What's Your Motive

In the Seventh-day Adventist Encyclopedia there is a preacher by the name of D.M. Canright. He lived from 1840 to 1919. He was a brilliant, gifted man who could keep his audience spellbound, and was ordained to Adventist ministry at the age of 25.

Evidently during his early training, as the story goes, two theology students were sent to preach, and each was to critique the other. It was Canright’s turn, and he described the glories of the new earth. That afternoon Canright asked his friend, “Well, how did I do?” To which his friend replied, “I don’t know. I got so caught up in the message, I forgot to critique.” At that point Canright asserted, “If it were not for this message, I could be a great man!”

Records show that Canright was a forceful preacher, a polemic writer, and an able administrator, but intolerant, opinionated, and chafed under ministerial control. In 1887 he left the Adventist Church and joined the Baptist ministry.

Evidently sometimes right actions can come from wrong motives. Jesus clearly stated that right actions must stem from pure motives when He said, “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8). It’s intriguing that the rest of chapter 5 and 6 discuss the issues of motives.

In Jesus’ day the orthodox Jews identified three great pillars of good life: almsgiving, fasting, and prayer. To do these would ascribe you as a righteous person, and assure you of eternal life. No wonder Jesus addressed the motives of these three issues, stressing that unless your “righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees; you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.” Listen to what He says. “Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds (alms) before men, to be seen by them…” (Mt. 6:1); And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray, standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the street, that they may be seen by men (V 5). Finally He addresses fasting. “Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting “(v16). Of the three, almsgiving was the chief virtue.

Having introduced the subject of motives, why do we volunteer for service?

William Barkley contends there are three main reasons.

  1. Out a sense of duty.Catherine Cardwell in her autobiography, Lying Awake, says, “Giving was regarded as a duty, but often with the giving there was a moral lecture which provided a smug pleasure for the person who gave it.” She tells of her father going to the cells at the police station on Sunday afternoons, bailing out the week-end drunks so they wouldn’t lose their jobs Monday morning. Each was asked to pay it back out of the next week’s wages. He always included a smug lecture with his giving. Barkley continues, “When he gives from a sense of duty, even…Christian duty…one thing he never gives is himself, and therefore the giving is incomplete.”
  2. It gives a feeling of prestige. Having done a good deed we gain a feeling of superiority when we compare ourselves with others.
  3. Because our heart compels us, we can do no other. This is the pure motive Jesus spoke about in Matthew 5:8.

In the 1700’s James Bothwell wrote a biography about his friend Dr. Samuel Johnson. Coming home late one night Johnson found a poor woman lying on the street so exhausted she could not walk. He carried her to his house when he discovered she was a prostitute who had fallen into poverty and disease. Instead of upbraiding her, he nursed her back to health at considerable expense; then found a respectable job for her. For all this all Johnson got was suspicion about his own character. When asked how he could stand having his house full of these undeserving people, he answered, “If I do not assist them, no one else will, and they must not be lost for want.”

So how do our motives rate? My guess is that when we open ourselves to Jesus, it will be from a pure heart.

-Ken Wiebe