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Loco-motives, or Not?

“Loco” means “crazy” in Spanish. Am I crazy to devote a blog to the topic of motives?

As Christians, we like to focus more on actions than on intentions. Someone coined the expression, “The way to hell is paved with good intentions.” We hear it repeated from time to time. There is a lot of theology to unpack there, though much of it is unbiblical.

I am a Muslim-background Christian. My experience is that Muslims tend to place more importance on intentionality than do Christians. The concept of intentionality (intentions or motives) is known in Arabic as niyyah. Niyyah, or right intention, should precede any act of worship by Muslims, such as making a pilgrimage to Mecca.

Islamic theology promotes salvation by good works. Niyyah should initiate every good work; and the worshipful deed is considered incomplete without the preceding good intention. Though this should make sense to all, in the tragic calculus at work in the minds of many Muslims, one gets spiritual credit for the good intention, as well as for the good deed that follows.

Christians do not believe in salvation by works, but in salvation by faith in what Christ accomplished on the cross. Paul concludes Romans 14 by saying, “Whatever is not from faith is sin” (Rom. 14:23). Indeed, faith and works flow together; they are inseparable, as James tells us.

For all these reasons, should Christians just dismiss the importance of intentionality or motives? I would encourage believers in Jesus to pause and give this a second thought. How many times do we drop something into the offering plate at church just so it looks like we are charitable givers? And if we examine our motives for doing a lot of things, are they truly God-centered or somewhat self-centered? If I am truly honest with myself, I cannot help but admit that much of my life might fall into this grey area of “mixed motives.”

The Corinthian church in the New Testament era had its share of problems. Let’s see…divisions…lawsuits…incest…food binging during Communion…spiritual gift flaunting… In light of all this, Paul encouraged this church to get back to basics. One way to do that was to examine their motives and hold those before the Lord: “Therefore do not go on passing judgment before the time, but wait until the Lord comes who will both bring to light the things hidden in the darkness and disclose the motives of men’s hearts; and then each man’s praise will come to him from God” (1 Cor. 4:5, emphasis added).

Oh dear, Paul is writing that our very motives will one day be disclosed. The Christian music group DC Talk wrote some probing lyrics in the song “What if I Stumble?”

Is this one for the people? Is this one for the Lord?

Or do I merely serenade / for things I must afford?

You can jumble them together / my conflict still remains

Holiness is calling / in the midst of courting fame

In the area of giving, Paul preaches the example of Jesus. He praises the Corinthians for their good intentions, and encourages them to complete them with actions:

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that you through His poverty might become rich. I give my opinion in this matter, for this is to your advantage, who were the first to begin a year ago not only to do this, but also to desire to do it. But now finish doing it also, so that just as there was the readiness to desire it, so there may be also the completion of it by your ability. For if the readiness is present, it is acceptable according to what a person has, not according to what he does not have. (2 Cor. 8:9-12)

This passage calls into remembrance Jesus’ praise of the widow who gave all she had—two mites (Luke 21:1-4). Indeed, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus emphasized that praying, giving, and fasting should be done “in secret.” The motivation for such things should be to please God, not to please people.

In conclusion, Christians and Muslims are both correct in remembering intentionality. For Muslims, this intentionality must include incredible bravery to receive the grace of God and identify publicly with the Lord Jesus Christ. Muslim communities tend to give their members lots of reasons to avoid doing so. Yet, more and more Muslims are coming to “know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor.” And here we are speaking of the riches of grace in Christ Jesus. No one should be considered crazy for aligning his or her motives in the direction of Christ. Though those tracks may follow the Via Dolorosa, Jesus is worth everything.

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