Last updated on November 11, 2021  by 
Jaimie Eckert

Get My FREE Devotional Book!

Psalms for the Scrupulous: A 14-Day Devotional for Anxious Believers. Download it free today-- $9.99 value!

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.

anxious about motives

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,
And desperately wicked;
Who can know it?”

Jeremiah 17:9

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:

  1. It brought him to the point of reviewing his life and realizing that he had sinned
  2. 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!”

the prodigal son's motives

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 tinkering.

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.

Learning By Letting Go

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.

Conclusion

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,

jaimie-eckert-signature

You may also like

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked

  1. Hi Jaimie, I have a question or two for you. I know that Religious OCD is a subset of OCD. I also know that the source of OCD is anxiety and that the source of anxiety is fear. It might be a good idea for the sufferer to explore the source of that fear and ask himself or herself the question "What am I afraid of?" That may be the million dollar question which may require a lot of searching of one's self. My question for you is, having experienced Religious OCD yourself along with listening to many who suffer from this affliction, is there a sub-category of Religious OCD that is prevalent (excessive praying, excessive Confession, repeated genuflecting, ugly intrusive thoughts, never feeling perfect in one's faith, everything is a sin, etc.)? In my case, they are intrusive thoughts and words that enter my mind but that are in total conflict with the truth. Being a practicing Catholic, repeated Confession has become my compulsion to relieve the quilt. However, in general, compulsions fuel further obsessions (e.g. intrusive thoughts). The conflict that exists is that the medical approach would be to experience the uncertainty and discomfort over and over and avoiding Confession until the intrusive thoughts lose any significant value. However, the spiritual approach would be to seelk repeated Confession to receive the grace of the Sacrament and relieve that uncertainty. I have gone to priests for Confession who support both 1) repeated Confession and 2) reduce the frequent Confession and focus on medical treatment. Any thoughts and or Bible references? Thanks, Jerry

    1. Hi Jerry,
      I love your “what am I afraid of” question. It’s a cornerstone question I ask frequently during my one-on-one coaching sessions–and you’re right, sometimes it’s obvious and sometimes it takes a bit of thought. I do understand your question about the medical vs. spiritual solution to OCD struggles. Let me first respond as an educator, because I was a teacher in the elementary schoolroom before I went to seminary. In the field of education we know that “practice makes perfect” is only a half-truth. In fact, correct and accurate practice makes perfect! Imagine if a violin student practices her vibrato or long bowing incorrectly–well, no matter how much practice she puts in, it won’t be perfect if done wrong. I will say the same thing for overcoming OCD. We cannot just throw ourselves gung-ho at ERP or CBT and hope that by practicing it over and over, we’ll get better. We do, to some extent, need to know the method behind the madness and understand why we’re doing what we’re doing. We need to practice correctly and intelligently.

      If you have a struggle with intrusive thoughts that fuel the need to confess compulsively, “imperfect practice” would be to just follow the instructions of your therapist or spiritual advisor without fully entering into a mental consent for yourself. Once you reach the point where your brain really knows what needs to be done, you’ll practice perfectly.

      I’ll give you an example. Some years ago in my “dark time,” when I was admitted to an impatient program for depression and anxiety recovery, there was a special and symbolic program that happened at the end of the program. The staff hosted a big outdoor bonfire, and the program attendees all sat around and were given pens and paper. We had the chance to write down something we wanted to throw away which would help us overcome our depression. One by one, everyone walked up to the fire and spoke for a few moments about how much they had improved at the program and how they were throwing things away–addictions, negative self-images, bitterness, hatred, etc. It was a very emotional time for everyone. But I sat there frozen. I had a very recent OCD diagnosis, and although I was doing much better with my depression because of the program, I was still newly exploring the OCD world for the first time. I had very recently discovered a cognitive distortion that was fueling some of my anxiety: a belief that the world would hurt me if I didn’t perform perfectly. As I sat there surrounded by kind people with their faces aglow in the firelight, I knew it was a lie. Bad things would not happen to me if I failed or made mistakes. I suddenly experienced a deep sense of conviction that I had been wrong all these years and that I had permission to challenge my brain’s status quo, and that in doing so, I could begin to find freedom.

      One of the staff members leaned forward and tapped me on the shoulder. I was one of the last people who hadn’t gone forward. “It’s ok,” she said reassuringly, “you can go forward. You can do it.” I felt very uncomfortable, as if all eyes were on me, waiting. I felt like I was letting the world down (it sounds dramatic, but this is the weight that hangs on a person with an anxiety disorder). I was sweating and my heart was racing because I knew they expected something from me that I wasn’t ready to give. My mind was still too jumbled to put together a cogent little explanation of what I was throwing in the fire, and so I sat. I sat and sat and let them wait and I never actually left my seat. I’m tired of being a slave to the expectations of other people, I thought. I don’t need this anymore. I went to bed that night feeling freer than I’d ever felt. Looking back, I didn’t realize that I had just put myself through a bit of ERP–I allowed myself to face the perfectionistic obsessions that drove my compulsions (if you’ve read much of my other materials you may remember that my main compulsions/rituals have been related to ministry, people-pleasing, theologizing, and magical connections…so this was just one of several issues).

