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Problems with Assigning Motive

by Sam Stinson

"For our appeal does not spring from error or impurity or any attempt to deceive, but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts" (I Thessalonians, 2:3-4).

Why does Paul elaborate his motives and intentions to the brethren in Thessalonica? Paul wanted the brethren to remember the time that Paul spent among them, how he had pure motives, not greed for financial gain but spiritual gain among them. The more they understood his motives, the more they could put on these motives for their own intentions. Let us consider three reasons why it is important we do not assume to know another's motives and are careful to use discernment.

  1. We don't know what another person is thinking. Jesus knew the thoughts of other men. (Matthew 9:4) We can't read minds. Recall what is written of God, "He who disciplines the nations, does he not rebuke? He who teaches man knowledge-- the LORD--knows the thoughts of man, that they are but a breath" (Psalm 94:10-11) Though our lives be a vapor and our thoughts be a breath, the latter are beyond our ability to discern.
  2. Assigning motives is risky behavior. We could be wrong. Even trying to read another person's body language is tricky and error-prone.
  3. Emotion, not facts, may influence what we believe to be another's motive. Our anger, envy, pride, lust, may be leading us to certain conclusions. Do we avoid drinking alcohol or using drugs so they may not influence our judgment? We do well. But, beloved, if we permit our emotions to influence our judgment in presuming the intentions of others, we are no better than the worst alcoholic or addict. Not every influence comes in a bottle.

How should we attempt to discern another's motive(s)?

  1. Ask. If we would desire that others ask about our intentions, let us lovingly ask theirs before presuming we know it. Sadly, this is not done as often as it could be. A man says, "Why should I ask them what their intentions are? They're just going to lie." This man may be correct, but it is good to extend the benefit of the doubt, especially if we would expect a little trust from others.
  2. Follow up by testing their words based on their conduct. Job's three friends spoke in general, unspecified terms about the way God punishes the guilty. Job inferred rightly that they were speaking of him in a round-about fashion. (Job 21:27) In another situation, Job may have been mistaken.
  3. Let us be lowly in our approach, remembering that God is the only one who perfectly knows the motives of our hearts. We may test the fruit, but only God may inspect the soil and the tree: "The crucible is for silver, and the furnace is for gold, and the LORD tests hearts" (Proverbs 17:3)