Our Motives — From Vice or Virtue?

by Major James M. Humphrey III

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“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (Jer. 17:9).

“For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23).


The unregenerate man cannot believe these Bible passages. He believes he is basically good. He points to men and women who, apart from God, do good works and create beautiful works of art, literature, architecture, engineering, and science. On the other hand, he witnesses hypocrisy in the lives of many who call themselves “Christians.” And it is a fact that people who call themselves Christians have been guilty of adultery, theft, and worse while they preached just the opposite. Down through history people have been burned at the stake, untold thousands tortured and slaughtered, and all in the name of a God that is said to be loving and gracious. We must admit that the hypocrisy of many who claim to be Christians is sickening. Therefore, it is no wonder that intelligent and thoughtful people who have not seen the truth of God’s wonderful love and grace have rejected Christianity and made man a god.

Mankind was originally created in God’s image (Gen. 1:26) and so even unsaved, unregenerate man has the capacity for great intelligence and understanding. There have been many philosophers and men of science that were geniuses but that did not know our Lord as Savior. The Bible calls these unsaved, unregenerate men the “natural man,” and the natural man, no matter how intelligent, is spiri-tually dead. The Bible instructs that “…the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (I Cor. 2:14).


We as believers in the God of the Bible who have been saved by the finished work of the Lord Jesus Christ are made the Body of Christ. Christ is our Head (Eph. 1:22,23). Therefore, we can know the things of God because we have the mind of Christ (I Cor. 2:15,16). But, we must ask, how do we use the mind of Christ? The answer is that our Lord Jesus Christ, the living Word of God, manifests Himself to us by means of His written Word, that is, our Bible (John 1:1). The Apostle Paul continually prays that God will give unto us the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him and His understanding,1 that is, the mind of Christ.

Knowledge of His Word does not give us some supernatural means by which we can look into the hearts of our fellow man and determine his motive for doing things. But it does give us an understanding of ourselves as well as of human nature in general. So, in light of the Bible, let us consider the motives behind our words and actions.


To consider how God knows the heart of man, let’s look to the Bible regarding the life of David, King of Israel. He was a man after God’s own heart, but he nevertheless broke God’s law, and for that matter, any norm of morality and decency. To begin with, God chose David to be King of Israel in spite of his outward appearance. Samuel the prophet had been sent to anoint one of Jesse’s sons as Israel’s King. Samuel looked at Jesse’s son Eliab and believed he should be the anointed King.

“But the Lord said unto Samuel, Look not on his countenance, or on the height of his stature; because I have refused him: for the Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart” (I Sam. 16:7).

After God rejected Eliab, all of Jesse’s other sons, except David, were brought before Samuel and each was rejected. Without God’s direction, Jesse and Samuel would have chosen any of them before they chose David. However, God finally instructed Samuel that he should anoint David as King. We are just as Samuel in that we are unable to look into a man’s heart. The criteria by which we judge another is not the criterion used by God.

If we did not have what God’s Word teaches us about David and we only knew about what he did from history, we might have a very low opinion of him. Many non-believers express a very low opinion of David. He committed adultery and then compounded this with murder. Unsaved philosophers look at David’s actions and see hypocrisy. Here was a man chosen by God to uphold the law of God which he himself violated.

We can reasonably assume David’s motive for his adultery with Bath-sheba and the murder of her husband. But, without God’s Word there would be no way to know his motive in repentance, that is, whether David had truly repented and that his heart was right with God. We might think that possibly he was just sorry he was caught but that he was not truly sorry for what he had done. It is only from God’s Word that we know he was truly repentant, and that he had a broken and contrite heart before God (Psa. 51:16,17).2


The only Man3 to truly know the motives and hearts of men while on this earth was our Lord Jesus Christ. During His earthly ministry, He addressed the motives of men and, of course, the record of this is instructive to us. For instance, the Pharisees of Jesus’ day were the religious leaders of the Nation of Israel. They were recognized as such and were looked up to by Israelites in religious matters as well as examples of how to live.

However, the Pharisees were no different than any other human that has lived throughout history. Many appeared to do good in their actions while their motives were evil. Jesus revealed that the motives of the Pharisees were based upon vice, not virtue. Jesus called the Pharisees hypocrites. He told them they made things clean on the outside but they were full of extortion and excess within. He told them they should cleanse the inside first so the outside would be clean also. He likened them to whitened sepulchres, which appear beautiful on the outside, but were full of dead men’s bones and of all uncleanness. He said they appeared righteous unto men, but within they were full of hypocrisy and iniquity (Matt. 23:25-28). This was no laughing matter, it was not some ethics class Jesus was giving, He was serious as a heart attack. This we learn when He tells them, “Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?” (Matt. 23:33).


Now let us consider our actions and motives. The dictionary gives a definition of the word motive as “something (as a need or desire) that causes a person to act.” When most people think of motive they probably think in terms of doing something wrong. In other words, they think of the motive for crime. The motive in such cases is based on vice, which is moral depravity, corruption, it is based on wickedness. Such motive can produce evil acts. This was David’s motive when he committed adultery and murder.