      I tell this long story because I think it would have done zero good to me if someone told me to just sit and not do what I felt compelled to do. It wouldn’t have made total sense. It would have also not helped if I fulfilled the compulsion as usual. The improvement I experienced from that moment alone (educators would call it a “teachable moment”) was the intersect of enlightenment, commitment, and opportunity.

      In your case, seek this intersection. Seek out moments in which you know your obsessions will be aroused, and look for the spiritual “aha-moment” in that uncomfortable setting. It is when you make a positive commitment in the teachable moment that real progress is made.

      I hope my long ramble makes sense in some way. Please feel free to point out any confusing parts and I will try to clarify or elaborate further!

      All the best,

      Jaimie

      1. Jaimie, Thank you for your detailed reply. It is after 10pm here and I read it once, so far. I need to read it again and, maybe, again but will wait until tomorrow when my mind is fresher. I am sure that you will hear from me after I totally absorb the contents of your response or need some further clarification. Jerry

      2. Hi Jaimie, I read your reply from yesterday again this morning and I believe that I understand it much more clearly. What an awesome message! I shouldn't be marching to the beat of every one elses drum. I need to look hard into my inner self and do what my brain is suggesting that I try. Of course, I need to use my very logical brain, not my emotional brain as I do this, because I find that my emotional brain can lead me to the wrong conclusion.

        As I said, I have met with several priests regarding Religious OCD and I find the message and direction to be inconsistent. The younger, less seasoned priests appear to lean toward advising repeated Confession. The seasoned priests lean toward treating this medically. I also have begun counseling with a Catholic therapist. Too early to tell what direction that is heading.

        From my standpoint, I have been pondering this for a long time and as much as I have trouble with the idea that the Sacrament of Reconcilliation is a compulsion that is "feeding the
        obsession", so to speak, I believe that, with Scrupulosity, it is. I have concluded that it would, eventually, be very freeing for me if I treat this medically and reduce the frequency of Confession, whether I feel the need emotionally or not. Of course, I will need to be ready to deal with all of the uncertainty, fear and anxiety that I will encounter because, effectively, this is ERP that I will be implementing. This is something that I should discuss with my therapist and parish Pastor. I am actually in the process of setting up an appointment with him as I type this and I will be meeting with my therapist on Thursday. As I continue to navigate through this affliction, I must always keep in the forefront of my mind that my Savior knows all, judges perfectly and is infinitely merciful!

        God bless you Jaimie

  2. Hi Jaimie, Have not communicated in a while. This article is very enlightening. One part that really hits home is "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". Wow! One of the reasons that, I believe, Religious OCD reared its ugly head for the second time in my life was after the loss of the love of my life. I had this thought, either self generated or fed by evil, that I would never see her again because "I wasn't good enough for God". I have been dealing with this round of Religious OCD for 2 years now. My struggle is with intrusive thoughts and words that focus mostly on my faith and are the opposite of how I feel and think about my faith. They are all consistently negative and a major, painful distraction. I have learned that you cannot defeat what it is that you fear. Fearing them only fuels them. This lines up with the "Exposure and Response Prevention" method of treatment and is very effective but takes time and energy to reduce the effects that these obsessions have on people with an OCD brain. I am not my thoughts. With Religious OCD, we truly must place our trust in God's mercy and believe that "By Grace we are saved through Faith".

    1. That’s really good-quality thinking, Jerry. You’re right. ERP takes so much time and energy but, when combined with trust in God, it has the biggest payout at the end. Keep going forward and I trust you’ll see your love again. Not sure if your loss was due to death or breakup, but in either case we have a hope for the future and believe that God can reunite us in this life or in the life to come.

        1. So sorry to hear of your loss, Jerry. I really can’t imagine the pain of losing a loved one after such a long time together. It is a trial I have not yet been called to endure, and so I feel like any word of comfort I could offer would be flimsy in my unknowingness. All I can say is that we praise God for the hope of the resurrection.

          It is said that on the tombstones of the pagans in ancient Rome, it was written, “Goodbye Forever.” The family members would grieve and cry with abandon, pulling out their hair and cutting themselves with agony. They believed they would never see their loved one again. But on the graves of Christians buried in the catacombs and other secret places, it was written, “Goodbye Until Morning.” They had absorbed the glorious truth written of by Paul:

          “But I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus. For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words.” (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18)

          May you likewise be comforted by the Word of God, knowing that death is only a short sleep until morning when we will all arise and be reunited in the happy dawn of Christ’s appearing.

