We Judge Motives All the Time

Attributing sinful motives to a man today will quickly bring the response, "We can't know the heart. We must not act as though we can read people's minds." or something of that sort. But it's almost always when somebody is offended that he says this, just like people only say, "Judge not lest ye be judged!" when they are offended. The second quote is trotted out when you confront a man about his sinful actions, but it is the first quote I'm interested in. That one is used when you confront a man about his sinful motives. So let's answer the burning question. Is he right? Should we or should we not judge motives? 

Indeed we must, and it is quite obvious when we look at the qualifications of an elder. Here is the first part of the passage:

"An overseer, then, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not addicted to wine or pugnacious, but gentle, peaceable, free from the love of money." (1 Timothy 3:2-3)

Notice the last one, "free from the love of money." It's interesting in this context primarily because it is talking about a heart-issue. In other words, the only way to evaluate a man on this criteria is to make a judgement about his heart. You have to look at his actions, and then make a decision about his motives, based on those actions. You can't simply look at whether he is wealthy or poor. Either way, he could be a lover of money. You can't simply ask him if he loves money. You must make a judgement about his heart. If you refuse to make a judgement about motives, you will inevitably have an elder who is not qualified because he loves money, and this will be destructive to the church.

As a matter of fact, judging motives is always going on. If an unknown man walks into your church and starts hanging out and talking to a group of girls outside, you better be judging his motives. Not just judging, but then acting on your judgment of his motives is absolutely necessary. Now, if he gets all in a tizzy, offended that you would suggest he might have impure motives, what do you do? Do you just let him go back to hanging out with the Jr. High girls? No. You tell him that it doesn't really matter what his motives are, he is not to be hanging around them, and that the next time he is seen doing so, he will be escorted off the premises immediately. And you probably warn the girls about him, too.

Even John MacArthur has been known to judge motives. At one point he spoke of a particular Bible translation as "distinguished by its deference to the feminist movement," and said that the translators "changed the Word of God to make it compatible with the contemporary feminist egalitarian movement." This is judging motives. As soon as you say why somebody did something, or what they were trying to accomplish, you are judging their motives. MacArthur is saying they are motived by their desire to please men. So why exactly is it ok for MacArthur to definitively judge the motives of the translators?

After all, the translator is going to respond with something that sounds rather familiar. It goes like this: "I already explained why we did this. My motive was actually to spread the word of God more broadly, to remove unnecessary stumbling blocks, and to make the Bible more clear to today's readers. Why don't you give me the benefit of the doubt as your Christian brother? Don't you have any charity? Besides, you really shouldn't try to assign motives. You don't know my heart. I do."

And that sounds very convincing doesn't it? You're the only one who knows your motives. Everyone else just has to take your word for it that your motives are good. But do you know your own heart? Actually, no. You don't. How do we know? Two verses address this directly.

"Every man’s way is right in his own eyes, But the LORD weighs the hearts." (Proverbs 21:2)

“The heart is more deceitful than all else And is desperately sick; Who can understand it? “I, the LORD, search the heart, I test the mind, Even to give to each man according to his ways, According to the results of his deeds." (Jeremiah 17:9-10)

It is true that God is the one who searches our hearts ultimately, and He is the one who will judge us in the end. But it is also true that he ties our deeds directly to our hearts. There isn't a conflict between our actions and our heart, even if we ourselves are deceived into thinking there is. Sometimes our actions will appear good while our heart motives will be rotten, but never will our heart be pure and produce bad fruit. If there is a warning in Scripture against judging motives, it is that we need to be careful not to quickly praise somebody, assuming their motives are good. This is what we see in 1 Corinthians 4.

"3 But to me it is a very small thing that I may be examined by you, or by any human court; in fact, I do not even examine myself. 4 For I am conscious of nothing against myself, yet I am not by this acquitted; but the one who examines me is the Lord. 5 Therefore do not go on passing judgment before the time, but wait until the Lord comes who will both bring to light the things hidden in the darkness and disclose the motives of men’s hearts; and then each man’s praise will come to him from God. 6 Now these things, brethren, I have figuratively applied to myself and Apollos for your sakes, so that in us you may learn not to exceed what is written, so that no one of you will become arrogant in behalf of one against the other." 1 Corinthians 4:3-6

Discerning and judging men's motives is necessary. We do it all the time. The only question is whether we will do it with discernment or if we will simply say, "I know that looks bad, but he couldn't have bad motives. After all, I know him. He's a good man." That is the environment child molesters seek out. That is the cover they use to hide their deeds of darkness.


>>> never will our heart be

>>> never will our heart be pure and produce bad fruit

Joseph, on your Dad's blog I saw your question, something like "So people can't do bad things from good motives?" And here it looks like you got your answer, but I wonder how you got to it. If I do something for somebody that I think will be good for them and I was mistaken, does that mean my motives were bad? That doesn't seem right.

Or maybe trying and failing is different than bad fruit? I think there's something I'm not understanding.

Excellent question

Excellent question, Daniel. We are obviously not omniscient. We can't know everything. I had this exact conversation with somebody in college. He did not believe in the total depravity of man or original sin. He thought it was possible for men (and in particular himself) to do things without sinful motives. I was trying to convince him that he was wrong. In the end, he felt like I was claiming that he had to be omniscient in order to be able to avoid doing things that could have bad outcomes.

But the whole point is not that we need to be omniscient. It is that we need to be very wary of our motives, since we know that we are depraved. How many times have you determined to do something that you felt would be beneficial to yourself, only realizing later that you were actually deceiving yourself to set yourself up to pursue sin? This can even include things like saying, "I'm going to go spend time reading the Bible now." The reality is that you could be using supposedly "holy" motives simply to avoid doing the work in your home that the Bible requires. Will reading the Bible produce good fruit in that circumstance? No. It's actually the very producing of bad fruit, in that case.

Similarly, we often think we know what would be good for somebody and we tell them what to do. But did we seek the Lord's will in prayer? Are we trusting in our own wisdom? Have we spent the last 4 months avoiding finding out what's going on in their life so that we are culpably ignorant of what is actually necessary?

As fallen men, bad motives are everywhere in us. Does that help?

In Christ,