Almost three decades ago, when I was a first or second-year seminary student, a retired pastor in our congregation pulled me to the side in the foyer one Sunday morning. “I have a question for you,” he said. And pointing his finger somewhat aggressively towards me, he asked, “why do you do what you do?”
I was unprepared for his query, and stammered that I didn’t understand what he was asking. “Why do you do what you do?” he repeated. I don’t remember my response, but I will never forget his: “For the love of Christ constraineth us” (2 Cor. 5:14). And then he explained that if I was going to go into vocational ministry and I was going to serve Christ in any capacity, my motive had to be a love for Christ.
In other words, my motive for what I did mattered.
There is a familiar story in the Old Testament that illustrates this very point, though it is not readily apparent at a first reading.
In Numbers 22, the nation of Israel is advancing toward the borders of Canaan, preparing to enter the land. And the surrounding nations are nervous of this large mass of people pressing against their borders, as Balak said, “Behold, a people came out of Egypt; behold, they cover the surface of the land, and they are living opposite me” (Num 22:5).
So Balak acted preemptively and sought the prophet Balaam to call down a curse on the Israelites and a blessing on Moab, Balak’s people. Wisely, Balaam essentially said, “Let me pray about it first,” and when he did so, God said, “Do not go with them; you shall not curse the people, for they are blessed” (Num 22:12). And so Balaam told them, “I can’t go with you because God has not allowed me to go with you.”
But Balak was persistent, so he sent a more impressive group of emissaries to make his request, with promises of more remuneration. In other words, money was no object; Balak was willing to pay any price to garner Balaam’s curse on Israel. And again Balaam prayed and this time God said, “If the men have come to call you, rise up and go with them; but only the word which I speak to you shall you do” (Num. 22:20).
And so the next morning, Balaam got up and went with the men of Moab. And then the next verse says, “But God was angry because he was going, and the angel of the LORD took his stand in the way as an adversary against him” (Num 22:22). From that point forward, the reader is tempted to be enamored with Balaam’s talking donkey and the Angel of the Lord that spared the life of both the donkey and Balaam. But there is a pressing question that precedes that interaction: “If God gave Balaam permission to go with Balak in verse 20, then why is He deadly angry with Balaam in verse 22 for going with Balak?” Isn’t it unjust to give permission to Balaam to do something and then want to kill him for his participating in that permitted act?
Yet there is something happening in this passage that the reader doesn’t understand until more than a millennium later when Peter penned his second letter. There, speaking of false prophets and the unrighteous of his day, he said, “having followed the way of Balaam, the son of Beor, who loved the wages of unrighteousness” (2 Pet 2:15). The false prophets in the day of Peter were akin to the false prophet Balaam, who loved money gained unrighteously.
In other words, God was not angry with Balaam for going with Balak; he was angry for the motive that Balaam had in going with Balak. Evidently when Balaam was first approached with Balak’s request, it was with regret that Balaam told Balak’s messengers that he could not go with them. It pained him to turn down the payday, but he recognized the futility of it. But then when the second request was made and God granted permission for him to go, Balaam’s thought process was something like, “This is great — I can go and I get a great payday in the process!” He had already mentally deposited that money and likely spent it on some desired objects. Though not readily apparent in the account in Numbers, what was later revealed was that Balaam was nothing more than a greedy profiteer.
And it was that yearning for money that angered the Lord. It was not enough that Balaam was doing what was right; his motive mattered. Why he did what he did was important. It was not enough to call down God’s curses on Balak and Moab and announce God’s blessings on Israel. It was essential that he offer those prophecies out of joy of serving the Lord.
His motive mattered. And as Paul told the Corinthians, our motive matters as well. It is not enough to serve the Lord. It is not enough to be obedient. It is not enough to speak the truth and be gracious and kind and benevolent. Those activities must be motivated by a love for the Lord and a desire to please Him (2 Cor. 5:9, 15). We live for Him and not ourselves.
Why we do what we do is as essential as what we do. Our motive matters.