Motives in Christian Ministry

I received the following article today from some dear friends. I knew immediately that I had to use it somehow on Possessing the Treasure. A major part of our ministries must be self-examination. We need to see if we and our ambitions are driving our ministries or if God is. We must examine our motives for everything we commit to. As you read the article below I pray that God will prick your heart as He did mine to look deep into what is driving what we do in His name. – Mike Ratliff

by Mack Tomlinson

I have often been challenged in my own heart before the Lord to check my motives in all things regarding serving Christ. Because it’s not only about what I believe and what I do in kingdom service–of paramount important is the question WHY. Why am I doing what I am doing–what are the hidden motives of my heart? Why do I do what I do and why do I say what I say?

The glory of God has been re-emphasized in recent years and rightly so. But now its almost “popular” to talk about God’s glory. It’s becoming an evangelical fad that’s very cool; its “IN” to speak much about God’s glory, reading and quoting Jonathan Edwards or John Piper about the glory of God, the supremacy of Christ, and “it being all about Him.”

These days, it’s “in” to imitate the theology of whoever happens to be the most popular current author, preacher, theologian, or conference speaker. It’s “in” to always attend the Desiring God Bethlehem conference, the Together for the Gospel conference, the True Church conference, the Bentley conference, the Arkansas conference, or the Heartcry Missions conference; it’s the cool thing to do these days because surely everyone who is anyone goes there, right? (if I’ve left out your favorite conference, then include it as well.)

Its so easy to get caught up in such conferences that preach about God and His glory. So we get used to using the lingo about the glory of Christ and tossing around all the right terms. And there right before us lies a subtle trap. It’s very possible to do those things so that others will believe we are deep, solid, and theologically accurate. The right thing begins to be driven by wrong motives. And therein lies the danger. Listen closely and consider.

I believe much of what we see in professing American evangelicalism, including all the Reformed movements and the conservative and family-oriented ministries, is driven by self-centered and man-centered motives and not by motives for God alone.

If the secrets and motives of the hearts of all were fully disclosed and could suddenly be seen, we would probably see that many are trying to steal glory from God for themselves by speak about His glory. And the stealing of His glory is due to wrong inner motives in the heart that motivate much of what is done in ministry. What do I mean? I mean simply this.

A man can preach eloquently about the true God, when ironically, what is actually motivating that man to preach about God’s glory is that he wants to be known as a man who talks greatly about God. A man can develop a preaching ministry that is very popular, well-done with excellence, which seems so sound and good, and yet he is primarily motivated by secret desires to be a popular preacher. He wants success and wants to be known. He wants a cutting-edge ministry that is growing and growing. And he steers everything toward that. When he’s driven by such motivation, he and those who work for him will be blind to it, but the discerning soul will see it because flesh always shows itself to be flesh.

A Bible teacher can teach in a very gifted way the deepest truths revealed in the Bible, and communicate them exceptionally (He’s a fabulous communicator!), but the hidden motive is the desire to be known and liked as an excellent teacher so he can build a bigger and bigger ministry. You see, its the personal reputation he’s after, and he’s using truth about God as his means to a self-centered end, all because of wrong motives.

A church can begin an orthodox ministry that is is impressive and is run very efficiently, but behind it all, the motive is to build a successful ministry empire, in order to be known as the church in town.

A church or ministry can begin and promote their annual conference as being all about God, and yet the primary motive driving the promotion, unknown to everyone except God Himself, is pride; the conference planners are wanting theirs to be known for the sake of their ministry.

A ministry being so well-tuned to give the appearance of doing everything with excellence because image and perception is everything. Wanting to impress anyone, especially donors.

One can have the finest web site available, with the most superb links and resources imaginable, yet it all be only wood, hay, and stubble because its all motivated by the flesh.

There is so much of this that is widespread, that even the least discerning believer among us often sees it clearly. It’s repulsive; and if it is repulsive to any of the Lord’s people, how much more is it material for vomit in the stomach of Jesus Christ, the One who is supposed to get all the glory?

