The Motive Test

For the past several lessons, we’ve been looking at some of the ways that God tests our faith.  Because James told us to “count it all joy…when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.” (James 1:2-3)

            We saw that one of the tests of our faith is the wilderness test, times when we find ourselves struggling in difficult situations, and God wants to see how we respond to that.  God wants to know, Do we really trust him to take care of us, or are we going to live our lives in worry and anxiety?

            And then, in the second lesson, we looked at the patience test, times when God makes us wait, and our test is to see how we respond to that.  Are we going to wait patiently like Abraham did, knowing that God will always keep the promises he has made to us, but knowing it will be in his time, not ours?

            This morning, we want to look at a third test that God gives us — the motive test.  Because God isn’t just interested in what we do.  He’s interested in why we do what we do.

            It’s not uncommon for people to do good things for the wrong reasons.  For example, there are a lot of people who give a lot of money to different charities which makes it look like they care about helping people who are in need.  But often, the reason for such donations is only to get a tax write-off, not out of love and concern for others.

            Or someone may spend years taking care of a sick relative, but only in hopes of being included in the will after their death. 

            The same thing can happen in our relationship with God.  God wants us to do good things.  He wants us to obey his commandments.  But more than that, God wants us to do it for the right reasons.  So, the motive test is this – what is my motive for doing what I do for God?

            In Zechariah chapter 7. God’s people had returned to Jerusalem after 70 years of captivity.  During those 70 years, they fasted every year to commemorate the destruction of the temple.  But after they got back to Jerusalem and they rebuilt the temple, they asked the prophets, “Do we still need to fast?”

            So, God answered their question with another question.  He said, “When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh months for the past seventy years, was it really for me that you fasted?” (Zechariah 7:5, NIV).  Were you really doing that for me, or were you doing it for some other reason??

            This wasn’t the first time that God called the motives of his people into question.  In Hosea chapter 6, the Israelites were offering sacrifices and burnt offerings, just like God had commanded.  But, in verse 6, God said, “I want you to show love, not offer sacrifices.  I want you to know me more than I want burnt offerings.” (Hosea 6:6, NLT).  “Yes, I care about what you do, and I want you to do the things that I’ve commanded you to do.  But what I’m more interested in is this – what is your motive for doing what you do?”

            And so, this morning, I want us to explore the question, Why do we do what we do?  God wants us to come together for worship, but he wants to know, Why are you doing this?  God wants us to give financially of our means, but he wants to know, Why are you doing it?  God wants us to help people who are in need, but he wants to know, Why are you doing it?  Because it’s easy for us to do the right thing for the wrong reason.

            So, what are some of the wrong reasons for serving God?  Let me suggest a few.

1.         Personal Benefit

            Sometimes we do things for God because of what we get out of it.  Our service to God may benefit us personally, emotionally, or even financially.  There was one church where I preached that had a member who attended regularly for years.  By all appearances, he was a faithful member of that church.  But then, suddenly he stopped attending.  Turns out he had started attending another church.  The reason was this.  He was an insurance agent.  And the reason he went to church was to find potential clients, and he was able to get more clients in another church than he was in ours.  Going to worship is the right thing to do, but that wasn’t the right reason.

2.         Feelings of Superiority

            This is something that we may often get unfairly accused of.  If you don’t go along with all your friends and get drunk, somebody may say, “What?  You think you’re better than us?”  No, that’s got nothing to do with it.

            But, if we’re honest, we recognize that there may be times when we serve God because doing so makes us feel better, more spiritual, or superior to others.  Like the Pharisee who went to the temple and prayed, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” (Luke 18:10).

            We all have to be careful that pride is not our motivation in serving God.

3.         Self-Gratification

            When someone found out that I help out with the food pantry, serving needy families in this community, they said to me, “I know that makes you feel good.”  And when they said that, I kinda bristled a bit.  Because I don’t help out with the food pantry to make me feel good.

            But it does describe why some people do what they do.  There are some people who help others simply because it makes them feel better about themselves.  We can feed the hungry or stop to help someone who has a flat tire so that we can go to bed at night feeling good about ourselves.  For that matter, we can come to worship because it makes us feel better about ourselves.  But that’s not why we serve God.

