May 1, 1997

The Motive Trap
Don't Let It Keep You
From Using Your
Gifts for Christ!
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God has given you the ability to do something well. It's an area of talent where you can express your personality, find creative fulfillment and be of service to others. It may be a technical ability; or a talent for music, art or drama. Perhaps it's a skill in working with people--a heart for counseling, pastoring or helping those who are destitute. It may be an ability in science or medicine; or the mentality for business; or a gift for working with your hands in carpentry, sculpture or embroidery; or a skill in preparing food. You may have a gift for communicating--through teaching or writing. Perhaps you are gifted in some other area, or have a unique blend of different talents.

Now, as a Christian, you face a dilemma: while using your gift will help others, it will also draw attention to yourself. Will this attention be spiritually unhealthy for you? Will it cause you to think more highly of yourself than you ought to think? And will it cause others to honor you above Christ? Is it best just to refrain from using your gift altogether--to avoid any ego problems, and so Christ will be glorified in your weakness and not in your strength?

These are not always easy questions. It is clear that God sometimes calls a Christian to disregard a gift for a time. I suspect it is more typically because a person is insecure than conceited. Someone who thinks poorly of herself in general may be basing her self-worth too strongly on a particular talent. She may benefit from putting her gift aside for a while, particularly if she is in a fellowship where people genuinely care about her. Finding that others love her and appreciate her, whether or not she is using her gift, will be a big boost to her morale and confidence in Christ.

The tendency to stake one's identity too strongly on a gift can be especially strong for a new believer who has brought an imbalanced self-concept into the Christian life. Thus, Paul declares, "Never be in a hurry to ordain a man" (I Tim 5:22)--cautioning against putting a new Christian in a position of honor who hasn't developed the maturity in Christ to handle it.

Gifts and Calling

But while God sometimes does call a Christian to disregard a gift, this seems to be the exceptional situation in the normal Christian life. The overwhelming emphasis in biblical teaching is upon using our gifts and employing them in service to Christ. Very little is said about the occasional situation where God may ask us to hold back. Rather, we are told in strong language in various places to get about the business of using the gifts God has given us, and to give our full attention to developing them.

Paul minces no words in Romans 12:3-8, for instance:

"Don’t cherish exaggerated ideas of yourself or your importance, but try to have a sane estimate of your capabilities by the light of faith that God has given to you all. . . . Through the grace of God we have different gifts. If our gift is preaching, let us preachto the limit of our vision. If it is serving others, let us concentrate on our service; if it is teaching let us give all we have to our teaching; and if our gift be the stimulating of the faith of others let us set ourselves to it. Let the man who is called to give, give freely; let the man who wields authority think of his responsibilities; and let the man who feels sympathy for his fellows act cheerfully." (Phillips Translation)
In this passage Paul certainly condemns the bloated ego: "Don’t cherish exaggerated ideas of yourself or your importance." But he also discourages the sort of false humility and self-deprecation we too easily fall into regarding our gifts. "Have a sane estimate of your capabilities," Paul urges--in other words, recognize them as part of God’s call upon your life. Paul doesn’t rule out the special situation where God might want us to refrain from using a gift for a time; Paul himself held back from public ministry for a period after his conversion. Yet he makes the general principle clear: God wants us to pursue our areas of potential earnestly.

Paul certainly recognized that Christians' motives would sometimes be less than perfect when they used their gifts. Yet he says nothing here about holding back on that account. Scripture never promises that perfect purity of intention can be part of our Christian experience this side of eternity. While the Bible stresses that the Spirit-filled believer has incredible resources, nowhere does it suggest that all selfishness of motive can vanish.

If we're not careful, we'll find ourselves waiting and waiting for a certain purity of motive which will never come. In the meantime the body of Christ and the world is deprived of the benefit of our gift.

The Double Whammy

The self-torture we subject ourselves to in examining our motives can be insidious. When God prods us do something productive with our life, he gives us good motives for doing so. We feel compassion for those whom we hope to help, and joy over the prospects of growing and being creative.

