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The Wisdom of Motives

Is it right to consider not only whether a law was broken, but why?

I’ve been wondering about this after reading how a German court handled the ticketing of a motorist caught speeding by a traffic control camera. When the court learned why the driver had broken the speed limit, charges were waived. Instead, officials sent the driver a doll of a policeman holding a traffic camera. It mattered to someone in the system that the man was speeding to get his wife to the hospital for the birth of their first child.

Motives and the courts

The “police doll verdict” touches on an issue of law discussed by defense lawyer and author Melvin Belli. In Everybody’s Guide to the Law, he writes, “Two things must be present for a crime to be committed: an act. . . and a particular state of mind.” Belli goes on to say, “In law, it is frequently said that an act is not a crime if done without a guilty mind.”

But what is a guilty mind? Legal scholars have an ongoing debate about whether courts should weigh motive in considering guilt. Should a traffic court really be interested in why a speeding driver is breaking the law?

Motives and everyday life

Outside of court, motives are easier to consider even if they remain difficult to prove. If a wife sees red when her husband brings home yellow roses, her reaction is more likely to be about her suspicion of his motives than the color of the flowers. When large corporations give big money to a political campaign, we suspect an ulterior motive. In so many areas, we naturally look for the hidden agenda behind gifts, personal endorsements, and even good manners.

Motives and faith

Jesus talked a lot about motives. His approach, however, was to help us focus on our own hearts before going after the faults of others. Because of our inclination to do the right things for the wrong reasons, He told His disciples not to let their left hand know when their right hand was giving to the poor (Matthew 6:3-4). He also said that when they prayed they should do so in secret rather than making a self-serving public display of their spirituality (vv.6, 18).

What difference do motives make?

If we are not careful, we can do some of the best things for the worst reasons. Our purposes combine with what we believe and do to shape the character of our faith, our love, and our laughter. They fuel blind ambition and feed bitter envy. They determine whether we use the knowledge of the Bible to help others, or to control, condemn, and con them out of their money.

Bad motives can put honorable actions to shame just as good motives can turn even the most menial task into something noble.

Where do good motives come from?

The wonderful thing about good motives is that their source and story is not limited to a conscience or commandment that says, “You should, you ought, or you must.” According to Jesus and the Bible, if we love well, it is because God first loved us (1 John 4:19). If we have the right kind of faith in the darkest night, it is because our God has shown Himself to be more trustworthy than our circumstances.

But thinking about where good motives come from raises another important question.

What happens when the music stops?

This was the question Job faced. According to the Bible, he was one of the wealthiest men in the world until his reasons for serving God were challenged.

As the story unfolds, Job’s name comes up in a conversation between God and the devil. The King of heaven points to Job as an example of someone who has remained loyal to Him. Satan, however, responds by attacking Job’s motives. He argues that Job sees God as a meal ticket and says that if Job weren’t getting what he wanted, the King’s model citizen would be cursing rather than praying.

So God allows Satan to test Job’s heart. In waves of terrible misfortune, Job finds himself destitute and confused by pain and grief. Why? Why was God allowing this to happen? The harder Job tried to find answers, the more bitter and angry he became.

While much of his earlier life had been spent trying to help others (Job 29), Job now finds himself in a desperate struggle to defend his own reputation. Even his friends are accusing him of hiding the scandal they believe would explain his suffering.

Only when God intervenes does Job’s terrible ordeal come to an end (38–42). Only when God opens Job’s eyes and enables him to see the wonder and wisdom of his Creator as he has never seen Him before does Job’s cloud of despair lift. Only then does Job declare, “I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees You. Therefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (42:5-6).

Job’s motives for remaining loyal to God had been tested. His reasons for fearing God and hating evil (1:8) had been refined in the fires of loss. Now in stark nakedness of soul, he worshiped God because he had come to see that God alone deserves to be trusted in the dark night of our soul.

Thousands of years later, Job’s story is still helping us to see that, in a sense, Satan had a point. In the courts of heaven and on earth, motives count. If we are not careful, why we seek God can say more about our desires than about our confidence in His eternal power, wisdom, and honor (James 4:1-3).

And so we pray: Father in heaven, we are so inclined to be concerned about the motives of others, while overlooking our own. Search us, O God, and know our hearts; try us, and know our thoughts; and see if there is any wicked way in us, and lead us in the way everlasting (Psalm 139:23-24). —Mart De Haan

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