4.         To “Tip the Scales”

            Unfortunately, many of us still have this idea that we’ve got to do enough good stuff to get into heaven.  God looks at all the bad stuff that we’ve done in our lives and then he looks at all the good stuff, and if there’s more good stuff than there is bad stuff, then we get to go to heaven. 

            When I was in school, there were certain requirements for each class.  But, sometimes the teacher would give us some extra credit work.  And if you did the extra credit, you scored some extra points.  And so, if you got a low grade on your regular work, you could pull that grade up with the extra credit.

            And I think sometimes we see our service to God in the same way.  There are certain things that God expects us to do, but we all know that we’ve messed up a lot of that stuff, so we try to earn some spiritual extra credit to bring our grade up and tip the scales.

            We see this in Isaiah 58.  Listen to what God said to the Israelites:

“Tell my people Israel of their sins!

    Yet they act so pious!
They come to the Temple every day
    and seem delighted to learn all about me.
They act like a righteous nation
    that would never abandon the laws of its God…
‘We have fasted before you!’ they say.
    ‘Why aren’t you impressed?…

“I will tell you why!” I respond.
    “It’s because you are fasting to please yourselves.
Even while you fast, you keep oppressing your workers.
What good is fasting
    when you keep on fighting and quarreling?…
Is this what you call fasting?
    Do you really think this will please the Lord?”
(Isaiah 58:1-5, NLT)

            Israel thought they could get some extra credit by fasting to make up for all the terrible things they were doing, but God made it clear it doesn’t work that way.  That’s not the purpose of fasting, or anything else that we may do for God.

            But, if we’re not careful, we can serve or worship or give or sacrifice because we believe that will make up for all the stuff that we’re not doing.

5.         People Pleasing

            I think this is probably the one that we are most guilty of.  Because, sometimes our service to God is nothing more than a way to impress people around us.  Instead of honoring God, our real objective is to please our parents, our spouse, our friends, or everybody at church.

            This was one of the biggest problems that the Pharisees had and Jesus addressed this problem head-on in the Sermon on the Mount.  There were three things that all faithful Jews did – they prayed, they fasted, and they gave to the poor.  But Jesus said that the Pharisees were praying for the wrong reason, they were fasting for the wrong reason, and they were giving for the wrong reason.

            He said in Matthew 6, “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 streets, that they may be seen by men.” (Matthew 6:5)

I heard about two young boys who were spending the night at their grandparents’ house.  At bedtime, the two boys knelt beside their beds to say their prayers when the youngest one began praying at the top of his lungs. “I PRAY FOR A NEW BICYCLE… I PRAY FOR A NEW PLAYSTATION… I PRAY FOR A NEW DVD PLAYER…” 

The older brother leaned over and said, “Why are you shouting your prayers? God isn’t deaf.”

To which the little boy replied, “No, but Grandma is!”

You see, his prayers weren’t really intended for God at all.  He wanted his grandparents to hear his prayer.  And we can chuckle at that because it’s cute for a child to do something like that.  But when we see an adult who is praying to people instead of to God, that’s not so funny anymore.

Of all the problems the Jewish leaders had with prayer, by far their worst fault was in wanting to be seen and heard by their fellow Jews.  It was a matter of pride.  They wanted people to walk away from a worship service saying, “Did you hear the way Zechariah was praying?  I have never heard such eloquent words in all my life!”  So, prayers were offered for the sole purpose of making them look good. 

Jesus said, “When you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites.”  Now we use the word “hypocrite” differently than the Greeks would have originally used it.  In that day, a hypocrite was an actor, someone who was good at playing a part.  And we admire someone who is a good actor or actress.  If they’re good enough, we give them an Oscar. 

But when that happens in religion, it’s not a good thing at all.  Because hypocrites in the church are nothing more than actors, pretenders, people who play a role.  What they say or what they do doesn’t represent who they truly are, but only the image that they’re trying to create.  To put it another way, they aren’t so much concerned about being good Christians – they’re more concerned about people thinking they’re good Christians.

And that’s what the scribes and the Pharisees did when they prayed – they didn’t pray to have a good relationship with God, they prayed so that people around them would think that they had a good relationship with God.  It was all choreographed in a way that would attract attention and bring honor to themselves.

