Motivation and the Christian Life
By Jesse Jost
Apart from enough motivation, growth and positive change are nearly impossible. As followers of Christ, we have a call to grow in holiness and to daily become more like Christ. We are also to grow in good works as we seek to bring Christ’s love and healing to this hurting and broken world.
But without strong internal motivation to actively pursue these things, we grow stagnant, or worse, we grow cold and apathetic, and surrender to the forces of destruction and decay.
We can rail and scold and threaten all we want, but apart from a healthy source of motivation, (and Spiritual power) all commanding of the will is weak and ineffective. I want to be clear up front that to be saved or regenerated, no amount of human motivation will be enough to bring change, we need a supernatural new birth. I am talking about our part in sanctification that is influenced by our efforts or lack there of. What will we choose to build with on the foundation we have been given? Will it be wood, hay and stubble? Or something enduring? (1 Cor 3:11-14)
Where do we look for effective motivation to obey the divine call to holiness that is on our lives?
POISONOUS SOURCES OF MOTIVATION
Before we discuss positive motivation, I think it’s important to examine the destructive sources of motivation that people often turn to when they want change.
Guilt is a powerful motivator. The psychological pain of regret and self-loathing is excruciating and we will do just about anything to be free of it. The problem with being motivated by guilt is that there’s nothing we can ultimately do to atone for our wrong deeds. No amount of good deeds can wash away the stain or undo the damage. Guilt is a slave driver that drives a painful and purposeless treadmill. It is like digging your way out of a hole. The harder you work the worse the problem gets. Guilt only leads to burnout and discouragement.
Our mind has a potent imagination factory that produces startling horror movies of the future. These images can exert a strong control over us. We all have a strong aversion to loss and Satan can uses these made up (and false) glimpses of the future like puppet strings, pulling us away from the life of faith and surrender God is calling us to.
Please note the fear I am talking about here is different from the fear of God or an awareness of consequences. These are appropriate responses to God’s revealed truth. I am warning against Satan’s psychological manipulation that is based on lies and distortion, manipulation that works by casting doubt on God’s goodness or His sovereignty.
Approval of Man
Jesus warns very strongly against doing our good deeds to be seen by men. God cares about why we do things not just what we do. The fear of man brings a snare. (Proverbs 29:25)
This seeking men’s approval is, in some ways, the basis of civilization in a fallen world. People who are alone, and have had the restraining influence of “what will people think” removed, are often disgusted by the filth that rises to the surface of their own hearts.
The shame and praise we live for can have a dynamic effect on the outside, but will be impotent to change the inside. Man looks at the outward appearance but God looks at the heart. (1 Samuel 16:7) The danger in living for man’s approval is the opportunity for self-deception. Because we can selectively edit the image we want to project, it is relatively easy appear more sanctified that we really are. When we live by the appraisal of men, we may believe we are as holy as we appear and fail to notice spiritual cancers that are slowly eroding our character.
Another problem in living for man’s approval is that it can be incredibly demotivating. A few words of criticism, or even lack of recognition can be discouraging, and cause us to shrug, “Why bother?” But God’s call for diligent obedience is for Him and His glory. He sees and notices. The fact that men wrongly interpret things or fail to notice doesn’t change the eternal value of obedience.
Comparing and Competition
We are all deeply aware that we are not where we should be. We fail to live up even to our own standards, never mind God’s righteous standard. We cope with our failures by comparing ourselves with those who seem to fail worse or more often. This produces pride, but can also produce resentment toward those who seem above us. We turn a critical eye, looking for flaws that bring them down to our level.
The standard of man can either be soothing or discouraging, but it is worthless for several reasons. One, God doesn’t judge us based on the standard of other men but by His holiness, a standard we all fall so far short of that we desperately need a divine solution. Second, we cannot see what is really going on in another person. We cannot compare our “behind the scenes” moments with their “highlight reel” or vice versa. God is writing their story on His timetable. Third, God has gifted you in different ways. For the hand to compare itself with the foot would result in pride that it is more dextrous, but discouragement that it is not as tough. You are equipped for the mission God has called you to.
Paul warns very strongly to do nothing out of selfish ambition, but to esteem others as more worthy than your self. (Phil. 2:3) James says that if we are using truth for selfish gains or to promote our own agenda or glory, this is not true wisdom but is “earthly, sensual, and demonic.” He goes on to say that where “self seeking and envy exist, confusion and every evil thing will be there.” (James 3:14-16) Wow, strong words! On the outside our actions may appear righteous, but if they are motivated by a desire to bring glory to us instead of Jesus, they will be a source of evil.
THE GOSPEL AND MOTIVATION
The good news of what Jesus has done for us destroys poisonous motivations.
What has been done for us
We live in a deceptive spell, blinding us to our sin-enslavement and separation from God. God’s word tells us the truth about who we were, and who Christ makes us. We were orphans without hope, but have now been adopted by the King of limitless resources. We were prostituting sex slaves continually abused by destructive forces, but now we are freed and married to the most gentle and loving groom possible. We were condemned criminals sentenced to eventually be banished from the Source of all goodness and pleasure, but now that the sentence is lifted, we are in line to receive an inheritance beyond our wildest imagination. We were refugees and outcasts, but have now been made citizens of the coming new creation where there will be no more sorrow or regret. If this does not fill you with overflowing joy and gratitude, you have not been listening.
