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” (Romans 8:9), because by the Spirit he would be “free from the law of sin and death,” free at last from selfish motives.


Are we ever free to choose?

It used to worry me when my kids watched horror movies. But they weren’t the least bit perturbed. “Don’t worry, Dad,” one of them told me, “I can handle it.” And obviously in his mind he thought he could. He talked as if he had complete control.

Paul, however, talked as if we have no control over our minds at all, because we’re constantly being influenced – even controlled – by other forces. He called one of those forces “my sinful nature,” Romans 7:18, and it was so powerful in him that even though he wanted to do good he could never carry it out without some ugly, self-centred motive spoiling it for him. And Paul hated it. But there was no escape, his sinful nature had him by the nose.

But Paul talked of another force too, the Holy Spirit. And he talked to Christians in terms of this force being in control of them instead. “You, however,” Romans 8:9, “are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you.” And the Spirit is so powerful that it overrides the sinful nature. According to Paul, it can even completely set us free from the “law that wages war in our minds” that’s always messing up our motives. No longer, therefore, do we have to “live according to the sinful nature but (instead) according to the Spirit,” verse 4.

And how the Spirit does that for us is by setting our minds on what it desires, not on what the sinful nature desires, verse 5 – “Those who live according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what that nature desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires.” The “set” of the mind changes with the Spirit. It’s set on “life and peace” mode (verse 6), enabling us to “put to death the misdeeds of the body,” or kill off all those awful thoughts and questionnable motives that wrecked our life and peace before, verse 13. They have no control over us anymore.

Our minds are now tuned to a different frequency. And we find ourselves with a completely different mind. It even loves God. But now our minds are actually capable of love, unadulterated by selfish motives. And it’s all being done for us by the Spirit.

So are we ever free to choose? Not really, because as non-Christians our sinful nature had control of us, and as Christians the Spirit has control of us. But with the Spirit in control we can be good without any selfish motive messing things up for us.

The day that free choice died

In the beginning God presented Adam and Eve with a choice, and their lives from that point on would be affected by their choice.

It was a real eye opener, because it demonstrated clearly that human beings make really stupid choices when given the chance to choose, and even when we’re faced with dire consequences for wrong choices, we still make them anyway.

And to prove the point, God allowed a whole era in which humans could do what they wanted, and look what happened: the rise of brutal empires, weird religions, human sacrifice, abuse of the weak, endless violence and evil people with no conscience. Several times in this awful era God intervened to slow the results of human choice, making it very clear after four thousand miserable years of human history that, unless he intervened, human beings would self-destruct. It was a fact of history that, given the freedom to choose, humans choose death.

Then came the day that Jesus took that entire era of free choice to the cross and killed it. It was the end of the beginning, the death of the era that allowed free choice to determine the lives of humans. It was also the beginning of the end, the start of a new era that would gradually and relentlessly put an end to the results of human choice, by the pouring out of God’s Spirit on everyone (Acts 2:17). The healing of a world wrecked by human choices had begun. No longer would humans have to choose to determine their future, because their future from now on would be taken care of by the Spirit.

It should have been a great relief that humanity was no longer ruled by its choices, but to many people it hasn’t been a relief at all. They still want to be free to choose, so they resist the Holy Spirit. They don’t want help. They think they can handle life and death on their own strength, and their pride won’t let them think otherwise.

But now they’re a menace in this era too. They account for most of the world’s problems. So the time comes when God brings an end to their mischief. He isolates the rebels and removes their influence, and they have no choice but to seethe in their pride until they’ve had enough of their stupidity. And that’s when “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come!’ Whoever is thirsty, let him come, and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life'” (Revelation 22:17). Put all that silliness of freedom of choice behind you, and please, just come and join the fun.

One bad decision, chum, and off you go to hell – oh, really?

Does our free will have the power to determine our eternal destiny? According to many Christians the answer is, “Yes, what we decide with our free will makes the difference between going to heaven or hell. If we decide to believe in Jesus we’re off to heaven after we die, but if we decide to reject him we’re off to hell, to be tormented or destroyed forever.”