Jesus said they love to stand and pray.  Now there’s nothing wrong with standing when you pray.  The problem, though, was that some of these Jewish leaders made sure they were standing so as to be noticed.

And there were two places they especially loved to stand and pray.  One of them was the synagogue, which was the most appropriate place for public prayers to be offered.  That was the place where the Jews worshiped every Sabbath day.  Again, there was nothing wrong with prayers being offered in the synagogue.  What was wrong was the attitude of these Pharisees who wanted to have a big audience when they prayed.

And, as strange as it might seem, the street corner was also a favorite place for prayer.  Because the Jews had a practice of praying three times a day — usually about 9 a.m., noon, and 3 p.m.  And wherever they happened to be at those times — whether at home, in the field, at work, on a journey, or visiting friends — at the appointed time, a Jew would stop what he was doing and offer the appropriate prayer.

Now if you happened to be standing on a street corner when the time came, then that’s where you would offer your prayer.  And that normally wasn’t a problem.  But what Jesus seems to be saying is that these hypocrites loved to pray where they would have the largest audience.  And where could you find a larger audience than in the middle of town at a busy street intersection?  Now there was nothing wrong with praying at a major intersection if that was where you happened to be at the time of prayer.  But there was something very much wrong with it if you planned to be there at prayer time for the specific purpose of praying where the most people could see you.

You see, the sin here is not the location of their prayers and it’s not their posture while they were praying.  The root of the problem was their motive.  It was their desire to be seen of men.  It was a sin of the heart.  It was a problem of pride.

I don’t know that we struggle with pride as much as they did when we pray in the church today, but I do think we sometimes forget that our prayers are not directed at the people around us.

Have you ever known anybody who directed their prayers at people rather than to God?  Perry Cotham in his book Ceasefire tells about a prayer he heard once that went something like this:  “God, we know you said in Mark 16:16, ‘he that believeth and is baptized shall be saved’ and in Acts 2:38 that Peter told the Jews on Pentecost to ‘repent and be baptized for the remission of sins’, and so we just pray those present tonight who have never put on Christ will do so before it is everlastingly too late!”

Let’s be honest and just recognize that a prayer like that was intended to be more of a sermon that was addressed to people than it was a prayer that was addressed to God.  Sometimes we forget who the audience of our prayers should be.

The prayers of the Pharisees were offered in public in such a way that they would impress men.  They wanted people to marvel at their eloquence.  They wanted people to “ooh” and “aah” at how spiritual they sounded.  That’s what they wanted.  And Jesus says that what they got.  But it’s all they got.  They wanted the reward of men and that’s what they got.

But we need to realize that our prayers are not offered to impress people.  Rather, prayer is an opportunity for us to come into the presence of God.

“But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.” (Matthew 6:6).

Some people have used this verse to condemn public prayer.  But Jesus didn’t intend that.  In fact, Jesus himself often prayed in the presence of his disciples and in public, like when he blessed the food before feeding the multitudes.  The scriptures record many public prayers that were appropriate and sincere.

            But I think what Jesus is trying to say here is that prayer is a time for us to commune with God and, to be reminded of that, there are times that we need to be in a position where there is nobody present but us and God.   If we go to a private place and shut the door, we can communicate with God without the distraction of worrying about what other people think about us. 

            We all need those quiet times.  It doesn’t have to be in a closet.  It can be in the car as you’re driving to work.  Turn the radio off for a change and use the time to talk with God.  Maybe it’s in the shower.  Maybe you like to step out on the back porch early in the morning before everybody gets up.  Maybe you like to take walks and talk with God as you’re walking. 

            It’s not the place that’s important.  It’s the idea that we all need time alone with God, time to be reminded that prayer has nothing to do with coming up with fancy words and impressive ways of putting things.  Rather, prayer has everything to do with opening our hearts to God.

            I think most of our prayer life should be in private.  Jesus regularly went away from his disciples to pray alone.

You may have heard the story of the little boy who was saying his bedtime prayers quietly while his mother stood at the door listening.  He was speaking in such hushed tones that she said, “Dear, I can’t hear you.”  The child’s response was, “I wasn’t talking to you.”

