All a person’s ways seem pure to them, but motives are weighed by the Lord. Proverbs 16:2 (NIV)
Humans are satisfied with whatever looks good; God probes for what is good. Proverbs 16:2 (The Message)
“It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it…” So ran the opening line of a once-popular song.
There’s a real truth there. The way you do a thing can make all the difference: do you do it grumblingly and grudgingly, or cheerfully and willingly? conscientiously or carelessly? Psalm 100:2, for example, tells us to “worship the Lord with gladness”, and every time I read that verse I feel like adding “or don’t bother to worship him at all” – because, make no mistake, he won’t be listening.
So… there’s a challenge for us all straight away.
But I want to go a step further. I think that song-line suggests an even more important truth: It ain’t just the way you do something, it’s also the reason you do it. It ain’t just your manner – it’s also your motive.
That’s what Proverbs 16:2 is about. I like the translation given in The Message: “Humans are satisfied with what looks good: God probes for what is good”. Yes, appearance is one thing; reality may be something very different.
In TS Eliot’s powerful play Murder in the Cathedral, “doing the right deed for the wrong reason” is described as “the worst treason”. The speaker is Archbishop Thomas Becket, who knew that he was very likely to be cut down by the swords of King Henry ll’s knights for standing up to him. Is it possible, he wonders, that even such a wonderful act as martyrdom – the supreme sacrifice! – can be tainted by the wrong motive? And he decides that it is…
The word “motive” doesn’t crop up very often in the Bible. But there’s no doubt that the idea is there as a common thread. Indeed, whenever the Bible talks about “the heart”, it’s very likely talking about motives. The prophet Samuel, for example, called by God to anoint the next king of Israel, is told: “Don’t consider his appearance or his height… The Lord doesn’t look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).
And Jesus, of course, is blunt in condemning people who do the right deed for the wrong reason. That’s the message of Matthew 6:1-18. You’re “giving to the needy” (verse 2)? Great – but don’t make a song and dance about it. You’re “praying” (verse 5)? Very good – but do it quietly and privately. You’re “fasting” (verse 16)? Well done – but do it with a cheerful face.
Don’t do good deeds in order to make a display of what a wonderfully spiritual person you are!
If we ask, “But what constitutes a right reason, a good motive?” there’s no better place to look than 1 Corinthians 13 – Paul’s great poem about love. Nothing, he says – not even speaking in tongues, or prophesying, or explaining deep mysteries, or moving mountains by my faith, or giving away all my wealth – no, nothing at all is worth a scrap if love isn’t my motive. And (going back to Thomas Becket) that applies too to martyrdom: “…even if I hand over my body to be burned…” (verse 3, according to some translations).
If we then go on to ask, “Love for what, or who?” the answer of course can only be, “Love for God”. And that may take many practical forms – a love of justice, perhaps; a love of my neighbour; a love for the needy; a love of peace; a love for creation; a love for someone who hates me. Almost anything, indeed, apart from a love of my own reputation.
One of our problems, especially perhaps in our western world, is that we worry far too much about what other people think of us. And we Christians can unthinkingly get sucked into that mentality.
I used to work one day a week as a hospital chaplain. One person I got friendly with was one of the porters – always cheerful and ready for a bit of banter. I ran into him one day and did what I think is known as a double-take: was it really him? He seemed different somehow.
“Hallo! Have you had your hair cut?” I said, though it was certainly more than that. To which he replied “Yes, I decided it was time I changed my image”.
Time I changed my image. What a give-away phrase! I went away shaking my head and, to be honest, feeling rather sorry for him. But it soon occurred to me that, though I would never use such an expression myself, wasn’t I just as guilty of wondering what my “image” might be in the eyes of those who knew me? And just how much I did in order to gain peoples’ good opinion? Hypocrite!
Living the Christian life can be pretty accurately summed up as: Be like Christ – and be yourself. For, in the words of Thomas a Kempis (died 1471), “Man sees your actions, but God your motives”.
Father, help me to take seriously the fact that “motives are weighed by the Lord”. And so grant that, more and more and day by day, the inner me and the outer me will be one and the same person. Amen.
To think about, perhaps, if you have an idle moment: Which is worse, to do a good thing for a bad reason, or not to do it at all? I would love to know what you think…