Breakfast Club: True Virtue and the Motivations of our Heart

What is the nature of true virtue? What makes one act good and another act bad? The obvious answer is to look at the act itself, to focus on the behavior. Was it an ethical action? Did it help or hurt someone? Did if break the golden rule?

The Bible, repeatedly, asks a different question. It not only asks “What did you do?” but “Why did you do it?” It asks the question of motivation. From a biblical perspective, the motivation for an action is as important, or even more important, than the action itself. Why?

The simple answer is that God is Holy. The Holiness of God is both his otherness (transcendence, glory, set-apartness) and his moral beauty. The Bible says, again and again, that the Holy God sees into our heart; that the Holy God examines the motivations of the heart. So from a Christian perspective, true virtue is not only in what you do but why you do it.

Jonathan Edwards on True Virtue

One of the great treatments on the nature of true virtue was by the American theologian and minister, Jonathan Edwards. In his books The Nature of True Virtue, Charity and Its Fruits, and Religious Affections he explores the nature of true virtue.

In The Nature of True Virtue he makes the case that true virtue is based on “love for being in general.” In other words, an action is truly virtuous only when it is done out of love for that being (whether it be God or another human).

Edwards explains that only the Gospel of Jesus Christ is able to change our hearts at the motivational level. The Gospel says that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son to die for our sins and bring us eternal life and joy as sons and daughters of God. When we believe the Gospel, we enter into a Son or Daughter relationship with God. We are no longer motivated out of fear (because of our guilt or shame) or out of a desire to win’s God’s approval and put him in our service (by our good deeds). Rather, we are motivated by a love for God himself.

For example, in Charity and Its Fruits he explains how the gospel of Jesus Christ creates a whole new motivational force in one’s life: “A result of ‘faith working by love’ is freedom. On this basis, obedience is called “evangelical” [i.e. “gospel-based”] – the obedience of children to a Father, done with love and delight, as opposed to legalistic, slavish, and forced. God is now chosen for his own sake; holiness is chosen for its own sake, and for God’s sake.”

Does this have any relevance to our friends, neighbors and associates who are not Christians? I think it does! Why? Because deep inside of each one of us we know that true virtue, a truly virtuous and good action, must flow from pure motivations rather than impure. Let me explain.

Impure Motivations

No one wants others motivations towards them to be impure. Consider a few examples: What wife would enjoy her husband coming home with flowers, giving them to her, and saying, “Darling, I’m doing this because it’s my duty” – or, “I’m doing this because I feel guilty and I want to appease my conscience.”  What poor person would appreciate someone who is better off serving him/her and them saying, “I’m doing this so that I can feel better about myself” – or, I’m doing this so I can be more popular as a public official”, or – “I’m doing this to win points with God.”

In short, the motivations behind and beneath our actions matter. They matter immensely!

Jonathan Edwards makes this point in Religious Affections: “No matter how many our acts of justice, generosity and devotion, there is really nothing given to God…if God is not the end [by "end" Edward's means ultimate aim] in what was given. If your aim is the gaining of reputation and love, then the gift was offered to your reputation. If your aim is the profit and comfort you will get, then the gift was offered to your profit…Indeed, in such cases the gifts are but an offering to some idol…It is true that by doing great things something is worshiped, but it is not God.”

Edwards is saying that if we are not motivated by love for God and the other person, our motivations are impure. They are selfish motivations.

Jack Miller’s Question

One of the easiest ways to discover that you are profoundly, utterly, irreparably trapped in sin, a prisoner of sin, or in classical reformed terminology “totally depraved” is to analyze the motivations of the heart.  To begin to ask yourself, “Did I do that because I loved that person or because I love myself?” “Did I do that because I love God or I want to put God in my debt?”

Pastor and Missionary Jack Miller asks an important question: “What did you do this week because you love Jesus? What did you not do this week because you love Jesus?

If you are not a Christian, ask yourself, what did I do this week because I love my wife? My children? My friends? My neighbors? Honest searching of the heart motivations will reveal that one is much more broken and depraved than one ever guessed. That may just be the beginning of experiencing a real need for the forgiving grace and love of God for you in Christ.