Christians and Questionable Motives

[From the archives.]

Etymology trivia: “motive” and “motion” both derive from the Latin movere – “to move”. That makes sense, since all willful movement is motivated by something.

Here’s a for instance: I love pizza, and am often motivated to eat some (in fact, I’m eating a cold slice from the fridge as I write this). I don’t like buying bigger clothes after eating too much pizza, so I am motivated to work out several days each week. Simplistic? Perhaps, but a decent illustration.

In Vino Veritas

As long as we’re talking Latin, I’ll throw out the phrase in vino veritas – in wine there is truth. The idea is that if someone has been drinking, it is harder for that person to lie successfully, either by word or action. Alcohol is a cheap truth serum for exploring someone’s motives, their desires. Roman historians noted that Germanic tribes even served alcohol at their governing counsels in order to keep someone from concocting lies.

Another thing alcohol does is cause us to act in accordance with our motives, our desires. When I was a teen, I remember having too much to drink one night. In fact, this might have been the first time I ever got drunk. After drinking more than I could handle, I kissed the girl next to me. She kissed me back. We continued along these lines for a while. Just one problem. She wasn’t the girl I was dating. She was my girlfriend’s best friend. Yes, I’m a heel.

My girlfriend called me out on it the next morning. I tried to explain it away somehow, but other than remembering how lame I sounded I can’t tell you a word of what I came up with. She handled it well, though, and looking back on it I am still quite impressed:

“Tim, we’re done. I get that you were drinking, and I don’t think you’re horrible. But I do think that drinking reveals what you’re really thinking. You weren’t thinking of me. I don’t hate you and I don’t hate my friend. We’re good. We’re just not going out together any more.”

Was I hurt? Sure, but the wound was self-inflicted. It’s painful learning some lessons.

Meaningless Motives

One instruction I often give jurors in criminal trials is that the prosecution does not have to prove motive for a person to be found guilty. I explain that motive may be a factor tending to show guilt and a lack of motive may tend to show innocence, but the presence of motive is not necessarily required. A person can commit a crime for the best of motives, yet a crime is still committed – think Jean Valjean’s loaf of bread.

Being drunk is no help for those committing crimes either. In my jurisdiction, someone who is voluntarily intoxicated (whether by alcohol or drugs, legal or illicit) usually cannot claim to be free from responsibility for their actions. It makes sense too; otherwise a person could drink alcohol or take a controlled substance like marijuana and then drive and claim no responsibility because they were too far under the influence to think clearly and exercise good judgment.

The Original Crime

In Genesis 3, Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit (the first ever controlled substance). Adam tells God he only ate what Eve gave him, and Eve tells God the serpent tricked her. Neither of them tell God their motives, though.

Perhaps they knew that their motives were irrelevant to the fact that they violated their God-given instructions for living in the Garden. No amount of sugar-coating their motives or casting blame on others was going to change that.

Could we guess at their motives, though? Sure, we can take guesses. Same goes for surmising the motives behind what other people do. Sometimes we might even guess right.

God, on the other hand, doesn’t have to guess.

A person may think their own ways are right, but the Lord weighs the heart. (Proverbs 21:2.)

Our motives are always open to God; he knows them better than we do. He also knows better than we do that, despite our motives, we are righteous and holy because of the work of his Son.

It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. (1 Corinthians 1:30.)


… not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. (Philippians 3:9.)

We are righteous not because we have the right motives and desires, but because of the faith God has given us. Still, can we inquire as to what moves us? Sure, and the answer is Christ himself.

For in him we live and move and have our being. (Acts 17:28.)

And all of this is designed for God’s glory, and not our own.

In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory. (Ephesians 1:11-12.)

This is what Christ accomplishes in you, because his motive is to give glory to God the Father.

There is nothing questionable about it.


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7 Responses to Christians and Questionable Motives

  1. So, if Jurors aren’t looking for motive (forgive me for some shameless public book research), what do you tell them to look for?

    • Tim says:

      Action and intent. Motive might be something like “I really want a nice car so I’m going to steal a Maserati.” But the crime of car theft is taking a car with the intent to deprive the owner of its use, regardless of your motive for taking it. All the jury needs to decide is if action and intent are proven, not the motive behind that action and intent.

  2. Oooh, that’s juicy. Definitely going to weave that in…Thanks!

  3. Kathy Heisleman says:

    Totally agree with you; the difficulty is in the examination. It’s very hard to be objective with your own emotions, and desire to do something can be quite persuasive. Of course it is simpler to decide if our intended action is clearly prohibited in Scripture…..The other –not as easy.

    What benchmarks do you use on yourself to attempt to discern the rightness of an action in an area not specifically covered in Scripture? I know advice from others etc is good but what about in the only in your head decisions?

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