But at what point is our decision fixed forever? What if at this moment – and to the day we die – we reject Jesus because the picture we’ve been given of him is awful? Maybe Grandma turned us off Jesus by her holier-than-thou approach, or the church down the road had dreadful signs on its front lawn threatening people with eternal torment, or Protestants and Catholics were killing each other in our city, or Aunt Mabel was gabbling away in what she called “speaking in tongues” but it was all just gibberish and nonsense. And what about all those ghastly stories about the Crusades, and Christians going to war on both sides of a conflict and killing each other? And why does God allow horrible natural disasters and serial killers of women and children?

Does God take all these possibilities into account, that our decision to reject him is based on legitimate reasons? Or does he say, “Too bad, chum, you made your decision to reject me, so off you go to hell”? But what if we’d been given a wonderful view of God instead, and heard nothing but a good news message about his intention to save everybody and his promise to do so through Jesus, and therefore we didn’t reject him? Is it fair that God should judge us on what decisions we make when our decisions can be so easily influenced?

And when is our decision final, too? Is it final now, or final on the day we die, or final only after a period of judgment? Or is it ever final, because in reality it isn’t our decision that determines our eternal destiny, it’s God’s mercy (Romans 11:32)? And, what’s more, “God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden” (Romans 9:18), meaning HE also heavily influences our response to him. It’s only on HIS timing when HE decides to extend his mercy to us that our heads and hearts soften towards him.

In other words, it’s not our decision, chum, that determines our eternal destiny, it’s his. He’s the one who holds the strings. But, fortunately, the hands that hold those strings are directed entirely by mercy, love and the wisest of timing.

Does God’s purpose overrule our free will?

Did Judas have any choice in what he did? Not at all, because in Acts 1:16, “the Scripture had to be fulfilled which the Holy Spirit spoke long ago through the mouth of David concerning Judas.” It was a foregone conclusion what Judas would do, a done deal, fixed in concrete by an unfailing prophecy in Psalm 41:9. Judas had no choice whatsoever. The Scripture HAD to be fulfilled. God’s purpose, therefore, totally overruled Judas’ free will.

Did Rebecca’s children have any choice in what happened to them? No. “The older will serve the younger,” whether they liked it or not, because in Scripture it was written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated” (Romans 9:12). The children’s future was sealed “before the twins were born, or had done anything good or bad – in order that God’s purpose in election might stand: not by works but by him who calls” (verses 11-12). God’s purpose, God’s election and God’s calling totally overruled what Rebecca wanted for her children or what the children wanted for themselves. So much for free will.

Did Pharaoh have any choice in his resistance to God and Moses? No, “For the Scripture says to Pharaoh: ‘I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth” (verse 17). God’s purpose totally cancelled out Pharaoh’s freedom of choice. Pharaoh simply found himself resisting, whether he meant to, or not.

God didn’t wait for Abraham to make a choice either, or Paul, he simply chose them for his purpose and that was it, they did it. Israel only existed because of God’s purpose, so does the Church (1 Peter 1:1-2), and the only reason anyone can come to Jesus is because God decides it (John 6:44). Scripture even says that everything was planned “in accordance with his pleasure and will” before the world began (Ephesians 1:4-5), including us, verse 11: “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.”

That’s because our will is incapable of making the right decisions, as Adam and Eve made clear, and so did Israel, and so does a world that still resists God. So, fortunately, God stepped in to rescue us from the consequences of our will. And in time he’ll get to everyone, with the promise that “the one who calls you is faithful and he will do it” (2 Thessalonians 5:24). Why should it bother us, then, that God’s purpose overrules our free will, when we obviously haven’t got a clue where we’re going or how to get there? But HE does.

Does God decide according to what we decide?

