Hidden subconscious motives can enslave us to sin

Renew / Thoughts
We often don’t consider why we do the things we do, but God does. God’s Word says that He evaluates our motives more than our ways. We can do many things that appear to be good or even excellent to other people, but that will displease our Creator because we do them for self-centred reasons. Imagine coming before God one day expecting to be praised and rewarded for all the good things we have done on earth, only to be reprimanded and rebuffed. What a rude shock that would turn out to be!

(See Chinese versions: 简体中文 > 隐藏的潜意识动机使我们犯罪 | 繁體中文 > 隱藏的潛意識動機使我們犯罪)


Luke 16:15 NLT Then he said to them, “You like to appear righteous in public, but God knows your hearts. What this world honors is detestable in the sight of God.

Matthew 6:1 ESV “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.

The good news is that we can prevent this from happening if we start to evaluate our motives on a regular basis starting from today. The bad news is that giving ourselves an accurate evaluation is often an impossible task because we are poor judges of our true intentions. Only God Himself can give us an accurate assessment of our genuine motives.

Proverbs 21:2 ESV Every way of a man is right in his own eyes, but the Lord weighs the heart.

Jeremiah 17:10 ESV “I the Lord search the heart and test the mind, to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds.”

Blind to our blindspots

In order to survive in a world filled with potential pain and suffering, many of us have learnt to put on a mask, conceal our true feelings, and put on a good show in front of others. Unfortunately, we can cover ourselves up for so long that we no longer really know who we truly are and how we truly feel. We become too skilled in turning a blind eye to our true intentions and motives.

As we turn to Jesus, we can carry this same personal blindness into our relationship with God. Instead of wearing a worldly mask, we now put on a Christian mask. We say all the right Christian sounding things and do all the meaningful Christian things – without being fully aware that we could be doing so with impure reasons. The Bible describes this as honouring God with our lips but not our hearts. To everyone else, we may appear to be good Christians but God knows whether we are choosing righteousness to glorify Him or acting righteous for our own sake.

Matthew 15:8 ESV “‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me;

Luke 18:9 NLT Then Jesus told this story to some who had great confidence in their own righteousness and scorned everyone else:

It is this personal blindness that Jesus described in Matthew 7:1-5; where we are able to see other people’s faults but not our own.

Matthew 7:1-5 ESV “Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.

Our inbuilt self-preservation mechanisms often get in the way of us being brutally honest with ourselves. Most times, we rather live with false ideas that are comforting, rather than painful truths that will require some radical decisions on our part. It is little wonder that the Bible warns us that our hearts are deceitful and spiritually sick.

Jeremiah 17:9 ESV The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?

An example from how we make purchase decisions

To illustrate how our self-illusions manifest even in the way we make our purchase decisions, here are some research findings.

Dr. Peter Noel Murray, an expert on consumer psychology, notes in his research that “consumers talk about their mental processes; describing how they investigate and weigh product features, consider such factors as how the benefits of one brand stacks up against the competition and which is the best value for their money. Consumers are aware that they are targets of unrelenting marketing activity. However, they overwhelmingly believe that they are strong, independent thinkers who are not seduced by the power of marketers. If consumers were rational, the process would stop at the point of analyzing how well the product features and attributes satisfy needs and motivations. But that is not the case. It is the consumers’ perceptions of emotional payoffs that cause purchase behavior.” (Source: Peter Noel Murray Ph.D., The Myth of the Rational Consumer, Psychology Today)

The truth is that we believe we are objectively minded when we are not. Our true motives elude us. The real reasons why we do certain things are often much more subtle and nuanced than we are aware. Such consumer research results were consistent across a broad range of products and services, including healthcare, financial services, beauty and skincare, non-profit organisations and causes, and so on.

We all like to think that we are rational and good, yet how often have we bought something that we didn’t need, said something we later regretted, or avoided someone simply because we felt uncomfortable around them? We are driven by our subconscious perceptions, fears, beliefs and inner vows.