I confess without reservation that there have been many times in the course of 35 years of Christian living and 33 years of ministry, that my motives were wrong. I am sure now my motive often was really only about me and my reputation– what people would think of my messages–if I could impress them with my knowledge–if they thought I was a praying man–if I appeared spiritual and humble. Just think of that–pride driving me to want to be known as humble–how sick and sickening.

I can remember specific times early on when I preached on something mainly because I thought it would be an impressive sermon and I thought I could make it my best one. It is very sad to have to confess it now, but I honestly did not see it at the time. That’s very sad and God is very merciful.

All too often I know that hidden pride motivated me to desire to be seen as something that I wasn’t. My only answer now in looking back on it all is that I did not see it at the time and was so ignorant and immature that I was blind to it all, and God has been infinitely merciful to me.

How could I use Christ, or His Word, or His people, or His gospel, or prayer, or His name, or messages about His glory, with motives of wanting people to think I was a real man of God? The real truth was that I was a novice, immature, carnal in areas of my life, undisciplined, and lacking stability and self-control. God knew it all along and I would feel it at times, but I sure did not want anyone else to know it.

I can look back now over 3 1/2 decades of being a Christian and a preacher, and as I survey those years, I see wood, hay, and stubble that I was often producing, simply because of some wrong motives.

– Wanting to impress

– Wanting to be a part of a particular church

– Wanting to be in a specific ministry or specific type of ministry

– Wanting to start a ministry when it would be years before I was even ready at all to be entrusted by God with any ministry

– Wanting to teach or preach

– Wanting to write a book

– Wanting to be connected somehow to well-known men

– Wanting to become something that God was not purposing for me to become

– Wanting to be something for God when I was not prepared at all to be something for God

– Wanting people to think something of me that was not reality

– Wanting people to have a better impression of me than was accurate and true

This stuff gets down to the very heart of what we are, that only God sees and knows; it is the reality of this self life and impure motives that must die because that is what wants to steal God’s glory by using God for self exaltation.

Honestly, now all such motives have become to me abominable and now cause my mind to be weary and my heart to grieve. I hate it all with a nauseous hatred.

When you begin to really think of it all, I wonder how much such self motives and self interest drives a majority of Christian work and ministry?

– The drive to begin a new ministry

– The zeal of an evangelistic ministry

– A passion for theology

– The effort to write or publish books

– The beginning of new conferences everywhere (as if we really needed more conferences)

– Even the unending publication of new translations of the Bible–Let’s name a few:

The Biker’s Rumbling Bible, The Cowboy Rough Ridin Bible, The Coach’s Game Plan Bible, The Athlete’s Bible, The Rapper’s Bible, The Seeker Friendly Bible, The Messianic/Completed Jew Bible, The Soul Winner’s Bible, The Reformation Bible, The Dispensational Bible, The Spirit-Filled Life Bible, The Soccer Mom’s Bible, The Pre-Millenial Bible, The Amillenial Bible, The Prosperity Study Bible, and the Businessman’s Success Bible.

You could name some I have left out. (As if the holy Bible itself is not enough.) It’s a wonder that someone hasn’t published The Hooker’s Bible or the Sex Addict’s Bible. Perhaps they have and I haven’t heard about it.

Want to know what motivates it all? MONEY and FINANCIAL PROFIT–pure and simple. The big evangelical publishing houses keep producing new, contemporary versions of the Bible because it’s big money. No new translation is needed at all, but money drives it all; and self motives drive the money.

But that’s another issue altogether. Personal motives are what we are talking about here.

Lately this has come to my mind consistently. Why am I doing what I do? What do I want people to think of me? What motivates my Christian service, my preaching, my reading, my witnessing or anything that I put my hand to?

Preaching- Preacher, what are the hidden motives in your heart when you stand to preach? I, for one, am sick of preachers who obviously are wanting to impress people with their sermons; the truth is, if this is their motive, no one is impressed, especially God. They already have their reward, and I promise, it’s a pretty empty one.

