Rankin File

Ruminations, fulminations, and cogitations on the spiritual life

The Problem of Mixed Motives

I’ve been talking to people lately about a roadblock that I think I see in spiritual growth.  It looks like a two-step process: (1) “get” (understand) the principle and then (2) “apply” it, which means to incorporate it into our, attitudes and practices, to make it part of who we are.  Knowledge and application are both critical.  But there’s something missing.

I’ve also been thinking and writing a lot about emotions, lately, and I’m caught in a paradox.  On the one hand, I think we insufficiently understand the role and power of emotional tonality for spiritual maturity, because we have a much impoverished vocabulary.  We tend to reduce emotions to talk about “how we feel” about something.  On the other hand, when it comes to Christian doctrine, we tend to avoid feelings, because we’ve been taught that emotions actually muck up understanding.

Consider the connection between emotions, desires and motives and let’s try a little scenario.  I desire to grow spiritually in some way, let’s say, in prayer.  (Desire: I want a more intimate relationship with God.)  I can read a book, hear a teaching and gain a new understanding of the practice.  OK, so I’ve done step 1.  I understand better.  Now, I’m supposed to “apply” what I’ve “learned.”

(Hint: merely understanding a concept is not yet learning.)

Actually, when I start trying to “apply” the new “knowledge,” I discover that it’s really harder than it first seemed.  Prayer takes time.  And focus.  And persistence.   Persistence requires a degree of courage.  Notice the emotional tonality?

But I am busy.  I can’t get that song out of my head when I’m trying to pray.  I’m distracted by work projects and a million other thoughts.  I’m tempted to give up (discouragement – more emotional tonality).  And now comes the problem of mixed motive.  (1) I want to learn to pray fruitfully, effectually.  (2) I’m not inclined to demonstrate the persistence that fruitful praying takes.  So, (1) I desire to pray and (2) I desire not to go through the time-consuming process to get at the goal.

Actually, in reflection, I discover that I want the benefits of prayer (peace, confidence that I know God’s will, other benefits), especially as the book on prayer describes them.  It sounded so good there!  But prayer is interacting with God.  Well, I do want to interact with God, but on my terms, in my time frame, under my own schedule and with the envisioned benefits, as I’ve already mentioned.  When I discover that they don’t come that way, my desire for intimacy with God is tested.

And – dare I speak for God!? – God is more interested in my growing to maturity than in meeting my deadlines or other criteria for receiving the benefit of prayer.  And when I begin to realize this point, I’m challenged with awareness of my mixed motives.  I do want to pray and grow in intimacy with God.  I also want it to occur according to my designs.  What happens when the motives clash?

To grow spiritually, we need to think about and recognize mixed motives.  Where do your mixed motives reside?

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July 26, 2010 - Posted by | Biblical Preaching/Teaching, Christian Spirituality, Religion | , , , , ,

2 Comments »

  1. Very thought provoking post, Steve. I wonder if there isn’t a similar problem in our approach to worship?

    I suspect there isn’t a pastor alive who hasn’t heard someone say “I just don’t get anything out of church,” or a similar comment. We have somehow cultivated a consumer attitude to worship, as thought the purpose of worship is to give those who attend it a particular “feeling,” or emotional reaction.

    Some want the excitement, the adrenaline rush; some seek a sense of centered peace and calm. I wonder how often any of us really considers what God wants out of our worship?

    And if we don’t ask that question, who is primarily for – God, or us?

    Comment by Todd Scranton | July 26, 2010 | Reply

    • Yes, I think I connect your comment to the “obsessed” side of my thoughts about how we refer to emotions. If we don’t feel something from worship, we think something is wrong with the worship, rather than taking the opportunity to reflect about worship’s purpose as setting the tone for my feelings.

      Comment by steverankin | July 26, 2010 | Reply


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