Mixed Motives-A Problem for the Intense

By Keith Miller | January 19, 2009

Now that I’ve decided to say “yes” to God and am willing to follow Christ, I don’t know if I am kidding myself about my motives—I sometimes think I do good things for people so they’ll think I am a good Christian. How can I know for sure I’m not building my own kingdom instead of God’s?



“Mommy, I’m not sure if I am being nice to these people because I like them or because I believe it will make them think I’m a neat kid. And it worries me.Should I quit being so friendly?”

The woman who was showing me this passage was puzzled.It was from her young teenage daughter who was away at camp for the summer. The mother said that she had not worried about such things when she was a girl and asked me what I thought about the letter.

Smiling a little to myself, I realized that I could have written a similar letter at many different times in my life. The problem—of mixed motives—has given me fits in several different ways. Those of us who have a deep need to be accepted and for whom acceptance as a child was subtly contingent on our “being good” may have more trouble with motivational nit-picking than other people. Sometimes in school, I remember worrying about whether I was thoughtful to other kids because I meant it or because by being friendly to them I would likely be elected to class offices. Although I knew at some level that both motives were there and that both were pretty natural, I wanted to besuremy motives were right—like the young girl in the letter.

When I became a Christian, this occasional compulsive need to have pure motives took an especially insidious form, which brought the whole business to a head. Beginning to witness in other churches as a layman, I wondered sometimes if I were going because I wanted to tell people about God . . . or about me. This worried me, since I reallywantedto be God’s person and to do His will. On one occasion I almost called a minister and cancelled a meeting because I wasn’t sure if I were going for God or for Keith. But having put off contacting him until it was very late, I went ahead an drove to the church—knowing that my motives were definitely mixed. Before I spoke that night, I prayed silently that God would use me “if you can use a man as full of himself as I am.” After I started speaking, I forgot all about my motives.

Several days later a man who attended the meeting came to my office. he said that he had been desperate and had almost lost hope, and was considering suicide. But as a result of attending the session that night, he had decided to give life another try. After he left, I sat thinking about what had happened.

In the first place, my desire to keep my motives spotless and pure had almost kept me from helping a man who was really desperate. I saw how totally self-centered this “keeping myself righteous” is. It constitutes a strange kind of Christian idolatry—I was worshiping clean motives. Keeping them spotless was more important somehow than going ahead with mixed motives and letting God possibly help someone through me.

In the second place, it came crashing home to me that my motives arealwaysmixed to some degree-and that most likely they always will be in this life. So that for me the leap of faith in witnessing for Christ is to go, knowing my needs for attention, but taking the risk that I will speak for Him instead of for myself. I must go in faith, praying that God will use me in spite of my self-centeredness.

In fact, after all these years, I simply pray that God will free me to point over my shoulder to Him. Because when it comes right down to it, all I have to tell about is what I have seen and heard of God—how he is helping me to find freedom, occasionally to love other people, and even to accept myself . . . with my mixed motives.

What can we take with us on this journey to we do not know where? What we must take is the knowledge of our own unending ambiguous motives . . . .

The voice that we hear over our shoulders never says, “First be sure that your motives are pure and selfless and then follow me.” If it did, then we could none of us follow. So when later the voice says, “Take up your cross and follow me,” at least part of what is meant by “cross” is our realization that we are seldom any less than nine parts fake. Yet our feet can insist on answering him anyway, and on we go, step after step, mile after mile. How far? How far?

Frederick Buechner, The Magnificent Defeat

Dear Lord, help me not to be a Christian Pharisee who is more interested in “being ethical” than in loving you and your people. Be with the young girl who wrote the letter to her mother, and help her to understand that sometimes she will have to risk her motives in order to do anything good.Give us both the courage to follow you, even if it means taking the risk, as you did, of being misunderstood.I want to resist phoniness . . . yet without wallowing in the problems of motivation. It all seems very complex, and sometimes I do not even understand my behavior after the fact.So I am offering myself and my subtly mixed motives to you, Jesus, right now, asking that you take me beyond such self-centered preoccupations with taking my own spiritual temperature into your loving perspective. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

“What I don’t understand about myself is that I decide one way, but then act another, doing things I absolutely despise. . .I obviously need help!…I’ve tried everything and nothing helps. I’m at the end of my rope. Is there no one out there who can do anything for me? Isn’t that the real question? The answer, thank God, is that Jesus Christ can and does. Romans 7:15, 17, 24, 25 The Message



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