Is Why We Do Something More Important than What We Do?

I have been having a great discussion off the blog with my good friend, Kevin Ueckert, who pastors in Abilene. With his permission, I am putting the contents of our discussion up on this post so that you can jump in on it as well. It all started with the ending comments on my post about legalism as pride:

God’s words to Samuel as he looked for Israel’s new king are instructive to us as we reflect on the issue of legalism:

1 Samuel 16:7, “But the LORD said to Samuel, ‘Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.’”

God is more concerned with why we do things than what we do. I firmly believe that legalism is a sign of a deeper heart issue—pride. As we allow God to transform our heart, it will free us from the bondage of legalism.

Here is Kevin’s initial set of questions to me:

I read your blog today. Thanks for the post. I didn’t want to publicly comment but I do have a question – Why are you so sure that God is more concerned with why than what? I understand you point in the blog, I believe but are you certain that you can defend that God is more concerned with why than He is with what? Just posing a question for thought.

My response to Kevin’s first set of questions:

Kevin, Thanks for the question. Maybe I didn’t get this point across in the blog, but what I was trying to say was that why we do things is more important that what we do. The reason that is the case is because right motives should result in right actions. I was not trying to say that if our heart is right, then it doesn’t matter what we do, and I was not trying to say that what we do is not important. Instead, I am saying that motives are a bigger issue than morals because motives shape morals. When you take right motives and combine it with right knowledge then it will overflow in right action. Let me know if that helps or if you have any other questions.

Kevin presses the issue with a few more inquiries:

I am going to ask another question or two to push the issue a little farther. If the desired end result is the right action, then are the right actions more important, or at least as important as the right motive? Where does Scripture emphasize that right motives are more important that right actions? I could ask that question another way – Does Scripture at any place teach that right actions are as important or more important that motives? Motives are essential to creating the right actions, but are motives really more important?

I engage in some scriptural examples and explanations to deal with Kevin’s questions:

Kevin, I’m glad you are pressing me further–I am always up for that. Here are some thoughts:

The main point I am making is that right motives are more important than right actions because right actions flow from right motives. I want to focus in on three motives described in the new testament that are pivotal for shaping right action.

First, one of the key motives that scripture emphasizes is the idea that we should do all to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31). Therefore, the first motive for what we do is to glorify God in all things.
Second, Romans 8:28-29 teaches that God is doing all things for our good and that that good is to conform us to the image of Christ. Therefore, the second motive for what we do is to become more like Christ through all things.
Third, Romans 14:23 teaches that “whatever is not from faith is sin”. Therefore, the third motive for what we do is to respond to God in faith and dependence.

You can’t have right actions unless you have right motives. Even ‘right’ actions for the wrong reasons are not right. Take preaching for example. Preaching is a ‘right’ action, but it can be done for the wrong motives when it is not by faith to the glory of God to make yourself and others more like Christ. Can God still work through preaching for the wrong motives? Yes, Paul affirms this in Philippians 1:15-18. God can work through the preaching of His word, regardless of the motives of the preacher. But the ‘right’ action of preaching is only ‘right’ for the preacher when he does it with right motives.

God desires mercy, not sacrifice. He desires the broken, contrite spirit. He desires right motives because when they are combined with right knowledge will overflow in right actions. In no way am I suggesting that right actions are unimportant. All I am saying is that they can’t be truly right unless we have right motives. Therefore, the motives are more important.

I’ll look forward to hearing any thoughts you have.

Kevin comes back with some thoughtful comments and questions:

Is it possible to have the right motives and the wrong actions? In other words, do the right motives necessarily lead to the right actions?

God desires obedience not sacrifice – I Sam. 15:21. Could it be said of Saul that he had acceptable motives in I Sam 13 but the wrong actions? Maybe not.

I am still not convinced that right motives are more important that right actions. Did Paul have the right motives when persecuting the church? I am not sure but He was seeking to honor God.

Certainly Cornelius had the right motives in worshipping God but that was not good enough. He had to be right. Isn’t that why Peter went to tell him about Jesus.

I am not totally disagreeing with you or anything and I am not a legalist in denial. I just really can’t embrace motives being more important that actions. I would be fine with – motives are as important as actions. In Scripture does God say more about actions or motives? Don’t actions reveal motives? By what will we be judged? Deeds or heart? I say deeds and so do many Scriptures. I recognize that motives are attached to our deeds and our hearts determine a great deal about our deeds (from the heart the mouth speaks) but Scripture seems to emphasize deeds, works, actions much more than motives (we will give an account for every word spoken – deed). What do you think?