Conferences- Why begin another conference? Why be a conference speaker? Why attend conference after conference? What are our motives really?

Prayer- How much public praying in the presence of others is motivated by impressing others, praying to be heard by men?

New Books- Some authors produce books like a paper mill; the truth is, the publishers press them and pressure them to do another book; why? because their books will sell and the publishers want an annual amount of revenue coming in from that author. So the race is on- more books, more books, more books and the motive behind it is obvious. It’s like a big elephant being in the living room, but no one wants to talk about it. But it’s still there and everyone knows it.

Knowledge- Why am I interested in truth? Why do I want to discuss theology? Why do I blog and enter theological discussions online? Is it to appear to others as really being something and to impress them, to win the argument or appear to be the most solid one in the discussion? How edifying! I wonder what Christ feels and thinks of us if that is what is lurking in our motives?

Reading- Why do I read really? Is it for others to know that I am doing it? Is it to be able to say we have read something? Is it to be knowledgeable so we can be seen as that?

Whether it is our specific service, our desire for personal growth, doing Bible teaching, or discipling someone, why am I really doing it?

The sobering truth is this– every Christian will answer at the judgment seat of Christ for the works done in their body as a Christian. On that day, I believe false motives in service and ministry will cause us to lose any reward that might have come to us in serving Christ, meaning that every work or service that was done with impure motives will lose its reward because false motives turn good works into evil works–into wood, hay, and stubble.

God once asked Jeremiah a very specific and serious question: “Seekest thou great things for thyself–Seek them not.” If the Holy Spirit asked each of us that question, how would we answer? Would we turn from seeking great things for ourselves and confess our wrong motives if He made it clear that we were doing that?

Gone forever should be a motive to be known by men, to be a great author, to be seen as something, to have a successful ministry in the eyes of anyone, to be admired spiritually, or to be in with the best evangelical group or church.

I have to ask myself always, “If God wills for me to pastor 15 people, to never write a book, never be known or popular, never preach in another conference, never have an outward ministry, and never have any reputation at all among anyone as being anything, can I be satisfied with that? If I only have God alone and am hidden away, and am only pleasing Him, is that enough? If my church never grows and no one ever hears anything about me, is that fine with me?

Today if John Piper’s church called me and ask me to preach in their big conference (which we all know will never happen thankfully), I would honestly dread the thought of it and would decline; I would decline because I know that I don’t have the goods to speak in such a venue, and so I would decline the invitation- pure and simple. I would not accept it because I know that I probably couldn’t handle either the embarrassment of it or the compliments which likely would only be common courtesy and kindness, not because they were truly deserved.

I know that some would say that would be a wrong decision. After all, they need the truth and what an opportunity I would be passing up. What doors could that open further for me? That is exactly my point. The invitation becomes about me. So I would decline unless I had a very real assurance that it would not become about me and that it would not change me for the worse. Could I be trusted with the opportunity without it bringing pride with it? I don’t know. But I do know this- I do not have desires or motives to preach in such settings and that feels liberating. I would rather preach to fifty people who are hungry and humble than three thousand in a mixed multitude.

I am at the place now in my heart that I don’t care if I preach to two thousand people or to ten people. I don’t care. I just don’t care about any of it any more. All such desire has disappeared like a vapor. The Word of God seems to have washed it away or is truly in the process of washing it away deeply. And the main reason this is true at all is because God has graciously done this in me sovereignly. Twenty years ago, I did not see any of it.

There’s also another reason that such desires have disappeared for me– I have dabbled in some of it at a very small level and it never satisfies; partaking of it never gives that which the flesh promises it will give. Ultimately, its all temporal, unsatisfying, and empty.

It’s true– godliness with contentment really is great gain; it’s actually true. To be known by God–to be His–to want Him–to be motivated by the desire to fear and please Him only–that is life’s purpose and life’s satisfaction.

