Students of either Church or Medieval history might recall the captivating story of Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury from 1162-1170. Having served as Chancellor for King Henry II (a role he excels at by helping the king consolidate power from the church), the crown appoints Becket to the role of Archbishop. No doubt the monarch expected Becket the Archbishop to operate in a manner similar to Becket the Chancellor, and subject both himself and the church to the king’s authority.
As Archbishop, however, Thomas proved loyal to the Church. He resisted all efforts by the king to curb ecclesiastical power and submit to the sovereign, insisting instead on a substantive separation of church and state. Not surprisingly, this infuriated Henry II and led to a serious fracture in their relationship, eventually resulting in the Archbishop fleeing to France in late 1164.
A fragile compromise eventually allowed Becket to return from exile six years later and resume his residence in Canterbury. But the tension between the crown and the cloth exploded on his return when Becket refused to reinstate three bishops excommunicated for their support of the king. On learning of this, the king erupted in anger and unleashed a vindictive diatribe that inspired four of his knights to find and assassinate Becket.
In his celebrated work, Murder in the Cathedral, Nobel Prize Laureate T.S. Elliot recounts this assassination. In his drama the writer describes four temptations that challenge Becket, each offering something of value in exchange for his willful disobedience of the Lord. The confrontation mirrors Satan’s temptation of Christ following forty days in the desert.
The last temptation encourages the Archbishop to pursue martyrdom, for which he will receive glory and admiration. While recognizing that outcome likely awaits him, Becket also understands an intentional pursuit of that ending to his life would be improper. So he rejects that final temptation, declaring: “The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason.” With that statement, Elliot’s ecclesiastical character captures one of the great truths of Scripture: motivations matter.
God emphasizes this point through His prophet, Zechariah. Following their return to Jerusalem, the post-exilic Jews tired of fasting and mourning, and sought God’s release from those duties. They sent a delegation of men to the house of God “to seek the Lord’s favor” and “ask this question of the prophets and the priests … ‘Should we continue to mourn and fast each summer on the anniversary of the Temple’s destruction, as we have done for so many years?’” (Zechariah 7:2-3, NLT). They had hoped these emissaries might secure permission from the Lord to discontinue these religious practices.
Rather than respond directly to their petition, God poses a question: “Say to all the people of the land, and to the priests: ‘When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh months during those seventy years, did you really fast for Me – for Me?’” (Zechariah 7:5, NKJV). The Lord cuts to the heart of the issue: for whom did they complete those activities? His concern went beyond their ritualistic performance of religious rites. He wanted their focus on Him. He desired a properly motivated people who displayed the right heart.
Instead, the Israelites fulfilled God’s requirements begrudgingly – their hearts were not in it. They exhibited no joy of the Lord and no passion for Him. It was strictly (religious) business for them. God reveals their improper motivation when He rhetorically asks: “When you eat and when you drink, do you not eat and drink for yourselves?” (Zechariah 7:6, NKJV). As soon as they finished their religious duties they resumed living for themselves. They had no interest in pursuing God and His ways in all areas of their lives.
I wonder how many of us fall into a similar routine? Like the Israelites, we compartmentalize our lives in such a way to avoid giving God complete control. We perform whatever religious acts we believe He requires of us and then go about the business of living for ourselves.
But this approach to faith rarely leads to lives of joy, peace, and fulfillment. Instead, like the Israelites, we find ourselves complaining about God’s standards and expectations, insisting they are overly onerous and too restrictive. We decline to follow Jesus down difficult paths and only embrace His words when they are convenient.
Take a moment to consider your motivations for each activity you perform for the Lord. Do you really perform them for God’s glory or do you instead harbor a selfish motivation? Motivations are especially important for those serving in a leadership role or position of authority within the church.
Listen as the Lord poses to you a similar question to the one He raised with the people of Judah:
> Do you really sing in the choir for Me – for Me?
> Do you really serve at the homeless shelter for Me – for Me?
> Do you really participate in a weekly Bible study for Me – for Me?
> Do you really attend church services for Me – for Me?
> Do you really help with the children’s ministry for Me – for Me?
> Do you really minister to prison inmates for Me – for Me?
> Do you really tithe for Me – for Me?
> Are you really taking that mission trip for Me – for Me?
> Are your prayers really for Me – for Me?
Our motivation matters in everything we do. Our most sacrificial acts are of little consequence if performed to draw glory to ourselves. Our acts of service have no eternal value if done to burnish our reputations within the church and the community. Our worship, prayers, and praise are impotent if offered out of obligation or to appear religious.
So how do we know whether the manifestations of our faith spring from pure or impure motivations? First, consider your attitude. Do you perform acts of service, worship, and ministry with a spirit of joy or out of begrudging obligation? Proper motivations genuinely produce appropriate attitudes in serving God and others.
Second, do you seek recognition and the approval of others when living out your faith? Do you gravitate to acts of service, worship, and ministry that are largely in public view? Those with improper or impure motives often pursue roles and activities in the church that provide them a platform of prominence and that call attention to themselves. While corporate worship and service is important, it should never overshadow the time we spend alone with God, praising, worshipping, and giving Him glory. Does your private time with God pale in comparison to your public demonstrations of faith?
As you go through the week, reflect on your motivations. Ask the Lord to reveal any actions done with an impure heart. Ensure your faith produces spiritual fruit, celebrates Jesus, and testifies of His greatness, rather than draws credit to yourself and pursues recognition from others. Remember: The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason.