Have you ever tried to parse your own motivations? It’s not a task for the faint of heart. Calculating how much of any given deed is motivated by virtue and how much is motivated by vice is enough to drive even the staunchest Pharisee crazy. No spiritual x-ray machine has sufficient power to penetrate the layers of self-deception that callous each and every human heart. Shakespeare said that “the web of our life is a mingled yarn, good and ill together” (William Shakespeare, All’s Well that End’s Well, IV.3). Luther said that a Christian (yes, a Christian) is, at the same time, “…holy and profane. An enemy of God and a child of God” (Martin Luther, Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians, Chapter 3 v. 3). Jeremiah put it like this: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer 17:9)
It’s tough to argue with this diagnosis, and experience bears it out.
Recently I moved my family across the country from the east coast, where I’d been pastoring a church. The midwest is home, and for us, it always will be. The more Facebook posts we saw of family get-togethers and cousins hanging out, the more we longed to be there too. So, after much deliberation, we made the big decision, loaded the U-Haul, and left New Jersey in the rearview mirror.
Our initial goal had been to spend five years on the east coast before re-evaluating. We only made it four and a half. And that irked me. We’d set a goal and failed to attain it. Five years was a reasonable enough time frame, right? Couldn’t we power through a few more months? After all, we’re not talking about decades here. Plus, our family is still young, so we have plenty of time to spend with extended family. I was overwhelmed by a sense of guilt over the decision—and it soon started battering me from another direction as well: Wasn’t it selfish (one might even say idolatrous) to be motivated primarily by a desire to be closer to family? After all, the reason we’d be making this decision is that we want to maximize our own comfort and minimize the pain of being separated from loved ones. So, aren’t we prioritizing earthly security over the gospel? Isn’t that what cross-carrying and self-denial are supposed to be about (Matt 16:24-25)? Didn’t Jesus say that our identities as sons and daughters of God supersede our identities as sons and daughters of our earthly parents (Luke 9:61-62)? Aren’t we called to drop our nets (Matt 4:20), leave the dead to bury their own dead (Luke 9:60), forgo creature comforts (Luke 9:58), sacrifice the oxen (1 Kings 19:21), burn the yokes, and follow after him? Aren’t we letting loyalty to family trump loyalty to God?
Yet just as quickly, I realized something else. Even if we decided to stick it out, part of my motivation would have been pride. I had something to prove—to myself, God, and others. I had to know that I was a success and not a failure, and that meant attaining the five-year goal I’d set out to accomplish. True, the congregation may have been blessed by our continued ministry, but our reason for staying wouldn’t have been purely altruistic.
As I was considering this dilemma, the shocking truth hit me like a ton of bricks: There was no pure, “sinless” option! Whichever decision we made, both were polluted by mixed motives. If we stayed, it would be to help the church (a good thing) AND to stroke my own spiritual ego (a bad thing). And if we left, it would be to give our daughter the gift of growing up with cousins and grandparents (a wonderful thing) AND to maximize our own comfort (a selfish thing). So what do you do when the decision isn’t between virtue and vice but rather between two sin-stained options? Luther had a pretty good answer for that: “Sin boldly.”
An abundant supply of ink has been spilled over this phrase (most of it stemming from a misunderstanding of the original context). Luther’s intent is not to encourage us to sin. His response to such an accusation would parallel that of the Apostle Paul when he was accused of the same thing (Rom 6:2): By no means! His point is simply that, for those living in a world held captive by the evil one (2 Tim 2:26), sin is an ever-present reality that must be reckoned with.
When it comes to big life decisions, there is rarely a pure, “sinless” path to take. Only when we’re ready to accept the impossibility of human perfection can we move beyond the paralyzing myth that we are capable of anything good apart from Christ. In these sorts of situations, we can “sin boldly” because God forgives boldly, indiscriminately casting our sin “as far as the east is from the west” (Ps 103:12), without regard to nature, magnitude, or motivation of any of them. Instead, on account of the life and death of his Son—none of our actions (good or bad) factor into his decision to save. It’s not about how perfect our decisions are, but about God’s perfect decision to save us before the foundation of the world (Eph 1:4). The real question isn’t whether we’re good or bad. The real question is whether or not we’re in Christ.
Whatever percentage of our impulses are praiseworthy or shameful in any given situation, God’s motivation never fluctuates. His action is always driven by his selfless, unconditional love for you, and his forgiveness does not depend on the purity of your motives. It only depends on the purity of Jesus’ motives on your behalf, and he is the “good shepherd,” ever-willing to lay down his life for the sheep (John 10:11).
In the final analysis, the only word left for God to parse is Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. His motives are not mixed. In him, there is no vice, only virtue. In him, there is no bad, only good. And in him, we are set utterly, unequivocally, and forever free from parsing.