July 15, 2004
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. Itís 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 itís 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 that Christ will be glorified in your weakness and not in your strength?

These are not always easy questions. Itís clear that God sometimes does call a Christian to avoid using a gift for a time. Yet I believe itís more typically because one is insecure than conceited. Someone who thinks poorly of him- or herself in general may be basing self-worth too strongly on a particular talent. He may benefit from putting his gift aside for a while, particularly if he is in a fellowship where people genuinely care about him. 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 oneís identity too strongly on a gift can be especially strong for a new believer who has brought either poor self-esteem or an inflated self-image into the Christian life. Thus, Paul declares, ďNever be in a hurry to ordain a manĒ (I Tim 5:22)--cautioning against putting a new Christian in a leadership position who hasnít developed the maturity in Christ to handle the honor involved.

Gifts and Calling

But while God sometimes does call a Christian to disregard a talent, this seems to be the exception 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:

Donít 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 preach to 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)

Paul unquestionably condemns the bloated ego in this passage: ďDonít cherish exaggerated ideas of yourself or your importance.Ē But he also discourages us from being self-deprecating or falsely humble about our talent. ďHave a sane estimate of your capabilities,Ē he urges--in other words, recognize your ability as a vital indication of Godís call upon your life. Paul doesnít 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 while after his conversion. Yet he makes the general principle clear: God wants us to pursue our areas of potential earnestly.

Paul surely recognized that Christiansí motives would sometimes be less than perfect when they use 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 weíre not careful, weíll find ourselves waiting and waiting for a certain purity of motive that will never come. In the meantime, the body of Christ and the world are deprived of the benefit of our gifts.

The Double Whammy

The self-torture we subject ourselves to in examining our motives can be insidious. Whenever God prods us do something constructive with our life, he inspires good intentions within us about the step he wants us to take. We feel compassion for those whom we hope to help, and joy over the prospects of growing and being productive.

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

Then we go a step further. We conclude that God couldnít possibly want us to take this step after all--because our motives are so rotten!

I donít doubt that this mental process--which Iíve long termed the ďdouble whammyĒ--is one of Satanís primary ways of diverting us from being effective for Christ. First he gives us selfish motives for doing what God wishes us to do. Then he convinces us not to proceed because of our motives. Itís no accident that Scripture terms him ďthe accuserĒ (Rev 12:10).

Yet the fact that weíve gone through this progression of thought doesnít 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 distort our thinking and keep us from recognizing the call of God.

Iím 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. We need to ask Christ often 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 best to go ahead and use our gifts, praying that as we move forward, God will mold our intentions as he sees best. Itís by 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 donít gain humility by disregarding a talent or developing it only superficially. Humility comes when we make a serious effort to perfect a skill, only to discover that we still have worlds to conquer. The irony is that weíre likely to feel more conceit over a gift weíve just barely developed than one into which weíve poured our life. The old adage still holds: ďA little learning is a dangerous thing.Ē

Furthermore, motives--letís face it--are a murky matter. Often it simply isnít 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 othersí approval not only is healthy but necessary for productive living. It makes us more alert to othersí needs, more concerned with helping them and communicating effectively. Itís 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 grows too extreme, as well as times when itís not strong enough. Yet often we have no way of knowing for certain whether this motive is rightly balanced. We cannot pour our motives into measuring cups and determine exactly how they portion out with each other, and itís 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 love their career, for instance, or a ministry role that they fill at their church. They fear they are not entitled to this enjoyment--that they are to strive to enjoy God alone.

Yet Scripture extols the importance of enjoying our work! A central theme of Ecclesiastes is that finding pleasure in our labor is vital to healthy living (Eccl 2:24, 3:13, 3:22, 5:18-20, 9:9-10). And a major purpose of the Old Testament festivals was to allow people to celebrate what God had enabled them to accomplish (Deut 16:15). Indeed, an important part of how we are to love God and honor him is through gratefully enjoying 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 away from God. Yet C. S. Lewis had it right when he observed that our desires get out of line not because we love things too much, but because we donít love God enough. Trying to reduce our love for an otherwise healthy attraction that has taken on too much importance is not the way to keep our affections pure. Rather, we should do what we can to increase our love for God. Thatís the best possible step toward keeping our other interests in healthy balance.

Beyond the Double Whammy

Any time we decide to devote ourselves to developing and employing a talent, we take a risk. Our ego may get too involved in the process. Our motives may prove to be less than perfect. We may become overly concerned with mastering the skill or being successful with it.

Yet usually the risk is much greater if we refrain from using our gift. Then, we deny others the benefits of our talent. We deny ourselves the joy of using it. And we deny the Lord many opportunities--both to work through us and to develop our character.

We need to ask ourselves which risk is more worth taking. In most cases, choosing to use our gift wins hands down. As a rule, we should seek to live in the center of our potential as much as possible, praying that God will give us motives honoring to Christ as we do. This approach to life will contribute most to our being effective for Christ--and focused on him as well.

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