As we celebrate Thanksgiving this year, one thing I’ve been thinking about is how all that we do in our Christian life should be an outgrowth of our gratitude and love toward God. The Bible emphasizes that we are saved by grace, and we know the acts of service do not save us but are evidence of our salvation (Eph 2:8-9; Romans 3:20; James 2:18). We are to do the good works God has for us (Eph. 2:10); however, I find myself sometimes doing ministry or good works for the wrong reasons. I believe we should examine our motivation for the good works and ministry that we do to make sure we are right with God.
Here are some of the motivations I’ve noticed at times in my life:
- Sometimes I minister out of habit. It’s just what I’ve done and what I do, but I can forget that love for others and love and gratitude toward God should be my motivation. This is when I find myself “going through the motions” of ministry without really putting my heart into it. I find this is more of a temptation with the ministries we do on a weekly basis in our local church or community. It’s easy to let it become habit. When I pray for those I teach or regularly minister to, the “going through the motions” goes away, and the passion for the ministry returns (Gal. 6:9).
- Sometimes obligation is the reason I do good works. I feel I’m expected to do something because I’m a Christian or because the need is there, so I do the ministry even when I don’t want to do it. My heart is not in it; it is just an obligation I fulfill because I’m supposed to do it. Sometimes we can be guilted into this sort of thing, or in our local church culture, we expect to be told where to minister. I strongly believe we should pray about where we serve and where we might invite others to minister. God should be the One to put us in a ministry, not our guilt or sense of obligation. I know we can carry this to an extreme. I mean, if a teacher is ill one Sunday, subbing for that person because you care about them and their students is fine. But taking on a teaching position because no one else has stepped up yet may not be the right thing to do (2 Cor. 9:6-7).
- Sometimes I need to feel like God approves of me, so I do good works out of a desire to please God, not because of gratitude and love but wanting to be a good “kid”—like a people-pleaser tries to make her parents happy—yes, that was me too. This is especially a temptation when we’ve failed God in some way. Maybe we’ve sinned or hurt someone, and we feel like we need to make amends. This is such a human attitude. The best way to make amends with God is to confess our sins and ask for forgiveness. The best way to get God’s approval is simply to obey His leading and His word with a heart full of love and gratitude (Gal. 2:16, 3:11; 1 John 1:9). There are verses that talk about doing good works and being pleasing to God, but I’m talking about the motivations behind seeking His approval (Heb. 11:6, 13:15-16).
- Sometimes I do what I do for the approval of others. It feels good to get the praises of others. If we’re not careful, we can start ministering or serving for that alone. The Bible talks about that one a lot. God tells us clearly that seeking and getting the approval of others is its own reward. When our focus is on God getting the glory and others being blessed, we can escape this temptation. In a sense, when we want the praise, we are stealing that praise from God. He is the only One worthy of praise. (Col. 3:23; Matthew 6:1-4, Phil. 2:13; Deut. 10:21)
- Sometimes I have the right motivations: Honoring God and blessing others out of a heart of love, gratitude, and obedience to God. This one requires humility and honesty with ourselves. I find it is a fine line too. The key is to focus on God and others. That’s why we must have hearts of gratitude and love. Otherwise, our motivation slips into selfish motivation (Eph 5:1-2, 15-21; Gal. 5:13).
The cool part of all this is when we recognize we have the wrong motivation, repentance and a shift in our attitude can change everything, even in the middle of doing the actual good work or ministry. I read an essay once about revival, and the author talked about living the Christian life as being like walking down a narrow path, and sometimes we step off the path or twist an ankle and misstep as a result. But just because we take a little step off the path doesn’t mean we have to wander off into the woods completely abandoning the path. We shake off the mud and get back on the path. Or we ask God for forgiveness and repent of our wrong attitude or actions and get back on the right way with the right motivation. Satan would like nothing more than for us to feel like such failures that we continue to walk the wrong way. God always wants reconciliation.
So, as we enjoy this holiday season, I want to have the attitude of gratitude. I want to have the attitude of expectancy, to see what God has planned and what He calls me to, and then I want to respond in obedience because of all that God has done for me. I want my life to reflect the love of God to others and to be filled with love for God and others.
One final comment, even when we start with the wrong motivation or find ourselves caught up in it, God can still use our good works to bless others and glorify His name in spite of us. As Paul said in Philippians 1:18, “But that doesn’t matter. Whether their motives are false or genuine, the message about Christ is being preached either way, so I rejoice. And I will continue to rejoice.” So, we must continue to do good no matter what, so the Gospel is shared and disciples are made; but we need to seek to have the right motivations repenting quickly when God reveals we have a wrong one, so our lives will be pleasing to the Lord.
Whatever you do [no matter what it is] in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus [and in dependence on Him], giving thanks to God the Father through Him. (Colossians 3:17, AMP)