The Motivation of a Christian (Acts 4:1-12)

The Great Sanhedrin (Jewish ruling council) by Edouard Moyse, 1868

The priests and the captain of the temple guard and the Sadducees came up to Peter and John while they were speaking to the people. They were greatly disturbed because the apostles were teaching the people, proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead. They seized Peter and John and, because it was evening, they put them in jail until the next day. But many who heard the message believed; so, the number of men who believed grew to about five thousand.

The next day the rulers, the elders and the teachers of the law met in Jerusalem. Annas the high priest was there, and so were Caiaphas, John, Alexander and others of the high priest’s family. They had Peter and John brought before them and began to question them: “By what power or what name did you do this?”

Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them: “Rulers and elders of the people! If we are being called to account today for an act of kindness shown to a man who was lame and are being asked how he was healed, then know this, you and all the people of Israel: It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed. Jesus is

“‘the stone you builders rejected,
    which has become the cornerstone.’

Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.” (New International Version)

What motivates you? What is it that moves you to speak and act? What is your motivation in life? 

The answer to the question of motivation says a lot about the person. 

People are motivated by all sorts of things: to prove someone else wrong; to make a lot of money; to become famous; to help underprivileged kids in the inner city; to take on the problem of the world’s sex trade; to quietly make God known in everything. 

As you well know, our motivations can be rather selfish, or quite altruistic. Or both.

In today’s New Testament lesson, the Apostle Peter offered to the nation’s leaders his motivation. Peter was moved to have a dedicated ministry of proclaiming Jesus and healing in his name. 

Whereas the ruling religious authorities thought Jesus just another man, Peter’s conviction was that Jesus has the power to save. The name of Jesus Christ is the one which saves.

Our words and actions – what we actually say and do in life – comes from our deepest motivations. 

Peter’s proclamation the gospel through both word and deed came from his deep wellspring of knowing Christ. Peter believed that Jesus could deliver on life’s most pressing problems of guilt, shame, and sin.

For Christians everywhere, motivation comes from knowing Christ Jesus as Lord and him crucified, died, risen from death, ascended, and coming again. This, ideally, is an intrinsic motivation – and not simply something we feel we “have to” believe.

Intrinsic motivation is an internal desire, inspiring us to perform particular tasks. When we are intrinsically motivated, we start enjoying even those tasks that we never thought of as bringing joy.

I’m not particularly fond of housework. I don’t get an internal kick out of pushing a vacuum, doing laundry, or cleaning the house. But because my dear wife is limited in what she can do, I find that I actually enjoy these tasks. You see, I clearly link what I’m doing with my love for her – which, for me, makes all the difference. My intrinsic motivation to love my wife works it’s way out in the loving service of doing the necessary mundane tasks around the house.

An intrinsic motivation allows me to connect the task at hand as the good and beautiful thing to do.

Extrinsic motivation, on the other hand, comes from external factors exerting themselves on our lives. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. When someone holds us accountable for following through on expectations, this is a good thing. Laws exist, ideally, as positive extrinsic motivations to do the right thing.

Being motivated to get good grades, a better job, or a trophy can be a powerful means of acting and speaking for good in the world. It’s just that sometimes we lose sight of why we do what we do, In those times, we then fail to connect with our original intrinsic desires to make a difference.

Unfortunately, a lot of churches get stuck here – simply doing the same things over and over and forgetting why they’re doing it – maybe acting a lot like the religious leaders of Peter’s day. Churches can too easily stray from making disciples of Christ to making followers of tradition. And then they wonder why they aren’t reaching anyone.

If we lack motivation, then we need to run to Jesus. When the believer’s deepest needs are met in Christ, the supernatural by-product is being moved to make Jesus known in every sphere of life. 

May it be so, to the glory of God.

Saving God, you have made your glory and grace known to me through your Son, the Lord Jesus.  May I know him better and better so that the motivations that impel me in life are pure, holy, righteous, and, above all, gracious. Amen.

Philippians 1:18-26 – Do What’s Most Important

A mosaic of the Apostle Paul, Ravenna, Italy, 5th century C.E.

But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.

Yes, and I will continue to rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and God’s provision of the Spirit of Jesus Christ what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance. I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, so that through my being with you again your boasting in Christ Jesus will abound on account of me. (New International Version)

So, what do you think leads to disunity in any group, whether in a church or elsewhere?….

Yes, unfortunately, there are many things which can divide a group of people. Chances are that discord comes from a lack of listening and love. And behind that lack is a spirit that desires attention and accolades. In other words, there cannot be unity whenever everyone wants to take credit for what’s good and blame others for what’s bad.