On the other hand, when we witness people doing good works we naturally think of good motives. In these cases, we assume the motive is based on virtue. Virtue is conformity to a standard of right or morality. And, no doubt, many good things are done out of virtuous motives. However, what about the people that appear to do good but their motive is based on vice, such as the Pharisees? And we also ask, why do people do such terrible things and yet at the same time claim to be Christians?

Let’s think for a moment of some examples of what motivates some people. We can ask, what motivates:

  • The person aspiring to political office? Is it an altruistic wish for good government or a selfish desire for power and recognition based on ego?
  • The business or professional person who serves on a charitable board of directors? Is it to serve the community or is it to enhance the board member’s own standing in the community?
  • The man to stop and help a lovely young lady fix a flat tire? Would he stop and help a woman who is not so lovely?
  • Us to be polite and attentive to someone in a higher place of authority or a person who has a great deal more money than we do? Are we that polite to everyone or is our motive merely to curry favor with the possibility of gaining something in return?
  • People to contribute money to charities? By doing so, are some people just trying to look good and gain the respect of someone else who can do something for them?
  • Some people who go into the ministry? Although many ministers work hard under very difficult circumstances, there are some such jobs that may be the easiest and most comfortable place to earn a living.

It can be reasoned that people’s motives may be totally obscured by the fact that even the crooked, self-serving politician’s constituency can sometimes benefit from his work in office. Good work is done and people are assisted in their want and suffering even if the motive of the selfish board member may be questionable. A tire is changed for someone who could not do it for herself. Regardless of ulterior and selfish motive, charities benefit from doing and giving. Therefore, in a worldly sense, good can be done regardless of selfish, self-serving motive. However, these people’s good deeds are not enough to save them in God’s sight (Isa. 64:6).


It can be, and in many cases usually is, very difficult, if not impossible, for us to know the real motive behind the actions of people with whom we deal day by day. Their motives may be revealed in some instances, but in many cases we may never know another’s motive this side of heaven. However, we are responsible for our own motives just as we are for our actions. In fact, our motives as well as our actions will someday be made known and laid bare before our Lord Jesus Christ. There will be two different and distinct judgments of mankind. In both judgments, all can be assured that they will receive a fair hearing.

In the case of lost sinners of all ages, not only their actions, but also their motives will speak for them. Many will be those who have appeared good on the outside. They may have claimed to be Christians and may have gone to church and even talked and acted like a Christian. However, Jesus Christ taught that many will say to Him in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Thy name? And in Thy name cast out devils? And in Thy name done many wonderful works? However, at the judgment, the Lord Jesus Christ will profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity (Matt. 7:22,23). Their inward motives will be revealed and they are going to the lake of fire as a result of their rejection of Him who died to save them.

We who are saved, because of our belief in the Lord Jesus Christ and His finished work, have His assurance that we are going to heaven and will be there with our Lord and Savior for eternity. Nevertheless, the Word of God informs us that even we saved are going to appear before the Judgment Seat of Christ. We will all give account of ourselves to God. All of us will receive reward or loss for what we have done in our bodies (Rom. 14:10-12; II Cor. 5:10). The exact nature of this judgment and how it will work out in eternity is not spelled out. For if it were, mankind would make the criteria given into so many rules and regulations that these would be turned into works which would then become the focus of attention. However, we can be sure that our motives will be revealed, as well as our actions.

We know from God’s Word that we are to judge ourselves. In regard to the communion we have with our Lord Jesus Christ, the Apostle Paul reveals, “But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup. For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body” (I Cor. 11:28,29). Also, he teaches, “Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith; prove your own selves. Know ye not your own selves, how that Jesus Christ is in you, except ye be reprobates?” (II Cor. 13:5). The Greek word translated “reprobates” means unapproved; by implication worthless: castaway, rejected.

We may be able to fool ourselves and others, but we will not be able to fool our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, the living Word of God.

“For the Word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.

“Neither is there any creature that is not manifest in His sight: but all things are naked and opened unto the eyes of Him with whom we have to do” (Heb. 4:12,13).

The living Word knows all motives and He will someday bring them to light. Therefore, let us not be arrogant in our good works and outward appearance of good. Let us examine ourselves that we may reflect Him and be truly loving and gracious in our lives.

“For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men,

“Teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world;

“Looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Savior Jesus Christ;

“Who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto Himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works” (Titus 2:11-14).


  1. Ephesians 1:17-19; 3:3-5; 4:13; 5:17.
  2. Also, we must hasten to point out that David’s crimes brought terrible consequences upon him while he lived. However, the fact is that he was truly repentant and God could forgive him by virtue of the Blood of Christ that was yet to be shed; God gave him eternal life.
  3. Jesus was both God and man.