But almost immediately, more selfish reasons for doing what God is inspiring us to do come to mind. And we begin to dwell these less healthy intentions.

Then we go a further step. We conclude that God couldn’t possibly want us to take this direction with our life after all--because our motives are so rotten!

I don’t doubt that this mental processCwhich I’ve long termed the "double whammy"--is one of Satan’s prime ways of influencing us and diverting us from being effective for Christ. First he gives us bad motives for doing what God wants us to do. Then he convinces us not to do it because of our selfish motives. It’s no accident that Scripture terms him "the accuser" (Rev 12:10).

Yet the fact that we’ve gone through this progression of thinking doesn’t alter the fact that God has called us to take a particular step with our life in the first place. Focusing on our motives too much can blur our thinking and keep us from recognizing the call of God.

I'm certainly not suggesting that we should complacently accept selfish motives or nurture them. We should do whatever we can to keep our intentions pure and Christ-honoring. Regular time alone with Christ is so important--where we ask him to deepen our love for him and to give us the highest motives for what he has called us to do.

But to attempt to purify our motives merely by focusing on them is a dead-end street. Usually we do better to go ahead and use our gifts, praying that as we move forward, God will mold our intentions as he sees best. It's through being in motion that we give him the best opportunity to work within us--to humble us where necessary, and to encourage us where we need it as well.

Success and Humility

We should also remember a psychological truth. We don't gain humility by disregarding a gift or developing it only superficially. Humility comes when we make a serious effort to perfect a talent, only to discover that we still have worlds to conquer. The irony is that we're likely to feel more conceit over a talent we've just barely developed than one into which we've poured our life. "A litte learning is a dangerous thing."

Furthermore, motives--let's face it--are a murky matter. Often it simply isn't possible to take our spiritual temperature and determine whether our motives are good are bad. The desire for others to like us and commend what we do, for instance, is unhealthy if it becomes obsessive. But some desire for others' approval is not only healthy but necessary for productive living. It makes us more alert to others' needs, more concerned with helping them and communicating effectively. It's part of the chemistry that binds people together in relationships--the essence of people needing people.

Most of us, I suspect, have times when our need to be accepted by others becomes too extreme, as well as times when it's not strong enough. Yet often we have no way of knowing for certain whether this motive is in right balance. We cannot pour our motives into measuring cups and determine exactly how they portion out with each other, and it's futile to become too introspective about them.

The desire to enjoy our work is another motive that often confuses us. Many Christians feel guilty because they like their work and find creative satisfaction in what they do. They believe they are not entitled to this enjoyment--that they are to strive to enjoy God alone.

Yet Scripture extols the importance enjoying our work! A central theme of Ecclesiastes is that enjoying our work is vital to healthy living (Eccl 2:24, 3:13, 3:22, 5:18-20, 9:9-10). And a major purpose of festivals in the Old Testament was to give people a chance to celebrate what God had enabled them to accomplish (Deut 16:15). Indeed, part of how we are to enjoy God and honor him is through enjoying gratefully the work he has called us to do.

Yes, work--like anything--can become an idol if it consumes us to the point of stealing our affection from God. Yet C.S. Lewis said it right when he observed that our problem in life is not with loving things too much--but with not loving God enough. Trying to reduce our love for an otherwise good area of life that has become too great an attraction for us is not the way to keep our affections pure. Rather, we should do what we can to increase our love for God. That is the best step we can take toward keeping our other interests in healthy balance.

Beyond the Double Whammy

Any time we decide to devote ourselves to developing and using a talent, we take a risk. Our ego may get too involved. Our motives may be less than perfect, and we may attach too much importance to being successful with our gift.

Yet the risk is usually much greater if we refrain from using our gift. We deny others the benefits of our talent. We deny ourselves the joy of using it. And we deny the Lord a golden opportunity to work in us and through us.

We need to ask ourselves which risk is more worth taking. In most cases, using our gift wins hands down. As a rule, we should choose to live in the center of our gifts as much as possible, praying that God will give us motives honoring to Christ as we move ahead. This approach to life will most fully assure that we are being productive for Christ--and focused on him as well.

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