The Apostle Paul, writer of the letter to the Philippian Church, had a humble self-effacing approach to ministry. Paul knew exactly what was important to him and the advancement of the Church, namely, that Jesus Christ is proclaimed, that the good news of grace and forgiveness in Christ is given to people.

“The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.”

Mark Twain

And so, for Paul, his purpose was crystal clear. Although he really didn’t like bad attitudes and impure motives, if the message of Christ was preached, that was of upmost significance. It didn’t matter to him if people took credit for his work, or not. Not a lot of people can say that.

The Apostle focused on himself. Ultimately, we cannot control anyone; we can only practice self-control. And that is exactly what Paul did. Notice that in today’s New Testament lesson, Paul expressed his own desire to live a life of hope, courage, and selfless ministry. He understood that all the troubles he had experienced up to this point, would likely keep happening in this earthly life.

Paul could have started a new apostles’ retirement community, stepped out of the fray, and simply studied Torah all day. It’s probably what he really wanted to do. But Paul knew better. He knew it was better for all the churches he planted that he keep laboring on their behalf.

Even though Paul was ready to die and be with his Savior forever, he wasn’t going to grab control that wasn’t his. Someday he would die, or Christ will return before that time. Until then, he was going to do his darndest to ensure the gospel of Jesus is spread far and wide.

A spiritually healthy believer in Jesus both longs for heaven and Christ, and also puts their head down and faithfully plugs away with listening to others and loving them to Jesus with gracious words of forgiveness and merciful acts of kindness.

I imagine when Paul wrote this letter, he was downright tired. I can relate. Laboring day after day as a hospital chaplain and a church pastor often leaves me with little rest and carrying the emotional burdens of both places. There are so many people who need basic human kindness, common decency, and focused encouragement. And they don’t get it because there are far too many people far too absorbed in maintaining mastery of their very small worlds.

“The unexamined life is not worth living.”

Socrates

There are days I’d like nothing more than retreat to the Northwoods of Wisconsin, read and write in a small cabin, and catch fresh walleye for my supper. Maybe that will happen someday, but not today. Today is all we have. Today is the day of salvation. There will not always be Today. Christ is coming. Then it will be tomorrow. And tomorrow is too late for too many people.

So, I continue, working with all the energy (or lack thereof) which the good Lord gives me. After all, we are not God. Everyone on this planet has only a finite amount of energy and life. The question then becomes, How will you spend your energy and your finite resources?

I suggest we take our cues from good old Apostle Paul and not bad old Jacob Marley, who didn’t get the picture until it was too late. I’d rather live right, die well, and enjoy eternity – instead of living like a peacock, dying kicking and screaming, and having a miserable eternity.

In this Advent season, we have the opportunity to focus on what’s most important, then live with those priorities in the next year.

May it be so, to the glory of God.

James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a – A Spiritual Diagnosis and Treatment Plan

Byzantine icon of the Apostle James, the brother of Jesus

Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.

But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.

What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures….

Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.

The Apostle James wrote to a church facing all kinds of challenging adversity in their daily lives. Some of the believers responded wisely to their troublesome circumstances. Yet others dealt with their trials and tribulations by being troublesome people themselves. 

It was this breakdown in the church fellowship which spurred James to write his letter. The surface problem was infighting. But James wanted to get down to the root issues below the surface. Like a doctor understanding the pathology of the body, James diagnosed the real problems, and gave a clear treatment plan on how to proceed together in the Christian life. 

His prescription for spiritual health in the Body of Christ was not medication but a lifestyle change. Today’s New Testament lesson answers three diagnostic questions which ailed this ancient church.

First diagnostic question:  Who is wise and understanding among you?

Wise persons live a good life, demonstrated by their humble actions. They have trained themselves in the ways of God through the Scriptures.

Wisdom in the Bible is much like driving a car. You try to keep your eyes on the road and drive defensively while often making quick decisions on the road. You don’t fret about why there is a tight curve or an upcoming stop sign. You don’t try and determine the philosophy behind the mechanics of a stop light. You just try to do what needs to be done on the road to get where you need to go. And as you drive you respond to the road conditions and pay attention to the other drivers. 

Wisdom in the Christian life is more than knowledge; it is also being attentive to the other people around us as we seek to live for God. We respond to every adverse road condition that comes along with a mind dependent on God and a humble heart willing to be directed and re-directed by God’s Holy Spirit.

The unwise person sits and harbors selfish resentment in his heart when he has to wait ten minutes on a train to slowly rumble by on the tracks. The same person then desires to take off like a bat out of hell, freely expressing his road rage at another slow driver in his way.