          With my very best regards,

          Jaimie

          1. Thank you Jaimie. Your response is beautiful and of great value to me and should be to anyone else who may read it. May God continue to bless and inspire you. Jerry

  3. Thank you soo much for doing what you do! Your heart and time blesses me more than you know. It was truly the Lord leading me to your site. He has used you to make me aware of myself and my mind. Your blog is not only so inciteful its soo encouraging! Praying God blesses you, because you truly bless me.🤗

  4. I've been waiting all day to read this. Didn't realise how deep I was in an obsessive spiral until reading this brought tears and laughter. Praise our Father and our Savior! And God bless your heart for your insight.
    Losing my marbles never felt better.

  5. I was so excited to see the topic of this post! I’ve been thinking a lot recently about St. Augustine’s belief that there are no truly pure motives. I’ve felt that there is a profound truth in that statement that can help with my scrupulously, and your article helped explain the motives question so well! Thank you! Don’t focus on motives; focus on the relationship with my Father and his grace that covers and sanctifies.

  6. Reading this has brought so much encouragement to me at a time when I so desperately needed it! Your blog posts are always so uplifting! Thank you for being such a blessing to all of us that suffer with these thoughts!

  7. Thank you. Jamie. Your post came at just the right time to encourage me. Just last night, I had read a sermon about Jesus teaching about the cost of discipleship that ee must examine ourselves to see if we have what it takes to finish the race. You can probably imagine the questions this brought to my scrupolous mind. I was very triggered and thought what is the use of trying. Due to some of your coaching and some other avenues of help, I am learning to just be honest with the Lord. So rather than going into compulsive mode, I turned to the Lord and told Him I may not have counted the cost as I should but I had a need only He could fill, so if the cost became too much, I would count on Him to get me through it. I was still very anxious because learning to let go is very scary to me. Your message this morning was very consoling.

    1. Hi Jean,
      I’m so glad to hear about how you faced your struggle. I know that it’s scary to let go and trust in His power and ability rather than ourselves, but you did exactly the right thing. Doing this consistently will make it a habit and it will become easier and easier. Very happy for you! You’re making great progress! ❤️
      Jaimie

  8. Great post! Mitzi VanCleve in her book "Strivings Within – The OCD Christian" says that "OCD can feel like an endless cycle of anxiety and despair which seems resistant to the application of Scriptural truth." As such, having resources like yours which clearly remind us of the Gospel is so needed!

    Your article also reminded me of some words from one of my favorite Puritan writers – Ruth Bryan. I have no idea if she suffered with OCD or not, but I have found a connection with her words like few others. She exhorts: “As long as we look to our evidences for comfort we shall be full of disquiet, for we discover such weakness in our faith, such wavering in our hope, such coldness in our love, yes, such shortcoming in everything, that we cannot find here any rest for the sole of our foot as regards spiritual confidence. It must be all in Christ! "He is the rock, and his work is perfect," while our works are all broken and faulty. Oh! may the blessed Spirit set your feet upon this Rock, and establish your goings there. May He enable you to make the venture of faith, just as you are, with wants and woes, sins and fears.

    "Venture on Him, venture wholly! Let no other trust intrude." And it is not only one venture—but many. The life of faith is continued venturing afresh, finding no more in self to encourage us at the last than at the first, remembering in the midst of all discouragements how "David encouraged himself in the Lord his God." And that is just what faith does. By reason of the flood of corruptions within and tribulation without, the poor soul can find no place of rest—but, by faith, she flies to the Ark, and the Lord pulls her in. I commend you to that precious Jesus who still "receives sinners, and eats with them." ~ Ruth Bryan

  9. I stumbled across your website when I was studying Isaiah 58. Reading this chapter brought immediate condemnation to me. Troubled i got into some commentary on the chapter trying to decide if God was speaking to me , dissatisfied with me. Maybe I'm the hypocrite He is talking about. In the commentary they used the word scrupulosity. Never have encountering this word ,I began reading about it. I felt immediate relief. For a lot of years ( I'm 69) I have been suspecting i have a way too active conscience. I was raised in a strict traditional Irish Catholic home with a mom with poor self esteem and very anxuous. I've been battling since age 26 with my faith in Jesus who covers all my sins and loves me dearly vs. how sincere is my faith and sooner or later i am going to screw it up and end up not getting to live with Him in His kingdom after I die. Reading your articles affirms my suspicions that this is a real thing (scrupulosity). Fortunately I'm not afflicted with severe OCD at all. But it is exhausting and sometimes depressing.

    1. Hi Deb,
      I’m glad you’ve been able to put your finger on the “too active conscience” that some of us struggle with. I can totally understand what you mean about feeling condemned by reading certain passages and then getting into a loop of wondering what’s wrong with you! I’ve been there, too. But take heart, because the reality is that the blood of Jesus Christ cleanses us from all our sin, and that even when we were still sinners, He died for us! We can lay aside our propensity to tinker and analyze ourselves just in proportion to the amount of trust we place in His great redeeming work.
      Be blessed always,
      Jaimie

  10. HALLELUJAH FOR THIS. the truth of Christ is so much better than the lies. thank you for posting this friend, it was so freeing to read.

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}