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Escaping Bad Motivations, Embracing the Best One!

(Note: I apologize that this is a longer post than normal—I hope you will read its entirety.)

Motives matter. There are really great reasons to do right, and really bad reasons. Right is still right, but if you aren’t driven by right motives, you’re on a collision course as a Christian. And if you aren’t motivating your church family biblically, you are setting them on a collision course as well.

There are biblical ways to motivate people, and unbiblical ways. By the way, they all WORK, if your goal is to simply “get people to do what they should do”—but it’s never healthy to compel people to do the “right thing” for the “wrong reasons.”

Jesus quoted Isaiah in Mark 7:6, “…This people honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.”

In Isaiah chapter one, God likens Israel to Sodom and Gomorrah, and instructs them to stop their worship, then He calls them to return to Him at a heart-level. They were “doing” the right things, but their hearts were a mess and far from God. So were the pharisees! Nobody was better at “doing right” than the pharisees, but as we all know, Jesus was hardest on them, because of their corrupt hearts and hypocrisy.

God has much to say about spiritual leaders who use unbiblical motivations to “drive” or Lord over His sheep rather than shepherd them. And He has much to say to the Christian about what drives us to obedience and honor.

In our Sunday evening message, January 4th, I shared with our church family two unbiblical drivers, and one biblical driver. I pray that our church family will be motivated by that which is sustainable and biblical. And I love to see and know pastors and leaders who are content to motivate God’s people biblically and not to resort to carnal methods to accomplish spiritual ends. The end does not justify the means. Getting “duty” done from hearts that are far from God does not interest Him.

Consider three ways to motivate yourself and others…

1. Performance-Driven Motivation

This is when we create a culture of acceptance based upon performance or behavior. In most man-made systems this is necessary—such as school classrooms, work-place environments, etc. The better you perform, the more you are rewarded. The more you produce, the more you are valued. This works in secular systems, but it breaks a grace-based system like a family or church, and it breaks a Christian as well.

The gospel is unconditional love, unconditional grace, and unconditional acceptance. When we laden a church with a performance-based culture, it will quickly become comparative and judgmental—people will subtly compete with one another, try to out-perform one another, and compare themselves by themselves. Those who perform the best will be recognized and lauded the loudest. It’s a pride-driven model that piques the interest of all of our basest desires for acceptance in a peer group. In this model we do what we do because it helps us fit in, find significance, and be rewarded.

This model works well for a while, but it leads down a wearisome path of disillusionment. In essence, I start out serving God (doing the right things) for the wrong reasons (finding acceptance from a pastor, a person, a leader, or a peer group.) Eventually my joy gives way to exhaustion. Why? Because serving God for wrong reasons is deeply exhausting.

Serving God for pure reasons is energizing! It’s a joy-creating experience. It puts life into you. But serving God for carnal reasons is a depleting, exhausting, anxious experience. Over-time joy subsides because I’m laboring under the taskmaster of peer-acceptance. I’m driven by a need to be accepted by those over me in leadership or those around me in companionship. Ultimately I’m laboring for them, not God.

This motivation is not sustainable over the long-term—I’m talking decades—because it transitions from joyful to burdensome to resentful. It takes me from loving what I do, to enduring what I do, to resenting what I do and who I’m doing it for. If I’m laboring for your approval, I might start out delighted that I can find that approval. But over time, gradually and imperceptibly, the delight will turn into a burden—having to continue earning your acceptance will become an oppressive experience. If I stay on this path, I will eventually come to despise and resent you for making me earn your continued acceptance. I will intuitively know you are exploiting me and not loving me unconditionally as the gospel declares.

For this reason, the performance-based model just isn’t a viable or sustainable model for the Christian life or for local church. It’s the beginning of the end. It’s the first step out of fellowship with Jesus and His church. It’s a long road to despising and resenting one another. It can go nowhere else.

2. Debt-Driven Motivation

This second “bad motivation” is a debtor’s mentality, and WOW does it SEEM spiritual! This teaching goes like this: “Jesus has done so much for you, you owe God more than you can possibly imagine… so get to work.”

