Motives pose at least a twofold dilemma: (1) the status of a good deed done for the wrong reason or an evil deed done with good (or even without) intent; and (2) the effect of a motive (good or bad) that never has opportunity to find fulfillment. The fundamental issue prompting the dilemma is that there is not a one-to-one correspondence between a given action and the motive of its agent: the same action may be either censured or defended depending upon one's motive. For example, a difference between first- and second-degree murder resides in whether or not the homicide was intentional: the former is punishable by death, while the latter allows for clemency ( Exod 21:12-14 ; Num 35:9-25 ; Deut 19:4-13 ; Joshua 20:1-9 ). Offenses against God can become less heinous if they are accidental, as the sacrifices for accidental sins make clear ( Lev 4:1-5:19 ; Num 15:22-31 ). An individual whose actions are, or result in, evil becomes less reprehensible when it is discovered that the person did not intend that consequence. This principle is apparent when Jesus does not want his executors condemned because their motives are not commensurate with the great crime they are committing: "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing" ( Luke 23:34 ; cf. Acts 3:17 ). Good motives can prompt people to actions that have unfortunate results ( Matt 13:28-30 ), a legal principle that has become the basis of much Western law: actus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea ("The act itself does not make one a criminal unless done with criminal intent").
In the same way, otherwise acceptable deeds become less attractive, even repulsive, when base motives are behind them. Prayer, giving to the poor, and fasting are activities encouraged throughout the Bible, but Jesus underscores that God will not reward those who do them for selfish reasons ( Matt 6:1-18 ). The ritual associated with the temple (sacrifices, prayer, holy days) was a legitimate expression of piety for the ancient Israelites, yet the prophets insisted that God was disgusted with the whole enterprise when the people did it without humility and repentance ( Isa 1:11-15 ; 29:13 ; 58:3-7 ; Amos 4:4-5 ; 5:21-24 ). The most powerful symbols of spiritual identification (circumcision, baptism) can be undermined by one who submits to them but is not inwardly changed ( Jer 9:25-26 ; Matt 3:7-8 ; Rom 2:25-29 ; 1 Peter 3:21 ).
Since there is no one-to-one correspondence between deeds and motives, one must be extremely cautious in deducing others' motives merely from observing their actions. Jesus rebukes the disciples for jumping to inappropriate conclusions about people and their deeds after observing only their actions ( Matt 26:6-13 ). After all, a little given sacrificially is more commendable than giving much where no sacrifice is involved ( Mark 12:41-44 ). It is this difficulty in discerning motives that lies behind the extensive warnings against judging others ( Matt 7:1 ; Luke 6:37 ; Rom 14:1-15:14 ; 1 Cor 4:5 ; James 4:12 ). Good motives may result in conflicting actions: some early Christians did not, while others did, eat a special diet; some believers did not, while others did, observe certain days as sacred. In each case, it is the motive that makes these otherwise neutral actions acceptable: if one is seeking to please God (i.e., not other people or oneself), then the individual is exonerated ( Rom 14:1-14 ; 1 Cor 10:31 ; Col 3:17 ). Sometimes Paul would recommend circumcision and sometimes he would be adamantly opposed, positions that he took for different reasons that varied with circumstances ( Acts 16:3 ; 1 Cor 7:18-20 ; Gal 2:3 ; 5:6 ; 6:15 ), ultimately seeking to please God by his faithfulness in spreading the gospel ( 1 Cor 9:20-23 ; 10:31-33 ). Since individuals cannot reliably judge others' motives, we have no recourse in human affairs but to "know a tree by its fruit" ( Matt 7:15-20 ; 12:33 ; Luke 6:43-45 ) even while recognizing the limitations of not being able to see another's heart. Therefore, one should be concerned about one's own actions in order not to give others wrong impressions that might mislead ( Matt 17:24-27 ; 1 Cor 10:23-33 ; 2 Cor 8:21 ).
Since there is not a one-to-one correspondence between motives and deeds among humans, it becomes even more precarious to try to deduce God's motives based upon God's actions: "My thoughts are not your thoughts As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my thoughts than your thoughts" ( Isa 55:8-9 ). Ignoring this distinction is the mistake Job's friends made in supposing that God afflicted Job because Job must be a sinner, or the error the disciples made in assuming a blind man was afflicted because of sin. In each case, the text underscores that humans typically underestimate God's options and motives ( Job 42:7-9 ; John 9:1-3 ).
Unlike humans, God clearly sees both the actions and the intents of human beings, a fact that means God has a considerably different evaluation of our deeds, one that is based upon our motives: "God knows your hearts. What is highly valued among men is detestable in God's sight" ( Luke 16:15 ; cf. 1 Sam 16:7 ; Psalm 7:9 ; Jer 11:20 ). At times the Bible seems to speak of God responding to people primarily or only on the basis of their motives, but in other places the Bible seems to depict God judging on the basis of their deeds alone. It is by a careful balancing of both deeds and motives that God judges humans and consequently rewards or punishes them ( 1 Kings 8:39 ; Jer 17:10 ; Rom 2:2-16 ; 1 Cor 3:8-4:4 ; Eph 6:5-8 ; Col 3:22-25 ; Rev 2:23 ). How God sorts out motives and deeds is not discussed and is by definition beyond human scrutiny. The matter is further complicated by the fact that what individuals intend by their actions is not always achieved, and, conversely, every action results in unintended consequences (both good and evil). God's habit of transforming the evil motives of humans into good results suggests that God is mercifully sympathetic with the human condition: "You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good in order to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives" ( Gen 50:20 ; cf. Acts 2:23-24 ).
God's careful scrutiny of motives ("searching the heart") indicates that motives and intentions never resulting in action are still judged by God. Jesus notes that it is the "pure in heart" who will be rewarded ( Matt 5:8 ; 22:37-38 ; Mark 7:20-21 ), even as he equates anger with murder and lust with adultery ( Matthew 5:21-22 Matthew 5:28 ). This corresponds to the climax of the Ten Commandments, which, unlike the preceding forbidden actions, prohibits an attitude: "You shall not covet" ( Exod 20:17 ). A sin of omission becomes reprehensible for "anyone who knows the good he ought to do and doesn't do it" ( James 4:17 ).
Although prosperity and success are mentioned in the Bible in order to motivate behavior (e.g., Prov 10:4 ; 12:7 ; Proverbs 13:21 Proverbs 13:25 ; 21:20-22 ), eudaemonism is not an accurate synthesis of the Bible's stance on motives, for suffering is everywhere depicted as an appropriate consequence of ethical behavior. The utilitarian perspective that one should be motivated by the good or bad effects that result from an action, not the intrinsic good or evil of an action, finds little support in the Bible, since performing a deed for what one perceives to be a good result presumes upon the future: one cannot know for sure that the deed will have the desired effect that the motive seeks, and none can calculate all the consequences of any deed.
Samuel A. Meier
Bibliography. W. C. Kaiser, Jr., Toward Old Testament Ethics; B. Gemser, Adhuc loquitur: Collected Essays by Dr. B. Gemser; W. Eichrodt, Theology of the Old Testament.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Motives'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".