Are our motives ever good?

Every human capable of choosing is making choices every day between good and evil, and it doesn’t matter if we’re religious or not, either. Non-religious people choose to do good things (like caring for their families), but religious people do bad things (like killing people in war). So, Christian or non-Christian, we make our choices for good or bad.

But to what end? Why do we make the choices we make? A Christian, for instance, chooses to be good – but why? Is it fear of what might happen if he isn’t good, or to win God’s favour, or to make up for doing something bad? And why does an atheist try to be good, too? Is it to be looked up to as a jolly nice person, or simply because it feels good to be good?

It’s all rather selfish, though, isn’t it? Our choices are fraught with questionnable motives. A Christian does good, for instance, to get a better reward in heaven. An atheist, meanwhile, does good for the rewards it gives him now. In both cases the motive for doing good is to benefit oneself.

What if, on the other hand, we could make choices without any of the clutter of self-image, self-promotion and self-gratification messing up our motives? What if we weren’t the least bit concerned about the benefits or rewards to ourselves? And what if, when we’re out there slapping people on the back at work and being a jolly nice person, it was all being done without any hint of hypocrisy or selfish gain?

The trouble with us humans, though, is that we have a selfish nature that’s constantly exerting its influence on us, and we can’t get away from it. It’s like a “law at work” – as Paul called it in Romans 7:23 – that “wages war” in our heads so skillfully that even the good we want to do gets mixed up with selfish motives. It creates a world where you can’t trust anyone, including yourself, because what’s really motivating all of us, even when we’re doing good?

When Paul saw that in himself, it destroyed him. “What a wretched man I am!” he cried, because every time “I want to do good, evil is right there with me.” Self got its ugly head in there somewhere, even in the good he wanted to do. Would he ever be able to do good from a purely right motive? Yes, when he was “controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit” (RomansĀ 8:9), because by the Spirit he would be “free from the law of sin and death,” free at last from selfish motives.

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