If the title above is true and God bases his actions in our lives on our decisions, surely that would clash with Romans 9:16 that says his purpose for us “does not depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy.” God isn’t waiting for us to decide to choose him. Instead, verse 12, it’s purely because of his mercy in calling us that his purpose in our lives gets started. He’s the one who gets the ball rolling. We had no choice in the matter, just as God had a purpose for Rebecca’s twin boys and they had no choice in the matter either (verses 11-12).

Paul makes it clear that God holds all the strings, by digging out a verse from the Old Testament that says, “God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden,” verse 18. God is the one who decides what happens in our lives, according to HIS calling, his timing, his will and his compassion (or hardening). So if God is the one who decides, why would he base his decisions on what we decide? And why would he blame us for what we decide if he’s the one who either softens or hardens our response to him?

And that’s exactly the question Paul anticipated people asking him when he talked in these terms. “One of you will say to me,” verse 19: ‘Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?'” If, as Paul has just implied, God’s purpose for us depends entirely on what GOD decides, why would he blame us for what WE decide?

Answer? He doesn’t. Oh, he could if he wanted to, because he has every right to do what he likes with us, including wipe us out (verses 21-22), but that’s not the picture he wants us to have of him. He’d rather “make the riches of his glory known,” verse 23. How? By showing us through Paul that he “prepared (us) in advance for glory” (verse 23). God had already decided our eternal destiny BEFORE we even existed. He didn’t wait for us to choose him. He was already calling us “my people” and “my loved ones,” and even “sons of the living God” (verses 25-26) BEFORE any of us had decided anything.

He did the same with Israel. God didn’t wait for them to choose him, he chose them. And when they failed him he didn’t reject them either (Romans 11:1). Instead, he stuck to his plan to save them (verses 26-27). Their whims, weaknesses and bad choices did not deter God from fulfilling what he’d already decided for them – and for all humanity.

Is God’s grace limited by our choices?

COULD someone reject God – even after hearing the right gospel, seeing the fruits of it in millions of people’s lives, living in a world without the devil’s influence, watching God in action, and realizing the obvious fact that God loves him?

Some Christians would answer, “Oh yes, the possibility always exists that someone might reject God, because,” they say, “God gave us the power of choice, or free will, and he will never force his will on us. He won’t make us love him, and if we decide not to love him, he accepts our choice.”

But God didn’t accept Adam and Eve’s choice, did he? – and their choice affected all humanity too (Romans 5:12). As an entire race of beings, therefore, we made our choice long ago, but did God accept it? No. He personally set up Abraham and an unbroken line of his descendants all the way to the birth of Jesus, and through Jesus the promise of salvation for Jew and Gentile alike (Luke 2:29-32). Rather than accept our choice, then, God set about correcting it. Not for a moment did God let the poor use of our free will and our proclivity to wrong choices decide our eternal destiny.

When Adam made his choice “sin entered the world,” and so did death, Romans 5:12, “BUT,” verse 20, “where sin increased, grace increased all the more.” That’s a clear statement that God’s grace is greater than any sin or wrong choice we make. “When it’s sin versus grace, grace wins hands down,” as The Message phrases it. In other words, God’s grace isn’t the least bit limited by our choices. Even if our wrong choices increase, grace simply increases all the more.

Fortunately, grace overrules our choices. If it didn’t we’d all stand condemned forever (verse 18), because look at the pickle our free will got us into. Because of our choices we all ended up “falling short of the glory of God” – BUT – God stepped in and “justified (us) freely by his grace” (Romans 3:23-24). Grace effectively cancelled out our choices, because that’s how great his grace is.

But what if we abuse his grace or even reject it? Is that the point at which God says, “That’s it, you’re dead forever”? To even think that of God, though, is to “insult the Spirit of grace,” Hebrews 10:29. The one thing that makes God extremely angry is not believing his grace is supreme (same verse). So why would Christians believe his grace is limited by human choice, when it wasn’t limited by the worst choice we ever made in Eden, nor was it limited by the whole human race falling short of God’s glory?