When we begin to grasp this even a little, our guilt is gone as we look to Christ’s perfect righteousness not or filthy rags. We are now spotless. Our fears disappear when we receive the kindness of God that is willing to sacrifice His son for our good, and His power to turn even the most evil tragedies into victories that accomplish a greater good. When we see the worth and fatherly love that God has bestowed on us, we will not be so captive to men’s approval or rejection. Those poisonous motivations fall away more and more as we gaze on Jesus.
While what has been done for us should make us daily celebrate, acknowledging the cost will soften our hearts and fill us with love. It never fails to move me thinking about Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. It seems like even though he knew his mission for much of His life, the full horror of what he had to do was hidden from Him. The night before He died the veil falls away, and Jesus is gripped with panic as terror engulfs Him. Your Savior, wracked with pain and sobbing with terror, begs His Father for another way, “No, I can’t do this.” He screams in His humanness, “Take this cup! I can’t do this. I can’t bear to face your wrath. The consequences of their sin are too great for me to bear!”
If He gives in we are doomed. If He quits His path, we have no hope. But He doesn’t give in. Love compels Him to set His face like a flint. “Not my will but Yours,” He declares. Then He gets up and marches straight in to His hellish mission to remove our sins and to set us free. But Jesus did not suffer alone. It must have been even more painful for the Father to watch His innocent Son suffer. But because of His great love for you, He endured the infinite pain. He went through with the rescue plan. Fix your eyes on this. Gaze on the cross and you will be filled with love.
During World War Two, in the death camp, Auschwitz, a man escaped. The Nazis made the remaining prisoners pay by selecting ten men to starve to death. The eighth man chosen was Franciszek Gajowniczek. He pleaded for mercy, saying he had a wife and two sons who would never see him again. At this point a Franciscan priest named Maximilian Kolbe offered to take Gajowniczek’s place. The guard accepted and Gajowniczek watched with awe as Kolbe was thrown in the starvation cabin. Gajowniczek survived and was reunited with his wife. He lived to be ninety-five, always honouring the man who died in his place. We are all in the place of Gajowniczek. Unlike the men in the story, we actually deserve our death sentence for our callous rebellion and defiance of a holy God. But God stepped forward to take our place, set us free, and adopt us. The example of God’s tremendous sacrifice provides the positive motivation we need.
POSITIVE SOURCES OF MOTIVATION
Nothing stirs our ability to love more than being loved. And there is no greater proof of love than the cross. A heart overwhelmed by love is a motivated heart. Love is more than a feeling and there can be acts of love that are not accompanied by emotion. However, the motivating love that I am talking about is the captivating desire that over takes us and makes us intensely desire the good of the object of our affection. Like the overwhelming protective instinct that is awakened in a new father as he gazes at his precious little bundle. Or the overpowering desire a newlywed feels to cherish and delight their spouse. This kind of love is the most powerful force on the planet. A celebrity watched Mother Teresa wash and kiss the foot of a leper and made the remark, “I wouldn’t do that for a million dollars.” Teresa replied: “I wouldn’t either.”
Reflecting on the dramatic change in status that Christ has given us should fill us with an indescribable joy. There is something so transforming about joy that naturally makes us more others-focused and more eager to serve and to share. Depression draws us inward and zaps us of energy to serve. True happiness on the other hand reflects God’s outflowing energy that is always seeking to give. Joy wants to be shared and make others joyful. The joy of the Lord is our strength the psalmist declares, without it we are weak and lethargic.
When an act of sacrifice is made for us it stops our complaining mouth and cuts a deep swath into our selfishness. The gratitude that is stirred in response prompts a vibrant desire to give back. Gratitude takes the pain and resentment out of our own acts of sacrifice as we remember what others have given up for us. A grateful heart is one that is naturally becoming more selfless and outward focused.
MOTIVATION AND ABILITY
No matter how greatly our emotions are moved, this alone isn’t enough to defeat the giant of indwelling sin. We need the power of the resurrected Christ within us. We must take our moments of motivation and let them drive us to Christ, because without Him we can do nothing. We must humbly cast ourselves upon the means Christ has chosen to impart to us His power: earnest prayer, memorizing and meditating on His word, Worship in song and discipline, and honest fellowship with His body of fellow believers. We can give lip service to our dependence, but if we are neglecting these activities, the truth lies elsewhere.
Religion is the attempt to tape fruit to a dead tree. If we attempt to obey apart from the power of the gospel it will be a joyless, frustrating, and futile endeavour. No matter how much you beat yourself up or commit to trying harder, it will never be enough. It will always end in depressing failure. But when our eyes are on Jesus, and we are captivated by the wonder of what has been done for us, and have pondered the cost, we will be filled with joy, gratitude, and love.
As you grow in the knowledge of the wisdom and beauty of God, obedience will become more and more desirable and sin more repulsive. His commandments will no longer be burdensome. (1 John 5:3) When you find yourself losing the ongoing battle with indwelling sin, don’t dishonour the work of the cross by trying harder in your own strength. Look to Jesus, gaze on His beauty, rejoice daily in what has been done for you, and what He has in store for you. Cast yourself on Jesus, He is the Author and the Finisher of your faith.
Timothy • June 2, 2016
I think the true source of motivation is something we arrive at in a much more mystical, and less cerebral way.
Jesse Jost • June 3, 2016
Without a doubt, but I think we need to use our minds to seek positive motivation where ever it may be found and not just be led around by whatever motivation some mystical force bestows on us. Gazing on the crucified Christ is something that we can choose to do with our minds, but the impact will affect us in a deeper way than our minds can grasp.