Identifying and cleansing our motives for serving God
Desiring to serve God and do good works in Jesus’ name are certainly noble and commendable desires. Indeed, our faith in Jesus should always result in good deeds. Yet God doesn’t just look at our works, He also looks at our hearts. How can we check our hearts for impure motives? What does it mean to have a clean heart?
(See Chinese versions: 简体中文 > 识别和净化我们事奉神的动机 | 繁體中文 > 識別和淨化我們事奉神的動機)
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.”
Psalm 51:10 ESV Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.
When God created us, He also prepared individual good works for us to do through Jesus. We please God when we follow His will and share the blessings He has given us.
Ephesians 2:10 ESV For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
Hebrews 13:16 ESV Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.
Yet there is a genuine danger that one’s service for God can be turned into an earthly reward system. Perhaps we volunteer for Christian ministries because we enjoy the community or the “feel good” factor, and lose sight of who we do it for.
Colossians 3:23-24 ESV Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.
A quick test for our hearts
As believers, we need to remember that we follow a selfless Saviour who came to serve, not to be served. He endured much hardship, slander, ridicule, and rejection for our sake. If Jesus suffered and died on the cross for us, then certainly we can die to our lust and passion for such things.
Mark 10:45 ESV For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Let us take a quick test to check our hearts and motives. Would we serve joyfully if:
- We don’t get any credit for the outcome? | Matthew 5:16 ESV In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.
- No one ever knew about it? | Matthew 6:2-4 ESV “Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
- We never receive any compensation? | Matthew 10:7-8 ESV And proclaim as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons. You received without paying; give without pay.
- We have to endure suffering? | 1 Peter 2:20 ESV For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God.
- We face disapproval from people? | Galatians 1:10 ESV For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.
- We are slandered as a result? | 1 Peter 3:16 ESV having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.
From this list above, it appears that anyone who drops out of serving because they have not been properly acknowledged may need to check their motives or attitudes again. Equally grievous to God is when we give our time and resources begrudgingly, out of obligation or duty as a “good Christian”.
2 Corinthians 9:7 ESV Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.
Let us keep in mind that God does not need our help to accomplish His will on earth. What He does want is for us to love Him and love others with a pure heart, a clear conscience and a sincere faith.
1 Timothy 1:5 ESV The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.
He wants us to emulate Jesus, His Son, who said that He came to do His Father’s will. When we serve others with a hidden motive of personal gratification, we are in reality, loving ourselves more than we love God.
John 6:38 ESV For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me.
Serving others with God’s love requires the same sincere humility as Jesus, who became poor for our sake. Genuine believers are willing to be perceived as lowly, despised, weak and foolish like Jesus was, so that people see God’s power through them and glorify Him, rather than be glorified for their personal power and capabilities.
1 Corinthians 1:27-29 ESV But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.
The more people see the glory of God through us, the more people will put their faith in Jesus and receive eternal salvation. The more people see our man-made works, the more they will follow man-made idols instead of God.
Examples of impure motives
Checking our own hearts for impure motives can be challenging because we often cannot see our own blindspots, so here are some examples compiled from various ministry examples. Also, see Hidden subconscious motives can enslave us to sin
1. Desiring to be good
Growing up, most of us were instructed to be a “good boy” or “good girl”. This thinking has been inculcated in our subconscious through family expectations, children’s stories, performance evaluations in school and at work etc.
The good are usually rewarded and the bad, punished. Naturally, we all want to be good. In fact, we may even have made ourselves an inner vow to “be good” or “not to be as bad as” someone else. Also, see The sin of pursuing what’s good
We may therefore be startled to read Jesus’ statement in Luke 18:19, where He plainly stated that no one is good and that even Jesus Himself should not be referred to as good. Only God is good. Is wanting to be good, therefore, a misguided desire?
Luke 18:19 ESV And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.
Let us consider a couple of questions;
- Subconscious influences | Can sinful people accurately tell what is good or bad when our sinful subconscious tendencies colour our perspectives and create biased judgements?”
- Satisfactory standards | Are we able to determine when “good” to us is truly good enough?
What’s more, our desire to be good usually leads us to have a false impression that we are good most of the time – and that this is good enough for God. Such an idea is in fact, idolatrous.
We cannot justify ourselves no matter how good we are. Only repenting of our sins in Jesus’ name and turning to God with all our hearts, souls, and minds does.
Ecclesiastes 12:13-14 ESV The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.
Deciding whether we are good means that we often end up comparing ourselves to other people. For this, we have to judge others and judge ourselves – and fall into sin as Romans 2 explains.
