This has been rattling around in my head for a while, and since it’s my blog, I get to pick the topics, so there. Just kidding--mostly. But I think it might be helpful to introduce some biblical thinking into this question:
When someone does a good thing, do his motives matter?
This is a good question, and like a lot of good questions, it can’t be answered by a simple “yes” or “no.”
Remember what I said about conservatives? We’re really really good at making distinctions, and that’ll be a very useful skill here. I’m going to divide this question into 1) Our vertical relationship with God, 2) Our horizontal personal relationships, and 3) our horizontal impersonal relationships.
Obviously the first one is the most important by far. What God thinks of us, and our relationship with him, is more important than any horizontal relationship by a factor of infinity. He holds our breath and life in his hands, and our eternal destiny will be determined by his judgment of us. So are motives important to him?
Of course they are. The Bible says this over and over and over. When we come to worship him, he makes it abundantly clear that if our heart isn’t right with him, he won’t accept it. If we harbor sin and refuse to repent of it, then he won’t hear our prayers. The whole theme of Matthew 6 is summed up in its first verse: “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.” Jesus goes on to list 3 specific acts of “righteousness”: giving to the poor, praying, and fasting. If we do these things in order to impress other people, then the only reward we’re going to get is the praise of other people, not the Lord’s smile. And of course when Samuel was commissioned to anoint a son of Jesse as the next king, the man of God was prepared to anoint the first strapping young lad who came before him, but the Lord’s response became one of the most famous verses of the Bible: “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”
So motives are extremely important—even conclusive—in our vertical relationship, but what about our horizontal relationships?
Well, in our personal relationships with other people, I’d think peoples’ motives are pretty important too. We have a word for a woman who marries a man just for his money instead of love: “gold digger.” Of course, I was in no danger of that in my marriage: My wife’s an RN, so apparently she married me for my rugged good looks instead of all the money I’m worth. And we tell our children that if their “friends” are so only because of what these “friends” can get out of them, then they don’t deserve the title at all. As you might expect, the book of Proverbs (which has godly wisdom in every important area of life) addresses this: “The poor are shunned even by their neighbors, but the rich have many friends.” If ancient Hebrew had scare quotes, I’ve no doubt they would’ve been added, so that it might be more accurately translated as “The poor are shunned even by their neighbors, but the rich have many ‘friends.’” Any rich or powerful person is going to attract “friends” (AKA sycophants) like ants to sugar.
But what about our horizontal relationships which aren’t that personal, or aren’t really personal at all? Do motives matter all that much in those? That’s where it gets a little more complicated, and that’s the subject of our next posting.