I love an old mission statement I heard back in the 1980’s: “I have no one to impress–I only have One to please.”

Motives- how big and controlling are they down inside of us? They are the biggest human issue within us that drive our Christian living and ministry. May God deal radically and deeply with us all about our motives. As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.

If God, in this short time of reading these thoughts, has convicted you about wrong motives, then stop and just begin to cry out to Him to save you from this trap; cry out to Him about it all to purify your motives and to cleanse and deliver you from all motives except Christ Himself.

Lord Jesus, I pray you would so work in each one of us, so as to remove every false and wrong motive within our hidden parts–quarry us deep–strip all false and inferior motives away, wean them from us, cause them to dissolve, set us free from them, cause them to be repulsive to us, and please replace them with one motive–Jesus Christ period.

What did Paul say? For me to live is . . . . . Christ.” Period. That’s the only motive for any of us.

“Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me and know my thoughts and see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”

24 thoughts on “Motives in Christian Ministry

  1. Mike – thank you for articulating a range of thoughts and fears I have been wrestling with in my ministry. You have clearly laid out a framework of prayer for me that is extraordinarily helpful. I desire to be totally empty and purposed for His pleasure and only for His glory. The more I desire to do this it seems that Satan and self become more prominent and pronounced in my mind causing me to constantly question and be ever in prayer for wisdom regarding His will for my life and that pride and self centered motives would be driven out. I know our fallen nature results in this battle. I am not sure how you are handling this now but I have had to give this to God and do the best I can to be responsive to the Holy Spirit. I am at the same stage in my life now where all I think about is pleasing and serving our Lord. I would be interested in your thoughts on who to keep this issue of pure motives as in check as possible while note quenching the zeal of ministry focus, relationships, etc. God has put in our hearts. Mike thank you for your transparency and insight into this extraordinary dimension of our ministry lives. Blessings David


  2. Thanks for posting this, Mike. I got a chance to meet Brother Mack at a pastor’s fellowship we had in Madison, AL last April. He preached a very convicting message on humility that touched on several of the things in this article. I, too, have been very impressed in my heart to ensure that all we’re doing down here in Anniston is truly of the Lord… without any ulterior motives. Lord bless you and your family.

    Love, jon


  3. Hi dear brother
    Hard questions requiring serious answers and soul searching.

    The thing is that we cannot look into ourselves, by ourselves and get the real answers – we know from Jeremiah 17:9-10
    9 “ The heart is deceitful above all things,
    And desperately wicked;
    Who can know it?
    10 I, the LORD, search the heart,
    I test the mind,
    Even to give every man according to his ways,
    According to the fruit of his doings.

    We need the Lord to show us and sometimes it takes us a long time to ‘get it’.

    Our cry has to be, “Please give me open ears to hear you, a soft, plough-able heart to receive your Words and a great longing for You alone.Nothing less will do.”

    If you don’t mind, I would like to share two of Oswald Chambers postings with you, in the light of your article 🙂
    May the Lord bless you

    August 17th.

    “Yet lackest thou one thing; sell all that thou hast . . and come, follow Me.” Luke 18:22

    “And when he heard this . . .” Have you ever heard the Master say a hard word? If you have not, I question whether you have heard Him say anything. Jesus Christ says a great deal that we listen to, but do not hear; when we do hear, His words are amazingly hard.

    Jesus did not seem in the least solicitous that this man should do what He told him, He made no attempt to keep him with Him. He simply said – Sell all you have, and come, follow Me. Our Lord never pleaded, He never cajoled, He never entrapped; He simply spoke the sternest words mortal ears ever listened to, and then left it alone.