Romans 2:1-3 ESV Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things. We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things. Do you suppose, O man—you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself—that you will escape the judgment of God?
We are also wired to quickly spot the faults in other people that mirror ours. This means that a proud person can instantly spot pride in another person, or a stubborn person will recognise the same quality in someone else – except that we will only see their error and not our own. The Bible calls this seeing a speck in someone else’s eye but not the log in our own. By doing so, we end up condemning ourselves to be liable to God’s judgment.
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.
Additionally, it is usually much too simplistic to label who is good and who is bad. People can appear “good” on the surface but harbour terrible motives. One example is Judas Iscariot who appeared to care for the poor, but God knew that he was only interested in stealing from the moneybag.
John 12:4-6 ESV But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” He said this, not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief, and having charge of the moneybag he used to help himself to what was put into it.
Only God sees the entire picture and knows what’s really going on in our hearts. Therefore, only He has the right to judge.
James 4:12 ESV There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?
The additional danger with wanting to be good is that when we fail to meet our own standards of being “good”, we open the way for Satan to come and accuse us of being “bad”. If we are not alert to the enemy’s accusations, we may start to believe our enemy and become disheartened. Before long, we will either distant ourselves from God or work even harder because we don’t feel “good” enough.
It is vitally important to remember that God loves us not because we are good, but because He is good, and that He is the One who will transform us into His goodness based on His standards, not ours.
We can rejoice that the Holy Spirit is the One who leads us forward. The fruit of the Spirit includes goodness. Let us allow God’s Spirit to transform us from the inside out, rather than strive anxiously on our own to be good. Also, see Welcome the Holy Spirit’s transformative work in us
Galatians 5:22-25 ESV But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit.
2. Desiring to make others happy
We can confuse loving others with pleasing them. Even in His great love for us, God does not always do things that please us. That would only make Him our servant.
From young, we have been conditioned to please others, whether they were our parents, our teachers, or our peers. This is largely because of the innate reward and punishment systems we experienced growing up. Perhaps we feared rejection, experienced classroom bullying, or faced pressure to perform.
Our people-pleasing behaviour can become second nature without us being consciously aware. We are unable to see that we keep bowing down to other people’s expectations because the fear of disappointing them. Our fears blind us to the real conditions of our hearts.
Acts 4:19-20 ESV But Peter and John answered them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.”
Some tell-tale symptoms of a chronic people-pleaser include:
- A fear to say no
- A fear to disappoint others
- A fear to upset others
- A fear to voice one’s own opinion
Ultimately, people-pleasing believers operate out of fear, rather than love. God’s Word states that fear is not from Him. God has given us a spirit of love, power, and self-control.
2 Timothy 1:7 ESV for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.
Such a person will morph into anything that they believe other people want or expect, and will subconsciously thrive on other people’s acceptance and affirmation. It is a good day for them when they receive approval, and a bad day when they do not.
Galatians 1:10 ESV For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.
People-pleasers tend to be anxious and insecure, often second-guessing what other people think of them. They may come across as nice, friendly, and agreeable people but any friendship with them will feel hollow at the end. No one really knows what they are thinking.
Ironically, people-pleasers are so concerned with avoiding rejection and conflict that they don’t connect authentically with other people, because they are afraid to expose their true feelings and be known for their true thoughts.
Those with the spiritual gift of mercy can fall into the trap of pleasing others. They may have difficulty saying no to people, because they empathise strongly with others’ feelings at the expense of their own. As a consequence, they can struggle with drawing boundaries and end up being at other people’s mercy, particularly those who are emotionally manipulative.
When we have a habit of pleasing people, we can end up serving and helping others to gain the approval of human beings, rather than the approval of God. It is easy for people-pleasers to burn out in ministry because they want to take care of many people and make them happy, often taking on more than God had planned for them. People-pleasers will also avoid correcting a fellow believer who is sinning and maligning the name of God, because their fear of people is greater than their fear of God.
John 12:43 ESV For they loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God.
The apostle Paul was not afraid of what other people thought of him. He left all judgements to God. This is a wisdom that we need to need to learn and apply to ourselves.
1 Corinthians 4:3-5 NLT As for me, it matters very little how I might be evaluated by you or by any human authority. I don’t even trust my own judgment on this point. My conscience is clear, but that doesn’t prove I’m right. It is the Lord himself who will examine me and decide. So don’t make judgments about anyone ahead of time—before the Lord returns. For he will bring our darkest secrets to light and will reveal our private motives. Then God will give to each one whatever praise is due.
The fear of other people will turn us into fearful slaves. Let us repent of our fears and follow God’s Spirit instead.
