Getting Motivated for Our New Year’s Resolutions

            Something wondrously dramatic happened at a subway station in East Harlem last Nov. 30. A grocery clerk risked his life to save another human being. A man suffered a seizure and fell onto the tracks. With a Number 6 train fast approaching, the grocer leaped onto the tracks and lifted the unconscious man onto the platform.

            What motivated this act of self-sacrificing bravery? A burning love for humanity? A deep sense of spiritual connection with other people? When asked what led him to risk his life for another, the grocer said: “I knew that if the guy got hit, I wouldn’t make it to work for a couple of hours. And it was Sunday, and on Sunday they pay me time and a half.”

            It may disappoint us that the hero was motivated, not by love of humanity, but by salary. And yet–the guy on the platform still got saved. For him, the motivation of his rescuer really wasn’t relevant.

            We spiritual folks often fret over motivation. We never want to do “the right thing for the wrong reason”. Lutherans may worry about motives more than other Christians. After all, our great teacher, Blessed Martin Luther, talked about how we are to fulfill God’s law “with a free and merry spirit”, not out of a sense of mere duty. He said that we serve God because we are “intoxicated with His love”, and pointed out that a star shines simply because it is a star–so also, we are motivated to serve God simply because we are believers, not because of duty or fear.

            And the ideal motivation for doing good is love–love prompted by the Holy Spirit. “Love is the fulfilling of the law,” St. Paul said in Romans . (To be fair to our subway hero, there was love in his heroism–he wanted earn money to buy Christmas presents for his son).

            Yet sometimes Scripture entertains the idea that great good can come even from less than ideal motives. When Jonah preached to the Ninevites, it wasn’t because he loved them. Indeed, he despised them. But he proclaimed God’s Word to them because (a) God told him to, and (b) he didn’t want to get swallowed by a whale again. So Jonah was operating, not out of love, but a mixture of fear and duty. Yet the Ninevites still repented and were saved. St. Paul in Philippians talks about those who “proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition rather than pure motives” (1:17). But then he goes on to say: “Whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed; and in this I rejoice” (1:18). So God, it seems, can work with less than noble motives.

            A cartoon about motivation shows two departed saints standing on a cloud. One of them, a mischievous smile on his face, is leaning over the edge of the cloud with a rock in his hand. The other says to him: “You mean you lived a life of virtue and spirituality, full of good works and kindness, just so you could come up here and drop things on people?” That may be taking things a bit too far! (After all, we are not saved by good works, but by the blood of Christ). But I do think that we sometimes worry too much about motivation. I am sympathetic with Alfred Hitchcock, who once was shooting a film with a Method actor. The Method actor was trying to delve deep into his character’s psyche, and asked Hitchcock, “What’s my motivation in this scene?” Hitchcock replied dryly: “Your paycheck.”

            This is a time of year when we make New Year’s resolutions. And we also look for motivation to carry out those resolutions. The ideal motivation is Spirit-driven love, as Paul and Luther remind us. However, since we are not perfect in this life, we may sometimes have to fall back on Jonah-type motivations–like duty or fear. Let’s say we make a health based resolution, perhaps involving dieting or smoking or drinking. The best motivation for such a resolution is love. I love God, I rejoice that He has saved me in Christ, and I want to please Him by giving Him greater control of my life. That’s a wonderful motive. But when that motive falters, it’s okay to fall back on duty: I don’t feel a great rush of love, but I realize that God wants more moderation in my life, so I do it in obedience to God. And if duty falters, then I can fall back on fear: If I don’t change my habits, I may have some physical problems, so I’d better do it.

            A resolution for spiritual improvement can be similarly motivated. Let’s say I resolve to pray more or attend church more. Ideally, I will do this out of love for

God–I long to spend more time in His joyful presence. But when that motive falters, I can think about duty: God wants me to pray, God wants me to worship Him; I may not always feel like it, but I’m going to do it, because it’s the right thing to do. If even duty fails to spur me, I can think about fear–not fear of going to hell or getting “zapped”, but fear of disappointing the God who saved me in Christ.

            The one thing we should never do is think: “My motives aren’t pure, so I’m not going to do it.” If we postpone action until our motives are pure, we may never accomplish anything. Sometimes we simply need to, in the words of Larry the Cable Guy, “Git ‘er done!”

            There is a phrase from Alcoholics Anonymous that I treasure: “Fake it till you make it.” In other words: Do the right thing, even if you don’t “feel it inside”. It may sound insincere–but it’s a realistic philosophy for us imperfect people.

            I rejoice that we belong to a God whose motives are always pure, who loves us with an unfeigned, unselfish, compassionate love–the love we encounter in the cross of Christ. May His Spirit continually motivate us to serve and obey Him.

            God loves you and so do I

Vol. 82 - No. 1
January 2011


Dec 26 Sermon <------ click to listen to Sermon