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?


July 26, 2010 Posted by | Biblical Preaching/Teaching, Christian Spirituality, Religion | , , , , , | 2 Comments

How Do We Cultivate Awareness?

I’ve been watching this phenomenon and participating in it myself for years, since I was a college student.  It’s the infamous “quiet time,” our evangelical colloquialism for a much-needed and advocated-for spiritual discipline.  It once was called “personal devotion” or “devotions” – that regular daily time of reading a Bible passage or verse and using some sort of devotional aid, with a little prayer thrown into the mix.

I’m astounded at the some of the crud people can buy at Christian bookstores to help them with their “quiet time.”  A few months ago on one of my browsing trips, I ran across what must be the “Christian” analogy to the “One Minute Manager” for one’s “quiet time.”  Such nonsense.  And we buy this stuff.

It’s Monday and I’m feeling a little curmudgeonly, but my mood notwithstanding, the “quiet time” needs a serious overhaul.  It’s probably some part developmental phase for college students, but the “quiet time” is promoted by pastors and campus ministers and, because we want to be good followers of Jesus, we make a game effort to include “quiet time” in our daily schedules.  My sense is that most of us fail – if not miserably – fairly consistently.  It’s time for a re-think of what “quiet time” actually aims to accomplish.

It is certainly not a mere task that I can check off my list when done for the day.  Confession: I spent many, many years treating the “quiet time” in just this way. We all know this: the point of the “quiet time” is not simply to do what good Christians do, but to spend concentrated time communing with the Triune God.

Because God is merciful and faithful and loves his children, even the truncated “quiet time” can and does have some beneficial impact.  Obviously, I don’t want anyone to quit doing their “quiet time” even if it does mean hurriedly grabbing a few minutes to go along with the cup of coffee (or Coke or Pepsi or Dr. Pepper or lattespressicino – thank you Dave Barry!) they regularly grab.  But, as is the case with much of Christian discipleship, there is much, much more blessing to be had and much more formation to undergo on the way to maturity.

Certainly, one of the major blessings of the “quiet time” is actual awareness of the actual presence of God.  We actually listen to and talk with the living God.  This practice is of the nature of a personal relationship, just like we teach all the time.  A personal relationship requires cultivating.  Our “quiet time” offers us the chance to cultivate our awareness of the actual presence of the living God.  To use Dallas Willard’s term from The Divine Conspiracy, that presence is an “engulfing” presence.  Followers of Jesus are engulfed by the Kingdom Presence.

To cultivate awareness of God’s presence takes a willing heart, time and focused persistence.  There is something mysterious about the human will on this point that calls for reflection.  Wherever that train of thought might lead, friends, we must slow down and listen.  If we want our lives to count for God’s glory; if we want to produce fruit that lasts, we must slow down and cultivate awareness of God’s presence.

If you’re a too-busy college student, but you took time to read this blog and you want to deepen your relationship with Christ, I’m begging you, slow down.  Find the time to listen, to reflect with practiced self-awareness, knowing that you’re doing so in God’s active presence.  That’s part of prayer, too.  May our “quiet time” produce the peaceful fruit of righteousness in us all.

November 16, 2009 Posted by | Christian Spirituality, Ministry, Pop Culture, Religion | , , , , | Leave a comment