In his lack of wisdom, the person justifies himself as wise because he believes his destination warrants his way of driving. He has convinced himself that he must drive the way he does. And if pulled over by a police officer, he deludes himself in thinking the officer has a problem for standing in the way of him getting where he wants to go.

Conversely, wise people are characterized by a different set of motivations and practices:

  • Humility and attentive consideration of another’s need.
  • Moral purity and being set apart for Christian service.
  • Peace and harmony, championing the common good of all. 
  • Empathy and an understanding spirit that does not retreat into judgmental criticism or attacking others – putting themselves in another’s shoes and to first understand before trying to be understood. 
  • Submissive to the truth with a teachable spirit and deliberately implement necessary changes to their lives. 
  • Merciful, seeking compassion in action. 
  • Impartial, steady and consistent, with a predictable godly character. Adverse road conditions and selfish drivers do not throw them off. 
  • Sincere, genuine, and vulnerable with a willingness to face their own dark shadows and have no ulterior motives.

God cares as much about why we do what we do and how we go about it, as he does the actual action and its end result. God desires true wisdom, not false wisdom. In diagnosing false wisdom, there is jealous bitter envy and plain old selfishness. The source of the problem is the devil. And if the problem goes unchecked and no lifestyle changes are made, the body will breakdown into disorder and evil destructive behavior.

In diagnosing true wisdom, there is evidence of good deeds done from a good heart devoted to God. The source of the good actions is humility. This results in the good spiritual health of righteousness (right relationships with both God and others) and peace (harmonious relations with both God and others).

Second diagnostic question:  What causes fights and quarrels among you?

After examination, the problem comes from certain desires that act like a disease.  The presenting symptoms are verbal battles and animosities. The cause is “desire” or “pleasure” (Greek: ἡδονῶν) from which we get our English word “hedonism.” 

Hedonism is the belief and practice that pleasure is the chief good in life. It is a consuming passion to satisfy personal wants, and the willingness to do whatever it takes to obtain those wants. The cause of all the in-fighting was hedonism. Certain people wanted what they wanted, and they would do whatever it took to get it.

Hedonism twists our perspective. It skews our judgment. Hedonism calls 911 from the drive through at McDonalds when they run out of chicken nuggets (true story!). Hedonism is a cancer in the Body of Christ. It makes small things big and big things small. Hedonistic desires will do anything it takes to gain satisfaction. A passage in the Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis has the Senior Devil giving his understudy, Wormwood, some advice: 

“Never forget that when we are dealing with any pleasure in its healthy and normal and satisfying form, we are, in a sense, on the Enemy’s [God’s] ground.  I know we have won many a soul through pleasure.  All the same, it is God’s invention, not ours.  He made the desires; all our research so far has not enabled us to produce one.  All we can do is to encourage the humans to take the pleasures which our Enemy has produced and get them to go after them in ways in which He has forbidden.  An ever increasing craving for an ever diminishing pleasure is the formula.”

C.S. Lewis, Screwtape Letters

There is an alternative to the no-holds-bar pursuit of hedonism: You do not have because you do not ask God…. And even then, if still holding onto the hedonistic stance through prayer, there will be no answer because of asking with wrong motives. 

Prayer as a cloak for seeking hedonistic pleasure is nothing but spiritual adultery; it is talking to God with a spiritual mistress on the side to meet the needs that God does not seem to care about.

Third diagnostic question:  What does God want?

God wants prayer from a humble heart that seeks to engage the real enemy. Our fight is with our own pride, not with each other. If we have good and godly desires for prayer but find that we do not seek God as we ought; and come to the Scriptures discovering there is a sickness in our soul; then, the prescription is humble submission to God, resistance to evil ways, and drawing near to God.

God wants people to turn from the pride of radical independence and clandestine desires to openly and humbly seeking divine help.

The Apostle James was not trying to be a killjoy when he said to grieve, mourn, and wail; and to change your joy to gloom. He was speaking directly toward the propensity for people to slide into hedonistic attitudes and practices. He was directly accessing the Beatitudes of our Lord Jesus.  Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of God.  Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted. 

In other words, true joy and happiness comes through humility. When we realize our great need for God and humbly approach as a spiritual beggar, cut to the heart over our own hedonistic pleasure-seeking, as well as all the filth existing around us, then we discover the prayer that God longs to hear.

God’s prescription for us is:

  • Learn and rely on divine promises in daily life.
  • Do the work of peacemaking and expect a harvest of righteousness.
  • Be humble and let grace and lift us up.
  • Put significant effort into resisting the devil so that he will flee from us.
  • Draw near to God; God will come near to you.