            So go to a quiet place and shut the door.  Shut out everything else so that you can concentrate on God and pray to your Father.  Do whatever you have to do to get your attention away from yourself and others and put it on God and him alone.  It’s not about impressing people.  It’s about having a loving relationship with God.

“When you fast, do look somber as the hypocrites do, or they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting.” (Mathew 6:16).

            Why we do something is just as important as what we do.  What’s your motive for doing what you do?  Why do you pray?  Why do you give?  Why do you come to church every Sunday?  Because your motive makes all the difference in the world.  For the Pharisees, their motive for fasting was the same as their motive for praying and giving – it was a way to get people around them to “ooh” and “aah” and say, “Look at how spiritual he is!”

Most of the Pharisees fasted twice a week, and the Pharisees usually fasted on the second and fifth days of the week.  Now, if you asked them why they fasted on those days, they would have said by tradition those were the days that Moses went up on Mount Sinai to receive the law from God. 

But, the truth is, those two days just happened to be the major Jewish market days, days when cities and towns were crowded with farmers, merchants and shoppers.  They were, therefore, the two days when public fasting would have had the largest audience.

The Pharisees wanted to say to the world, “Hey, look at me.  Look at how special I am!” They wanted to call attention to their fasting so they walked around with a sad face and neglected their appearance so everybody would know what they were doing.  They would wear old clothes.  They would mess up their hair, cover themselves in dirt and ashes, and even use makeup in order to look pale and sickly.

Now there wasn’t anything wrong with them fasting.  And Jesus didn’t have any problem with them fasting two days a week.  He didn’t even have a problem with them fasting on those particular days of the week.  But Jesus did have a problem with the fact that they were doing it for the wrong reason.  They were doing it to receive the praise and recognition of men.  

It’s interesting to me that there’s a phrase that appears three times here in Matthew 6, once in connection with praying, once in connection with giving, and once in connection with fasting.  Three times Jesus says, “[They do it] that they may be seen of men.  Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward.”  (Matthew 6:2,5,16)

The Greek word for “reward” here was the technical business word for receiving payment in full.  It was the word that was used whenever they wrote out a receipt. Three times Jesus says, “They have received payment in full.” 

What Jesus is saying is:  “If you’re going to make a scene over your generosity, you will get the admiration of men, but that’s all you’ll ever get.  And if you pray in such a way as to try to make everybody think you’re spiritual, you’ll gain a reputation for being an extremely devout person, but that’s all you’ll ever get.  And if you fast so that others will be impressed with your self-discipline, then you’ll be known for that and praised by men, but that’s all you’ll ever get.  That is your payment in full.”

            We’ve talked a lot about wrong motives this morning.  So, what’s the right motive?  In I Thessalonians 2:4 (NLT), Paul writes, “Our purpose is to please God, not people. He is the one who examines the motives of our hearts.”  Making God happy, showing our love to him, should be the motive behind why we do what we do.

            So, we need to examine our hearts.  The problem is, it’s easy for us to just assume that we’re doing things for the right reasons.  But, as Jeremiah said in Jeremiah 17:9, “The heart is deceitful in all things.”  In other words, we can sometimes deceive ourselves into thinking things are okay when they’re really not. 

            So, what do we do?  I think the first thing we need to do is to ask God to search our hearts.  We need to pray like David did, “Search me, O God, and know my heart!  Try me and know my thoughts!” (Psalm 139:23)   “God, please take a look at my heart and let me know if there’s anything there that shouldn’t be there.  Let me know if my motivation for serving you is self-gratification or pride or trying to impress people.”

            And then, the second thing we need to do is to ask ourselves some hard questions:

  • Am I doing things to be recognized, to be seen or to be loved by others?
  • If no one expressed appreciation or rewarded me for the things I do, or if no one even noticed that I was doing them, would I continue to do them?
  • Am I willing to do whatever God wants me to do, even if it seems lowly or insignificant?
  • If people started criticizing me for what I’m doing, would I quit?
  • Am I only doing what I do for what I can get out of it?

            It’s the motive test.  Because God wants you to do what’s right.  But he isn’t just interested in what you do.  He’s interested in why you’re doing what you’re doing.


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