Romans 8:15 NLT So you have not received a spirit that makes you fearful slaves. Instead, you received God’s Spirit when he adopted you as his own children. Now we call him, “Abba, Father.”
3. Desiring God’s gifts and blessings
God gives us good and perfect gifts. Yet we can chase after His gifts, rather than the Giver Himself.
James 1:17 ESV Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.
Let us look at it this way. Imagine throwing a birthday dinner party where all your guests came because they heard there was going to be good food. No one came because of you. Even so, you still generously host them because you love and care for them. Your guests don’t pay you much attention and instead, keeping asking for more food. Unfortunately, this can be the attitude that we bring to God when we seek His spiritual gifts and blessings – but neglect the greatest gift of all, a relationship with God.
Most of us would be upset and not invite our guests back to dinner again. Thank God that He not like us, He is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. His arms are always open to us even when we do not know how to appreciate and celebrate Him for who He is.
Psalm 86:15 ESV But you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.
Sometimes, we focus only on God’s gifts because we have an incorrect image of Him. Perhaps we see Him as some sort of Santa Claus, who rewards us with good gifts if we have been good, or some sort of idol that we pray to in exchange for favours. Sadly, in some Christian circles, we are taught how to be on God’s good side and how to pray in ways that “unlock” His blessings. We are told to test God and tithe so that He will “reward” us with more material blessings. We may be unaware that this subtly corrupts our motives in seeking God.
Instead of loving God, we develop a view that we can manipulate Him into giving us more.
4. Desiring to compensate for our sins
Fourthly, we can desire to serve God to make up for our sinful past. The thinking behind such a motive will sound like this, “I need to prove to God I am worthy of His grace, forgiveness, and love after all that He has done for me.” While such a desire may sound as if it is based on gratitude to God, we also need to be careful to check that we are not actually driven by a sense of shame over our past.
Romans 8:15 ESV 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!”
We can sometimes feel unworthy of a close relationship with God Almighty because of what we have done.
If so, let us remember the adulterous Samaritan woman by the well (John 4:1-42). This was a woman who was ashamed of her reputation and therefore came to draw water from the well at noon when no one else would be around. Even so, Jesus chose to drink out of her water jar. Jesus also famously chose to dine with people that were despised by society. He was happy to be seen and associated with them, unlike the self-righteous Pharisees.
Mark 2:15-17 ESV And as he reclined at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners were reclining with Jesus and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. And the scribes of the Pharisees, when they saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
Jesus does not hold us at arm’s length, even when we are struggling with our sins and imperfect. He is always warm and welcoming – so much so that one of His disciples even laid his head on Jesus’ chest during a meal together. Is this something we can picture ourselves doing with Jesus?
John 21:20 NASB Peter, turning around, saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; the one who also had leaned back on His bosom at the supper and said, “Lord, who is the one who betrays You?”
We can also be driven by a subconsciously desire to build up our self-esteem so that we feel worthy or on par with other believers. We do many good things because we desire to build an impressive spiritual resume of good deeds that will hopefully obscure or compensate for our past sins. How we grieve God when we fail back into such slavery. God is much more pleased when we learn to love Him as this is His greatest commandment.
Deuteronomy 6:5 ESV You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.
5. Desiring recognition
At the heart of all our seemingly righteous but impure motives are the twin towers of self-idolatry and spiritual pride. Of the two, spiritual pride is something that we need to be on extra alert to. It is possibly the most disguised and dangerous of sins for us as believers.
It is Satan’s foremost trap for earnest believers, one he uses to lure us into complacency, self-reliance, legalism, religiosity, judgments, division, and fall-outs in church organisations.
James 4:11-12 ESV Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?
Spiritual pride usually begins with good intentions. We want to become more like Christ, are excited about our relationship with God, and want to share the hope we have in Christ with others. With the knowledge we gain from being in Christian circles, we begin to think we have a good grasp on life and know what it takes to be a “good Christian”. This is when spiritual pride starts to creep into our hearts. We start to compare ourselves with one another and use God’s Word to judge others and commend ourselves. We don’t even realise when we are doing this. Spiritual pride is subtle and insidious.
Philippians 2:3 ESV Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.
Let us check our hearts for spiritual pride by referring the examples below. (While this list of examples may appear to be long, it is by no means comprehensive.)
- We believe we are full of God’s light, and therefore drop our guard against Satan and neglect to check the condition of our hearts with God | 1 Peter 5:8 ESV Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.
- We believe our biblical knowledge gives us greater wisdom than others, so we are not as open to correction from those we see as less knowledgeable, even though God may deliberately use “what is foolish in the world” to humble us | 1 Corinthians 1:27-29 ESV But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.