I am just continuing to push the thoughts. Thanks for interacting with me on this. I am having some fun.

My response to Kevin:

Kev, good thoughts. I think we are ultimately driving the same place but taking different routes to get there and using different terms.

There are two prerequisites to right action–right motives and right knowledge. You can’t have right action without both being present. It’s almost like a math equation…right motives + right knowledge = right action.

Therefore, to answer your question–no, right motives don’t necessarily lead to right action. So, in the case of Saul persecuting the church and Cornelius worshipping God, they didn’t have right action. Why? not because their motives were wrong but because their knowledge was wrong. Though they were attempting to honor God, they were unable to do it because they didn’t know how to do it. Or maybe more accurately…how they thought they could do it was not correct.

The reason I am saying right motives are more important than right action is because you can’t have right action without right motives.
Does God judge actions? Are we going to be judged by our deeds? Yes and Yes. But, as you alluded to, those things are revealers of the deeper heart issue.

You are right in recognizing that scripture speaks more of actions than motives. i think there is a good reason for that–motives are much more difficult to assess than actions and attempting to judge them can often be arbitrary and subjective. But the beautiful thing about the way God has orchestrated the world is that action reveals motives. So, in a sense, when you speak to the action, you are speaking to the motives underlying the action.

In no way am I saying that right action is unimportant. All I am saying is that right motives are more important because you can’t have right action without right motives. Do you think you can have right action without right motives? If so, then how? If not, then does that mean motives are more important?

I also enjoy this. Part of me thinks this would be fun to put in the comments section of my original post so that others can read the thoughts and get in on the dialogue. Would you be up for that?

Kevin’s final round of questions and comments:

I am good with putting it up for the public. Whatever you want to do is great with me.

All right – here we go. I agree that we are driving to the same place.

Right actions can occur without the right motives. How? Which comes first the right motive or the right action? I think the right actions can at time precede the right motive. God loves a cheerful giver, but what if I am not cheerful? Should I still give? Can I still give because it is right and find in giving the joy and cheer needed to become a cheerful giver? God tells us not to lust. The motives of my heart in not lusting may simply be to flee temptation and avoid the disaster of that sin (I think there is a better motive). But in fleeing I may find, instead of the motive of just avoiding disaster, I may find the joyful presence of God and be motivated toward fleeing temptation with the right motive. Here is the deal – do all our right actions really flow from the right motives? Are we so sure of our hearts? Perhaps there are just as many times that the obedience to do the right actions with a heart that is not completely right will lead to a right heart. What about in evangelism? Can I share my faith because I know I should – a less than perfect motive – and find the joy of seeing salvation receiving the blessing of a better motive? Should I not act if I don’t have the right motive? Or should I act knowing that the right action is obedience to God and the right heart is something God can change?

Like I said, I would be fine with right motives are just as important as right actions. God tells us that those who do not have the right actions will not inherit the kingdom of God. I cannot come to the place of making actions secondary to motives. I think they are both primary and even interchangeable in precedence. Just thinking along with you – thanks. Can I use your logic – right actions are more important than right motives because you can’t have the right motives without the right actions? And if so, wouldn’t it stand to reason that right actions are as important to the Lord and in our lives as right motives?


One thought on “Is Why We Do Something More Important than What We Do?

  1. Phillip –

    Great discussions and good insights to be gleaned from both points.

    My thought still is that the pharisees had outwoard manifestations of holiness, yet lacked an intimate connection to the King of Kings, they were not regenerate.

    They looked good on the outside, yet the inside of the cup was dirty.

    In the same way, I think what Phillip is trying to say is that our outward manifestations of good works MUST stem from the inner transforming work of the Spirit of God within us.

    As a quick personal testimony, for many years of being discipled in aggressive Christianity, I would manifest outward signs of “holiness” (which at the time to me meant sinlessness, now I think it means nearness to Christ) but on the inside I was far from clean. I could “play the game” but I had ugliness on the inside.

    I think this same vein of thought exists in much of evangelicalism, and I think it is hurting us. Thanks be to God for walking me and many of my friends out of the trap of legalism.


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