I’m not sure I’ve ever done a truly selfless thing in my life. I’ve served in Haiti, helped the homeless, visited the sick, taken out the trash without being asked, and yes, even helped a little old lady cross the street. (I’m not 100% I’ve done that last one- but you get the idea.)
I find that every time I attempt to make some significant stride for God, I’m conflicted. There’s a part of me wanting to serve because I want to see great things done for God. But, there’s another part wanting to serve because it’ll make me feel better about myself. I find the greater the good and the bigger my dreams, the more explicit my selfishness is. In every attempt to do good, my own selfishness grows like Pinocchio’s nose when he told a lie.
I’ve been married for 10 years now, and I often wonder if I’ve ever done anything truly selfless for my wife. Yes, I may clean the kitchen or do laundry without being asked, but there’s always a personal payoff. I’ll either feel better about myself, or I know it’ll make my wife feel more loving towards me which in turn will make me feel better about our relationship. I can trace anything I do for my wife back to how it will help me in the long run.
These aren’t the most fun things to realize about myself, but, I don’t believe I’m alone. I sometimes wonder if it’s possible for any person to perform a truly selfless act? Austrian Psychiatrist Sigmund Freud developed the theory of the Pleasure Principle which states that people do things which increase pleasure and avoid pain. Modern Behavioral Psychology developed this idea even further by explaining that all repeated behavior has a certain “payoff”. We tend to increase activity with a positive “payoff” and decrease activity with a negative “payoff”. To put it plainly, if we don’t “get something in return” for what we do- we don’t do it. We repeat behaviors that make us feel better about ourselves. The question is, as a follower of Jesus, how should we respond to these discoveries of our “complicated” motivations for doing anything?
We need Romans 7
In Romans chapter 7, it seems like the Apostle Paul is wrestling through these same questions. He says, “So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me.”(Rom. 7:21-23) We need to read these verses to remind us it’s normal to have complicated motivations waging war within us. We’re not especially messed up or more sinful than the next person. Complicated motivations are a part of our core DNA.
God is not Surprised
We’re not surprised when puppies chew shoes and babies throw food on the floor. In the same way, God is not surprised by our motivations. Psalm 103 says, “As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.” Sometimes we feel like Dr. Jeckyll and sometimes we act like Mr. Hyde. But, the good news is God loves Dr. Jeckyll as much as Mr. Hyde and he’s surprised by neither. As long as we live in this broken world and in these decaying bodies, we’re going to experience our duel, and often competing, motivations for doing anything.
Acknowledge and Submit Your Motivations to God
In no way does this mean we should accept or give in to our more selfish nature and motivations. On the contrary, they’re a constant reminder of our need for Jesus in our lives. Every time our selfish self raises to life like Frankenstein’s monster, we should be honest and submit those thoughts and motivations to God. We can ask Him to purify our heart, then do the good we know we should do, offering it to God as a gift.
Stick Figures for God
My 3 sons will often bring home works of art from school, some of which they make just for my wife and I. Just this past week, our son Caleb brought home a Thanksgiving card he made for us. He was so proud to show us what he created. The large writing and stick figure drawings mean more to my wife and I than any painting we could buy from a store. We know our son did his best to create something special for his mom and dad. It’s the same with God. Our best efforts at doing good may look like my 7 year old’s Thanksgiving card. But, as God sees our heart and knows we gave our best, we can rest assured he’s going to love it.
I’m so thankful that God knows how we are made and accepts our best efforts, no matter how elementary they may actually be, as wonderful gifts from his sons and daughters.