. If we are anxious about motives, we must let go of our self-dependence in order to let God work on our behalf.
I know you may be fearfully anxious about your motives. I hope in this brief article, I’ve been able to suggest an alternative way of looking at them.
We all have stinkin’ thinkin’ and selfish motives, and “all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6).
If we left it at that, we’d be pretty discouraged. But admitting our sinful helplessness is freeing because all heaven has been poured out in one gift–the gift of Jesus Christ–to rescue us from our fallen condition. And He loved us, yes, even before our motives were good.
For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.Romans 5:6-8
Praise God! Is there any better news than that?
No need to bring-your-own white robe, God will provide one for you! No need to shine your shoes. By placing your trust in our Savior Jesus Christ, your life will be shined better than you could ever hope to do in your own strength! His love extended to us “while we were still sinners,” that is, long before our motives were worth their salt.
Be encouraged, dear friend!
God wants your motives to be pure, but He’s the One that will make this a reality by His grace. You can get off the tightrope and leave this matter in His capable hands.
Best wishes on the journey,