This is so subtle and deceptive, that a LOT of Christians fall for it. It works. This thinking kicks us in the teeth and knocks us to our faces in humble debtor-ship before God’s amazing, inexhaustible generosity. Who can argue it? Under the magnitude of the gospel and God’s unfathomable love—of course I owe Him, of course I’m indebted to Him. Of course I need to start serving Him and paying against that debt! Right? No…

The Apostle Paul actually addressed this in Romans 4:4, “Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt.” Grace doesn’t track the debt, and debt eliminates grace. They are mutually exclusive. In truth, the “indebted” model of motivation is just a re-hashed, “post-salvation” works mentality. It sort of says, “Sure, salvation is a gift, but once you receive it, you better start working it off! You really OWE God big time!”

This is prevalent in Christendom. Why? Because it works. And some churches, pastors, or leaders don’t really care “why” we do what we do so long as we “do it.” It’s rather easy to motivate Christians to “do” something right by leveraging the debt model. No Christian can reasonably argue with it. The moment it’s mentioned, we cower at its crushing magnitude. We feel utterly, helplessly, eternally obligated in “debt” to Jesus.

So, we “do” what we’re supposed to do, because we OWE it. We serve, we give, we go, we attend, we follow the system—not just to be accepted, but because, since we accepted God’s “gift” of salvation, we now must begin paying against that debt. And after all, at least we can look forward to eternal life! In other words, my debt is WORTH it! I would accept this model. I would take this salvation—if this was really the way it is. But it’s not.

Fact is, the debt-driven model is also dangerous—precisely because it works, but for the wrong reasons. It too is a dead-end road of despair and frustration.

Think about the last major debt you accrued. Think about the reason you accrued it and the state of your heart toward that debt as time progressed. Let’s say it was a new car. For a time (whatever time) you were happy about that car. The payment didn’t bother you because you enjoyed the car! You were happy to pay the debt because you treasured the benefit. But over time, something happens. The gratification of the benefit begins to fade and the obligation of the debt begins to grow. In time, you can’t wait to “pay if off.” Why? Because it hounds you. It burdens you. It chases you down, absorbs your monthly cash flow, and holds you hostage until it’s paid.

Your delight fades into duty—obligatory, pressure-filled, drudgery. Duty is a good thing, but when it’s driven by drudgery, it becomes a miserable taskmaster. The debtor model of motivation is neither biblical nor sustainable—it wears a Christian and church family down. What begins as DELIGHT transitions gradually to OBLIGATION and then eventually BONDAGE—a hostage-crisis ensues.

What do hostages do? They plan an escape! They look for a way out, and then they run for their lives. So many Christians, for a time, play the debtor’s game, but then they collapsed under its weight. They became hostages for a season, and then plotted their escape and ran for their lives. It’s sad, because they misunderstood the concept of grace and gospel! They never OWED God one thing—and if they did, then salvation was never truly a gift.

When hostages run, some Christians or leaders (also playing the game) shame them for collapsing under the debt, and congratulate themselves for “holding up” under the weight and staying faithful. But in their hearts, they know something is amiss. They know they are attempting to pay against a debt so massive, the will never scratch the surface of repayment. And their hearts nag them that though they are faithful hostages, they are not “joyful hostages”, and they are still “hostages” none-the-less—and that somehow doesn’t fit into a message of grace.

3. Love-Driven Motivation

There is a better way. Performance-based models break down. Debt-driven models break down. So what is God’s model? What is the biblical driver of all of Christianity?

“…love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength…” Mark 12:30

Love. God could have set you in a performance-based model and demanded that you live up to it. God could have set you in a debt-driven model and demanded that you pay up for the rest of your life. But He did neither. God, through the gospel of Jesus Christ, has set you free from unsustainable, resentment-laden models of motivation. He so fully fulfilled the righteous demand of the law, and so finally paid the full price of your sin debt, that He gives you His unconditional love and inexhaustible grace freely and eternally. The gospel says to you, “You can’t perform your way into acceptance, ever. And you can’t repay the gift, ever! And you don’t need to!”