- We exalt the spiritual gifts God has given us and think we are therefore more gifted than others, and become blind to the second commandment, which is to love others | 1 Corinthians 13:8 ESV Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away.
- We think some certain people don’t deserve God’s love and mercy, and forget that we are sinners who don’t deserve God’s love and mercy either | Romans 5:8 ESV But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
- We find some types of work beneath us and we can’t bring ourselves to do them | 1 John 3:16 ESV By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.
- We talk about the shortcomings of other believers behind their backs, causing division and strife | Jude 1:19 ESV It is these who cause divisions, worldly people, devoid of the Spirit.
- We make distinctions between those we judge as godly and those we judge as ungodly, when we have no right to judge anyone | Matthew 7:1 ESV “Judge not, that you be not judged.
- We lack the patience to be long suffering for the sake of others | Ephesians 4:1-3 ESV I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
- We pray in a way that impresses people, rather than to please God | Matthew 6:5 NLT “When you pray, don’t be like the hypocrites who love to pray publicly on street corners and in the synagogues where everyone can see them. I tell you the truth, that is all the reward they will ever get.
- We speak harshly and cause more damage than healing | Proverbs 12:18 ESV There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.
- We think we are humble or good servants of God, which is a twisted form of pride | 2 Corinthians 10:12 ESV Not that we dare to classify or compare ourselves with some of those who are commending themselves. But when they measure themselves by one another and compare themselves with one another, they are without understanding.
- We are confident that we will not become a slave to sin if we just “try it once” | John 8:34 ESV Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.
- We feel good or smug about the progress we have made as Christians | 2 Corinthians 10:18 ESV For it is not the one who commends himself who is approved, but the one whom the Lord commends.
- We believe we have something “special” in our relationship from God that others don’t have | Romans 12:3 ESV For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.
- We think we are “needed” for God’s work and deserve acknowledgment for our contributions | 1 Corinthians 4:7 ESV … What do you have that God hasn’t given you? And if everything you have is from God, why boast as though it were not a gift?
- We tend to launch into debates about God’s Word to prove we are right, rather than humbly seeking God together in prayer for His truth | 1 Timothy 6:4-5 ESV he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain.
Do any of these statements resonate with you? Are there any uncomfortable truths we need to face up to?
Proverbs 16:18 ESV Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.
Allow God to discipline and purify us
After years of building up our earthly identities and status, it can be incredibly difficult, almost painful, to give up all the things we have accumulated for ourselves; ranging from our personal goals, reputations, material security, and human wisdom, to our past regrets, fears, and bitterness. The idea of surrendering everything to God is counter-intuitive to everything we have learnt from young, especially when we are told that it is good to follow our desires.
Yet unless we die to every worldly and fleshly inclination 100%, we cannot truly say we belong to Jesus. Some of us may only belong to Him 30%, others 80%. We cannot make Him our part-time or emergency-only God. This is not true worship.
The reality is, God owns all of us and has a plan for us that is beyond our imagination. When we only submit to Him partially, we short-change ourselves from an incredible life with Christ, one that lacks the fruit of the Holy Spirit. Instead, we experience things such as anxiety, insecurity, indignation, bitterness, pride and so forth.
1 Corinthians 6:19-20 ESV Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body..
God’s Word points out that we need His discipline so that we do not hold on to our sinful motives and be condemned along with the world. To hear God’s Spirit clearly and receive His guidance, we must be willing to die to all our:
- Desires | Romans 13:14 ESV But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.
- Instinctual passions | Galatians 5:24 NLT Those who belong to Christ Jesus have nailed the passions and desires of their sinful nature to his cross and crucified them there.
- Views of ourselves | 1 Corinthians 4:3 ESV But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself.
- Human understanding | Proverbs 3:5 ESV Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.
- Presumptions | Deuteronomy 17:13 ESV And all the people shall hear and fear and not act presumptuously again.
Let us, therefore, humble ourselves before God often through regular prayer and fasting and invite His Spirit to show us the true conditions of our hearts. Let us not hold on to our subconscious sinful desires and repent of our impure motives. This is when are are truly free to love God and love others much more perfectly.
1 Corinthians 11:32 NLT Yet when we are judged by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be condemned along with the world.
Galatians 5:16-17 NLT So I say, let the Holy Spirit guide your lives. Then you won’t be doing what your sinful nature craves. The sinful nature wants to do evil, which is just the opposite of what the Spirit wants. And the Spirit gives us desires that are the opposite of what the sinful nature desires. These two forces are constantly fighting each other, so you are not free to carry out your good intentions.
2 Corinthians 3:17 ESV Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.
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
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