    Have I ever heard Jesus say a hard word? Has He said something personally to me to which I have deliberately listened? Not something I can expound or say this and that about, but something I have heard Him say to me? This man did understand what Jesus said, he heard it and he sized up what it meant, and it broke his heart. He did not go away defiant; he went away sorrowful, thoroughly discouraged. He had come to Jesus full of the fire of earnest desire, and the word of Jesus simply froze him; instead of producing an enthusiastic devotion, it produced a heart-breaking discouragement. And Jesus did not go after him, He let him go. Our Lord knows perfectly that when once His word is heard, it will bear fruit sooner or later. The terrible thing is that some of us prevent it bearing fruit in actual life. I wonder what we will say when we do make up our minds to be devoted to Him on that particular point? One thing is certain, He will never cast anything up at us.

    August 18th.

    “And when he heard this, he was very sorrowful: for he was very rich.” Luke 18:23

    The rich young ruler went away expressionless with sorrow; he had not a word to say. He had no doubt as to what Jesus said, no debate as to what it meant, and it produced in him a sorrow that had not any words. Have you ever been there? Has God’s word come to you about something you are very rich in – temperament, personal affinity, relationships of heart and mind? Then you have often been expressionless with sorrow. The Lord will not go after you, He will not plead, but every time He meets you on that point He will simply repeat – If you mean what you say, those are the conditions.

    “Sell all that thou hast,” undress yourself morally before God of everything that might be a possession until you are a mere conscious human being, and then give God that. That is where the battle is fought – in the domain of the will before God. Are you more devoted to your idea of what Jesus wants than to Himself? If so, you are likely to hear one of His hard sayings that will produce sorrow in you. What Jesus says is hard, it is only easy when it is heard by those who have His disposition. Beware of allowing anything to soften a hard word of Jesus Christ’s.

    I can be so rich in poverty, so rich in the consciousness that I am nobody, that I shall never be a disciple of Jesus; and I can be so rich in the consciousness that I am somebody that I shall never be a disciple. Am I willing to be destitute of the sense that I am destitute? This is where discouragement comes in. Discouragement is disenchanted self-love, and self-love may be love of my devotion to Jesus.


  4. Thank you for this very convicting and thought provoking article. But I do thank God that He has used RC Sproul, John Piper, CS Lewis, etc. to bless me with a better understanding of my faith; and to point me to Christ. Was that always their only motivation? I don’t know. Probably not …because we are fallen creatures and everything we do — even with the greatest desire see God glorified — is tainted with our sinful nature. Should we not do anything until we can be sure our motive is pure? Maybe. But I think we give ourselves way too much credit to think that could ever be the case.


  5. It is an awesome breakthrough to associate with the lowly. If we ignore these two words in a big enormous Bible, then it so easy to miss Christ. When we associate with the lowly, that foolish quest to be the president, a CEO, executive officer, or high commander in every area of our life will depart from us. Jesus said that the person that is least among us is the greatest. But do we really lay it all down and trust God to give us peace in a place that the world scorns? That is the breakthrough that we must seek (not high titles to be highly esteemed among men).

    In Jesus’s day, the Scribes and Pharisees wore clothing that gave them an appearance of being quote ‘more religious than others’. They did their deeds in public to be noticed by others. It is sad that the Scribes and Pharisees did not have the capacity to genuinely care for God’s people. Under their leadership, their rulership oppressed and made a mockery of the lowly. Fortunately, a true ministry of Christ does not.


  6. When we associate with the lowly, it is easier to let go of the cares of the world. High titles which make us highly esteemed by men create what I would call fruitless comfort zones. For me, God removed my comfort zone(s) and gave me a job which many would consider undesirable or slave labor. But no so that I despise having a job that others may see themselves as too good to do my line of work. I have more peace where I am and not to mention, God is using for his purpose right where I am. I don’t have to obtain a high title to be useful in the kingdom of God. There really is true rest for the people of God when they stop going from mountain hill and accept the valley.


  7. David,

    God keeps me humble. Oh, there are times when I find myself doing what I do from the wrong motives, but God always awakens me to this before it gets out of hand. I approach ministry from a sense of obedience to Him rather than me trying to figure out what I could do to please Him. In other words, I seek His will in all that I do.

