A member of the church asked the preacher, “If I skip church does that mean I’m going to go to hell?” The preacher responded, “Skipping church might not be a reason for going to hell, but the reason you skipped church could be.” What he is saying is that your reason for doing something might be the difference between right and wrong, even more so than the action itself. Essentially, it’s the thought that counts.
Under the old law the people were required to offer sacrifices and observe ritual washings and feasts. Over time these rituals lost their meaning for many, and became mere rites to be observed, not the response of a righteous heart to God. In the prophets we see God condemning His people for their hardness of heart. Our God is a God of compassion, a God who loves the poor, the lowly and the downcast.
Isaiah 1:11, 17,
“To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices to Me?”
Says the Lord.
“I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams
And the fat of fed cattle.
I do not delight in the blood of bulls,
Or of lambs or goats.
Learn to do good;
Rebuke the oppressor;
Defend the fatherless,
Plead for the widow.
This is also the context of the well known verse in Hosea 6:6 that is repeated twice in the book of Matthew. “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” The people were doing the right things, but their hearts were far from God.
Jesus dealt with this problem in Matthew extensively. In chapter 6 we see Him rebuking those who do the right things for the wrong reasons. For example, doing charitable deeds or praying in public for the praise of men. In this case, those people have already received their reward in the praise they sought (verse 2). They cannot expect anything from God. In contrast, those who do their righteous deeds in secret will be rewarded by God.
Again in Matthew 23, Jesus rebuked the Pharisees because, “All their works they do to be seen by men.” (verse 5). They had checked off all of their boxes for the required religious rites, but had neglected the more important things like justice, mercy and faith (verse 23). They were doing the right things . . . for the wrong reasons. Rather than obedience from a broken and contrite heart, these individuals were obeying for personal reasons.
Psalm 51:17 says, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart– These, O God, You will not despise.” The Pharisees made sure they looked good on the outside, but inside they were motivated by self interests rather than a desire to serve God with a broken and contrite heart.
Do we do this sometimes? Do we simply go through the motions without putting our hearts in order first? I would like to challenge each of us to honestly consider our hearts and our motives for the things we do.
Consider some Bible examples. In Joshua 2 we read the story of Rahab, a harlot who lied to her own countrymen to save the lives of the Israelite spies. James 2:25 tells us that she was justified by her works. God condemns liars, yet He blessed Rahab for her lie. Why was that? Because her motivation was for righteousness. She saved the lives of the spies and assisted the people of God in their fight to conquer Canaan.
Now look at Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5. They also lied, but unlike Rahab the motivation for their lie was personal gain, while still maintaining an appearance of righteousness. Rather than being justified in their works, they received judgment from the One who knows our hearts, and were buried that very day.
These two examples are people who lied. The only difference between them was their motivation; their hearts. When we make our choices based upon an honest desire to be pleasing to God, we will be far more likely to make the right decision. It is when we are led by our personal desires that we fall into the trap that caught Ananias and Sapphira.
Now that’s not to say that as long as we are sincere it’s all good, and we can do whatever we want. When Uzzah reached out to steady the ark upon the cart (2 Samuel 6). I’m sure his intentions were great, but the consequences were the same. We still ultimately bear the burden of responsibility for our actions.
What I do want to emphasize here, however, is the idea that we need to be sure to reflect upon our motivations behind our actions, and honestly consider if our intentions are to bring God glory or to fulfill some personal desires. If we were to do this regularly and with the broken and contrite heart that God wants from us, I think we could avoid many of the pitfalls plaguing the church today.
Consider some of the issues that cause conflict in the brotherhood; women serving in the service, homosexuality, marriage-divorce-remarriage, introduction of instruments in the worship service and many more. Why do people want to introduce things that have no biblical authority or might even be clearly condemned? I think it often comes down to what the individual wants over what God has commanded.
Let’s focus on putting our hearts in order and placing God as our priority. If we are always looking to bring Him glory and honor Him in our lives, we will be less likely to fall into the trap of serving ourselves. Sometimes we will realize that we’ve been lying to ourselves and need to make changes in our lives. It is humbling to realize we’ve been worshiping the god of self rather than the God of the universe. But it’s better to recognize the mistake and correct it than to continue living a life that is driven by self-desires rather than God-desires. And always remember, it really is the thought that counts.
By Fern Boyle
Fern Boyle is a homeschooling mom of six kids who lives in Enid, Oklahoma. Her husband, Doug, is an elder in the church of Christ at Garriott Road, and a pilot in the military, having served in both the Marine Corps and Air Force. Their time traveling from coast to coast has blessed them with friends in the church all across the country as well as many opportunities to grow as Christians. Fern enjoys running, hiking, reading and teaching ladies Bible class. She used to have other hobbies but then she had more kids. Her children are what she loves most, however, watching them grow and develop into wonderful young men and women.