So, let us maintain our therapy appointments for developing humility. Let us admit our wrongs and ask for forgiveness. Let go of bitter envy and selfish ambition. Obey the Scriptures. Bank on God’s promises. For in doing so, we will discover the life that is truly life.

O Lamb of God, by both your example and teaching you instructed us to be meek and humble. Give us grace so that in every thought, word, and deed, we will imitate your meekness and humility. Put to death in us all pride. Keep us from falling prey to the many temptations in our path. Teach us your ways and show us how to clothe ourselves in godly humility. Thank you for your Word and help us to see the beautiful truth about humility. Do the good work of making us more and more like your Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Psalm 138 – The Lord Will Defend the Humble

I give thanks to you with all my heart, Lord.
    I sing your praise before all other gods.
I bow toward your holy temple
    and thank your name
    for your loyal love and faithfulness
        because you have made your name and word
        greater than everything else.
On the day I cried out, you answered me.
    You encouraged me with inner strength.

Let all the earth’s rulers give thanks to you, Lord,
    when they hear what you say.
Let them sing about the Lord’s ways
    because the Lord’s glory is so great!
Even though the Lord is high,
    he can still see the lowly,
    but God keeps his distance from the arrogant.

Whenever I am in deep trouble,
    you make me live again;
    you send your power against my enemies’ wrath;
    you save me with your strong hand.
The Lord will do all this for my sake.

Your faithful love lasts forever, Lord!
    Don’t let go of what your hands
    have made.
(Common English Bible)

“God opposes everyone
   who is proud,
but is kind to everyone
    who is humble.”

James 4:6, CEV

God Cares

God consistently cares for lowly and humble folk. The Lord continually draws near to them. God bends down to meet them at their level. Conversely, the Lord hangs out on the margins of proud and arrogant people. God stands straight up and looks down from afar on such persons. They will experience divine distance, mostly because their attitudes and actions put the stiff arm toward God.

One of the most frustrating experiences in life is to have someone in power arrogantly misjudge you. Rather than carefully listening and offering gracious attention, the proud already assume they know what’s going on and what is best. So, like a bull about to enter a china shop, or a timebomb ready to explode, human hubris of the heart violates and blows up another’s life based upon misinformation and faulty egotistic assumptions.

God Sees

Yet, God sees. From a lofty place, clearly observing all creaturely activity, the Lord knows what is truly happening. And God is not okay with injustice perpetrated by cocky and pretentious autocrats. Everyone will experience God’s power. It’s just a matter of what type of power one receives.

Saving and encouraging power will sustain and uphold the humble of heart. However, the power of God’s wrath is the lot of puffed up peacocks who only care about getting their way. Their own puny power will be eventually stripped away and given to those who will wield it with grace.

The difference between the proud and the lowly is evidenced by their prayers. Megalomaniacs are concerned for material acquisitions, high positions, and fame. And their prayers reflect those ambitions. The meek, however, pray for increased spiritual strength to withstand trouble; enlarged hearts to hold more of God; and acceptance of whatever the Lord wants, whether it is for personal good or ill.

God Knows

The haughty might do many things which are good. It’s possible for them to achieve greatness through outstanding work and incredible feats. Yet, God knows the real score. Jesus said:

“Not everyone who calls me Lord will enter God’s kingdom. The only people who will enter are those who do what my Father in heaven wants. On that last Day many will call me Lord. They will say, ‘Lord, Lord, by the power of your name we spoke for God. And by your name we forced out demons and did many miracles.’ Then I will tell those people clearly, ‘Get away from me, you people who do wrong. I never knew you.’” (Matthew 7:21-23, ERV)

Self-absorbed people enjoy their own presence and narcissistically believe everyone else should, too. Yet, ordinary people, being attentive to the common good of all persons, rely on the presence and protection of God for everyone and everything.

God Helps

Whereas the vainglorious person trusts in their own ability to achieve accomplishments and hold power so that they can smugly boast about their superiority, on the contrary, the meek are content to labor for the Lord in relative obscurity, to try and use their skills and aptitude for the benefit of their fellow humanity. God holds them tightly and securely, but not so with the egotistical. They will fall because they were never in God’s hand to begin with.

If the humble are weak, that’s okay. Because God is strong. If they are in trouble, no problem. The Lord has their back. They can let go, knowing there is a God who doesn’t. And that is the irony to the spiritual life – that in releasing and relinquishing we gain and acquire. We shall be vindicated by God from the wicked. For the Lord’s steadfast love will have the day.

Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are terribly sorry, and we humbly repent. For the sake of your Son, Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us so that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name. Amen.