At this point some reader is saying, “Well, then WHY would we serve God? Why would we live in honor and worship? Why would we do anything the Bible says?”

Because you love Him.

Grace models don’t encourage BAD behavior. They motivate RIGHT behavior for RIGHT reasons for a LONG TIME! And they motivate MORE of it, for MUCH LONGER! Yes, I’m saying sincere LOVE will compel you to do more for Jesus, do it for the right reasons, and actually ENJOY doing it for the duration of your life with Jesus! (No other model will produce this!)

Think of marriage. It’s my duty to love my wife—serve her, care for her, and meet her needs. But does she want my obligatory love? Does she want me to do “right things” for cheap reasons? Will she accept flowers given resentfully? Does an obligatory date-night fulfill her heart? Not at all!

Is it right, dutiful, good to give her flowers and take her on dates? Of course. But the motives are what make the behavior valuable! The heart matters to her! Without the heart, she would prefer to NOT be given those things.

The same metaphor holds up with a parent-child relationship. My kids want my heart, my affection, my sincere love—not simply my dutiful provision and obligatory faithfulness. They want me “in the relationship” of my own free will and love, not merely because it’s my duty.

Even so, the only sustainable, viable motivation for your Christian life is love. The only motivation that makes any sense at all is LOVE. And God has gone to incomprehensible lengths to protect your free will to choose to love Him—without obligation and without debt. He has, as great eternal cost, removed the performance-based and debt-driven models entirely from the equation. You are not his orphan in His orphanage—behaving your way into provision. And you are not his indebted hostage obligated to gradually pay Him back.

You are His child. You are a part of His bride. He desires to be your loving father and faithful husband. He has freely, irrevocably, and unconditionally given you ALL of His heart. When someone gives to you in this magnitude, it never motivates selfishness. To the contrary, it humbles you. It delights you. It compels you to return a similar love.

If you are motivated by performance-based cultures or debt-driven cultures, take heed—you are on a discouraging course that doesn’t end well. You will ultimately despair, and resent those who imposed these models. Or you will simply endure in a joyless martyrdom of oppressive “pseudo-Christianity.” The cure or the “escape” is not to “do nothing.” Rather, it is to let your heart marinate in the magnitude of God’s great love.

If you think grace gives you a license to live for yourself in sin and carnality—then you just don’t get it. You aren’t grasping the kind of love and grace God has extended to you. His love and grace doesn’t motivate you to sin, it motivates you to godliness driven by love!

What drives you? Peer pressure? Paying off? The real gospel has set you free from these things. Don’t ever let anyone bring you back into bondage. “Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.” (Galatians 5:1)

Let LOVE compel you to do what you do! Love doesn’t oppress you, it delights you. Love doesn’t hold you hostage, it compels you freely. Love doesn’t lead to a dead end of despair—it grows greater and deeper with every passing day. Love doesn’t make you want to escape. It makes you want to stay longer, deeper, and more fully! This is why it is sustainable—it never fails, never drops you on your head, never frustrates you, never forces you.

I told our church family, “If we can’t do it because we LOVE Jesus, then, as a pastor, I would rather it not get done.”

“I speak not by commandment, but by occasion of the forwardness of others, and to prove the sincerity of your love.” 2 Corinthians 8:8

(Note on the above verse: “commandment” is debt-driven. “Forwardness others” is performance-driven. “Sincerity” is love-driven)

Let LOVE drive your Christian life! It’s the only way to enjoy it for the duration!

“For the love of Christ constraineth us…” 2 Corinthians 5:14

“We love him, because he first loved us.” 1 John 4:19

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  • Great thoughts! Thank you for sharing them.

  • Thank you for this post, I really enjoyed it.

  • So true!!!! We’ve grow up with these 2 motivations along with fear and guilt driven. Just recently we’ve discovered this same truth 🙂 it has totally transformed the way we view our Christian lives (my wife and I)! It’s almost like breaking the chains and living free in Christ. Jesus is awesome and being one of his endeared kids is equally amazing 🙂
    It’s so encouraging to hear this is actually coming from one our pulpits:)
    Thank you for the encouraging post brother!


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