    In Christ

    Mike Ratliff


  8. You are very welcome Jon! I am so glad God is working through you there. I rejoice when I think of how God took you through your physical trial and when it looked like you were out of ministry, here comes this in Alabama. God is so good to us brother and within His sovereign will, we are always in the right place.


  9. Good to hear from you Steph. Thanks for sharing these devotions from Oswald Chambers. Sometimes God has to hurt us deeply before He can use us. I am fighting an infection from a tick bite. I wondered if I was going to die the other day at the worst of it. I am on antibiotics now and I have been wondering what God is going to work in me through this. My joints and back feel as if I had been run over by an elephant.


  10. Pingback: Motives in Christian Ministry « Faith Defenders

  11. Pingback: Motives In Christian Ministry « Girded with Truth

  12. Mike,
    I am so sorry about your tick bite. You will be feeling much better soon as the antibiotics start kicking in.
    What a wonderful article that you shared. It is good to stare it (motives) in the face, so to speak. Praise God as we repent He is faithful to forgive and cleanse us. What a hope we have in Him and not discouragement! May we pray to be shown areas in which we desire self exaltation and God will remove them in His timing. God bless you!


  13. I am sorry to hear about your tick-bite fever. It is a horrible thing to have to deal with and I know from friends who have had it here in South Africa, you can feel at times that you would be quite happy to die 🙂

    I know from my own life that nothing is ever wasted, not one thing we experience is for nothing. Because of this you can rejoice in every given situation as the Lord has it all under His control. So shrug off that elephant and sail on, and on and on and on… 😀
    Feel better soon my dear brother


  14. Two words: Celebrity Christianity. Finally, someone has touched this needed subject, but we should not spare any. It’s sickening, and a plague, devoid of the Fear of the Lord, for the praise of men, hidden under a cloak of orthodoxy. It stinks to high heaven, and those outside are more apt to see it and smell it, than those within the celebrity praising “reformed faith” and neo-Calvinism of today. Where is the Spirit of God in all this orthodoxy, that substitutes “coolness” for holiness! No wonder there is little fruit, and only a name to live by.

    If the reformed faith was genuinely endowed by the Holy Spirit by all who profess it, America would be transformed in revival already, and churches would be filled with prayers of the penitent than the so-called “praises” of modern “worship” and the new-fangled wired/walking pastors without pulpits. But where is the Awakening? Lo, “go not here, nor there”, for it is not here in these perilous times, for men are”lovers of pleasure more than lovers of God”, hence all the reformed conferences, retreats (by the celebrity leaders and apologists), who convert the legitimate means of Peter’s old fishing boats into modern Reformed Cruises!

    It is all Laeodicean eye-sight and “ministry” vision, but in great need of eye salve, and poor, blind, and naked, but oh so technologically up to date. The lamp posts are nigh all gone and removed (as Christ warned John), yet nobody notices this! Samson’s locks have been cut, and he “wist not the Lord had left him”, that is until his persecutors came for him.

    Calvin would not be impressed, but lament, if he could see all the recent praise he was given, with the backdrop of the condition of souls and churches of those involved. Pastors today would fear if he suddenly walked into their churches and ministries of those who stamp his name as a mark of orthodoxy, a “form of religion while denying the power thereof”.

    “He who as ears to hear….”


  15. One of the most important articles that you will ever read. Thank you so much for posting this Mike. Very convicting article and I pray that the Lord will protect me from this type of pride.

    I recently had a friend who was recently removed from ministry because of immorality, and it was devestating for everyone who is close to him. It literally came out of nowhere, and he was the last person I accepted to fall. It was a sobering reminder to everyone that knows my friend that any Christian can fall to temptation and sin if he isn’t constantly on his guard, reevaluates his motives for doing ministry, and examines his life to see if he is above reproach.

    God’s sovereignty and providence led me to read this article. Thank you for faithfulness Mike in continuing to speak the truth for His glory.


  16. That is very sad Tony and it is a very sobering reminder that if we aren’t very watchful and careful that we too can fall to temptation. None of us are above doing that, as you said.


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