Proverbs 16:2 ESV All the ways of a man are pure in his own eyes, but the Lord weighs the spirit.

Proverbs 14:12 ESV There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.

Most of us resort to rationalising or justifying our behaviour. We (wrongfully) think our ways are good and pure. This keeps us from seeing the true motives in our hearts that lead to spiritual death. As a result, we do not repent of them and therefore, forfeit forgiveness and renewal in Jesus’ name.

Luke 16:15 ESV So He said to them, “You are the ones who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is prized among men is detestable before God.

Praise God that He does not leave us alone to our own devices. God can and will expose and show us all our hidden intentions if we invite Him to. After all, He knows our hearts much better than we do.

Proverbs 20:27 NLT The Lord’s light penetrates the human spirit, exposing every hidden motive.

The subconscious overpowers the conscious

By studying how the human brain functions biologically and psychologically (rather than simply listening to what people say about themselves), cognitive neuroscientists have shown that our subconscious minds are:

  • Motivated by self interest
  • Not driven by rational thought
  • Driven by emotions
  • Stimulated visually
  • Drawn to tangible outcomes
  • Focused on the beginning and the end of events (before and after), more than what happens in between
  • Prone to form beliefs through repeated exposure to certain messages, images, and social interactions

Our subconscious mind is not wired to carefully consider the consequences of all our actions. It is intuitive, visually driven, and impulsive at times. It reacts in the moment and can decide on a “hunch” or “gut feeling” rather than on logical analysis.

It is the basis for our habits, our inbuilt fight or flight tendencies, and most of all, our hidden motives. Our subconscious beliefs and motives can and will often overrule our conscious intentions. This is how we make slips of the tongue, react in ways that betray our true feelings, and give in to the sin we want the most to resist, for example.

We have all been in situations where we have made ungodly choices. It wasn’t because we wanted to consciously rebel against God. Rather, we were likely to have been subconsciously overcome by curiousity, a fear of being left out, promises we made ourselves in the past (inner vows), a desire to alleviate stress, a promise to honour our parents etc. – all of which would be deemed totally reasonable, and even good, according to the world’s standards. Yet when our seemingly reasonable motives supersede our motivation to follow God’s will first, we end up sinning against Him.

This is why relying solely on our logical minds to lead our lives can be dangerous, because we don’t realise that we are in fact, not entirely logical people. We don’t do what we want to do, which is to obey Jesus, and end up doing what we don’t want to do, which is to sin. This is in essence, what the apostle Paul talks about in Romans 7:15-24.

Romans 7:15-24 ESV For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?

In verse 23, Paul described the power of the subconscious to overrule the conscious mind. He referred to it as “a power within him that was at war with his mind that made him a slave to the sin.”

The power to purify our subconscious motives

Thankfully, Paul went on in Romans 8 to explain that we have the power to conquer our subconscious and impure motives when we submit all our motives to the Holy Spirit’s guidance. He said in Romans 8:8-9,12-15 that, “Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!””

Romans 8:8-9,12-15 ESV Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!”

Praise God that the Holy Spirit will help us discern and rule over the subconscious and sinful desires of our hearts, our inner thoughts, as well as our emotions. He can help renew our motives too. We simply need to be willing to repent and obey His counsel when we ask for His help.

1 Corinthians 2:10 ESV these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God.

Also, see Identifying and cleansing our motives for serving God

Romans 6:12 NLT Do not let sin control the way you live; do not give in to sinful desires.

Also, see
Drunkenness opposes the Holy Spirit
How to test for the Holy Spirit
Living a holy life, free from sin’s power
The Holy Spirit as our perfect Counsellor
The role of the Holy Spirit in our salvation
7 things that block the fruit of the Holy Spirit
What it feels like to be purified by the Holy Spirit
Welcome the Holy Spirit’s transformative work in us
Ways we extinguish the Holy Spirit


To receive notifications of new posts from Teaching Humble Hearts, please subscribe here .