The trashcan was full of CDs, and I was convinced it was for the best.
It was a small act, really, but one that was significant to this music-loving gal. A year or so after I became a Christian at twenty-three, I had thrown all of my CDs in the trash. I would have a fresh start and begin a new collection—one filled only with Christian music. After all, I was motivated by my love for and devotion to God. Having made my decision, I made sure others knew about my brave act of obedience so I would receive their approval.
The specifics of the trashed collection are forgotten now, I just knew that it felt more holy to throw them all away than to keep them. But was that action really motivated by a love for Jesus? No. I was more concerned about looking Christian than I was about being motivated by the gospel.
A music clean-out could certainly be a wise and God-honoring decision, but the motivation for such an action is vitally important. A friend once told me about a man who gave up baseball and then became legalistically transfixed on the idea that baseball was wrong—even to the point of becoming angry when someone invited him to a game. I guess we all have our things we do—things we believe will make God pleased with us.
Let’s step back and recognize that the right motivations are essential for living consistently—that is, with our actions in step with our beliefs. When actions flow out of a heart that’s motivated by the right reasons, we experience joy, freedom, gratitude, and peace. This is possible only if our motivations are rooted in Christ. It’s also hard but incredibly freeing.
I had been motivated to look Christian, so throwing away all that music felt like the right decision to make, like what a good Christian ought to do. But my motivation didn’t come out of a desire to guard against the temptation to indulge in the world; that music wasn’t leading me to think sinful thoughts. So instead of joy, freedom, gratitude, and peace, I found guilt and dissatisfaction because of a desire to please others. I lacked the peace of knowing I was secure and loved in Christ.
JESUS’ OBEDIENCE AND OURS
Any time we discuss running our race with endurance, it’s good to make sure we’re thinking rightly about our obedience and Jesus’ obedience on our behalf. Jesus endured for the joy set before him (Heb 12:2)! His endurance was focused on joy.
Thankfully we have a Savior who relates to our suffering. Jesus is aware of and acquainted with the grief of humanity. He is acquainted with my grief and yours. The God-man endured trials and temptation but remained without sin (Heb 4:15). He was abandoned by his friends. He was a man of sorrows. He endured to the bitter end because he too was in a race. He was on a mission: the redemption of the world! The joy set before him was that he would be seated at the right hand of the Father. Death was defeated! So Jesus knows what it’s like to endure; he understands what you experienced yesterday, what you will experience today, and what you will experience tomorrow.
On his way to the cross, Jesus sat and prayed to his Father, asking that if it was God’s will, the cup of wrath would be taken away. Yet Jesus willingly drank that cup, and he hung on the cross. And in his final moments on the cross, he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mk 15:34).
His pain and suffering was for a purpose: the redemption of the world. He endured great pain—pain I can only imagine, pain and wrath on my behalf. But he knew the end. And his endurance through pain and mocking—a death fit for a criminal, not a savior—was all because he was fulfilling a plan formed before the foundation of the world. And now we know that “we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven” (Heb 8:1).
HAVING RIGHT MOTIVATIONS
As Christians, you and I want God’s truth to inform how we think and how we live. We pray for the alignment of what is true, what we believe, what we think, and how we act. As we seek to live this out, we fight an important battle for the right motivations, and we resist wrong motivations. It’s easy for our motivations to shift, so it’s essential to root ourselves in the truth of the gospel continually: Christ sought you and me out while we were still sinners, and he humbled himself to take the punishment we deserve in order to give us new life to the glory of God. Jesus defeated death and promises to finish the work he began in us. This truth is the foundation of right motivations.
Your heart motivations matter because our God isn’t fooled by outward appearance and actions. Running with the wrong motivations also leaves us depleted and wanting to give up this race. He desires our obedience both externally and internally—in action and in thought. This is why Jesus warned the Pharisees that to look beautiful on the outside meant nothing if inside they were full of death, uncleanliness, and impurity (Mt 23:27). There’s freedom, joy, and praise to our God in living with the right motivations. As we look into our motivations, you and I need to recognize that we live a difficult tension as Christians: we are saved by grace and are compelled to put off the old self and walk in a way worthy of our calling.
What I was struggling with regarding CDs has a name: legalism. At its most basic, legalism is trying to save one’s self. It’s trying to do right things without believing that God justifies us by faith alone. It’s trying to obey without God’s help, without his power, and without his grace. Although legalism can look like trusting in God because of good works, it’s actually a form of unbelief because we aren’t resting in faith in the finished work of Jesus.
When we’re motivated to work hard for God in order to earn his favor, we aren’t operating with faith or trust. Instead we’re trying to add to the finished work of Jesus on the cross. We’re living as though his work isn’t enough so we must strive to make him happy—as though our acceptance by God depends on our efforts.
Because we’re justified through faith alone as a gift from God, you and I are freed from attempting to earn God’s love and favor. Our salvation isn’t—and never will be—a result of our works (Eph 2:8). There’s nothing we could ever do to earn God’s saving favor. No amount of sacrifice could earn us anything more. If you are in Christ, you have his favor—forever!
My temptation into legalism was motivated by selfish ambition. I was taking my works and showing them off to God. Look, God! I threw out all my CDs for you. This thought seems ridiculous now that it’s written out. That’s why Ephesians 2:9 is so important; salvation is “not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” We don’t finish the race and then boast in ourselves. That’s what makes salvation a gift: it’s free and unearned by us. So salvation isn’t ultimately about you and me but about God. God does the work, and he receives the glory. A legalist wants to do the work, earn the favor, and get the glory.
It’s probably apparent already that this isn’t a good motivation because it’s skewed and tainted by sin. Instead of pursuing good things out of the joy and knowledge of the firm standing and identity I have in Christ, my motivation was marked by insecurity, by selfishness, by mistrust, guilt, and doubt. We want to watch that our running toward Jesus isn’t more about us and less about him.
I got this good advice from a pastor: “If you’re struggling with legalism, don’t fight it by quitting your Bible-reading time.” In other words, if we aren’t living out of the right motivations, there can be a temptation to jettison good things (such as Bible reading, acts of love, or evangelism) because we think they are part of the problem. Examining our motivations is a good thing; we need to be mindful about what’s behind our actions. But in this process it’s easy for confusion to set in.
In the midst of this confusion, look what has been revealed to us through God’s Word:
God has given us all we need for godliness (2 Pet 1:3).
There is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus (Rom 8:1).
Our obedience to God comes out of our love for him (Jn 14:15).
If we struggle with legalism, somewhere in our pursuit of godliness we forget that only by God’s grace can we live for him. God is the one who has granted us “all things that pertain to life and godliness” (2 Pet 1:3). In turn, his love motivates us. It is the fuel we need.
Taken from Sacred Endurance by Trillia Newbell. Copyright (c) 2019 by Trillia Newbell. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com