Husband. Dad to 5. Student Ministry Pastor. Follower of Jesus. Yatta yatta.


Continuing in my promised weekly posts on ethics, here’s my latest internal wrestling match:


Which is more important that you do the right thing or that believe the right thing? Is it more important to be moral or to act moral?

On the one hand we could argue that God sees our motives and judges us for them first and foremost. This is how Samuel was instructed to pick David out of a family line up. He was told to look at the hidden issue of motive, not the physical stature or accomplishments of the individual in question. (1 Sam 16:7) Many use this classic text to reinforce the idea that what God cares about most, is our motivation. In the case of a lie with Rahab for example- it’s not what she said, but why she said it (truth or lie) that really matters. On the flip side, in the case of the Pharisees, their obedience was good, but their motivation was bad and thus Jesus condemned their actions as useless and empty. In the world I’m currently studying, this is called “virtue ethics”; which is the idea that being comes before doing and that if you do the right thing, but for the wrong motives, it’s fake and doesn’t count.

However, we quickly find ourselves in a classic question of, “Which comes first, the chicken or the egg.” This argument is somewhat cyclical. For every person that says that right motives produce right actions, there’s someone else who will say that right actions formed the right motive in the first place. So which do we do? Is God more concerned that I am good in my actions, or in my motives? Should I do the right thing, even if it’s hypocritical to my hearts intentions?

For example: A while back my neighbor’s pipes exploded and flooded their entire downstairs. I came home and was expecting to sit down and relax. Instead, I found someone across the street in a minor/major catastrophe. No one’s life was in danger, but it was surely jacked up and they needed extra hands. So then, should I serve people and help my neighbor clean up the water spill, even if I’m tired and don’t feel like it? Should I go over instead and say, “I could help, but I’d be a hypocrite before God, because I don’t want to?” Or perhaps I should say that I won’t help you because I know I’d really only being doing it to make myself feel good and think that God is happier with me in my works based theology, therefore I’m not going to help instead. Does that seem right?

If I say yes, I should do the right thing, regardless of my motivations, then what I’m really saying is that God is more concerned with my actions, than my motives and that he actually rewards or uses my good done with wrong motives. Or at the very least, I’m saying that God rewards my good done with wrong motives beyond my evil done in accordance with my selfish motives. Like all of a sudden, good becomes an issue of the lesser of two evils and that I should at least do good, even if I’m not going to be good on a motivational level.

I guess this leads me in the direction of the real deeper question for me of, “Can these two issues be so clearly separated in the first place?” Can I really divide up my life into a clear motive on one side and an action on the other or is my life a muddy mess of motives and actions. Sometimes they line up, either evil for evil or good for good, but most of the time it’s not that clear for me. In this case, perhaps the spiritual pursuit of loving God is not to clean up one side of this coin in service of the other, but instead to see both my hands and my heart become fully devoted to God.

Some days that means that my hands will lead my heart. I’ll help tie a shoe for my kid when I’d rather sit on my butt and read, because it will form my heart to be more selfless and less ugly. I think this is what led Abraham to be willing to sacrifice his son Isaac. Surely his actions were primarily leading him in what resulted in a more fully devoted heart to God.

Other times I think my heart will be right and my hands will be tired. Jesus said that sometimes, the heart is willing but the flesh is weak. Perhaps he was driving at the reality, that sometimes our heart must move our hands to act when my flesh is in rebellion. Maybe this is how lust and laziness and greed are conquered; by the overthrowing of the actions of my godless habits through the motive of my God-oriented soul.

I read this quote this week that made me think. It’s by a guy named William Frankena who said, “Principles without traits are impotent and traits without principles are blind”.

I like that quote. It seems to sum it up this little dichotomy nicely. As a Jesus follower, if I claim to love God and do nothing to show it, I deceive myself. However if I do good and don’t love God, I deceive others into thinking I’m really good, when in reality I’m just faking it. And the truth is, most of the time, both are true of me. I’m a muddy mess of heart and hands that sometimes work as a team and other times are at war inside me.

Maybe someday both my doing and my being will be one. In the mean time. I’ll keep letting them duke it out in the hopes that the result might move me to more consistently and fully honor my God.


  1. Dude, great thoughts. The reality of motives is that they’re probably never 100% good or bad. That’s the reality of the human condition. And there is definitely a time for action to flow out of commitment when the motive at that time may not match up with what should be done.

  2. In a sermon I heard years ago, the speaker said there will be times when it may be necessary to simply, “Act your way into a feeling.” Not a bad idea, and one that has on many occassions helped me make the right choice, even when the rest of me was shouting, “I just don’t feel like it.” Your sister 🙂

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