Motives, Mysteries, and Leaders

The original sin of the human race was a misreading of Another’s motives, and it has gotten worse ever since. Why is that? Why does this condition continue to hinder harmony, health, and progress? 

The problem is we cannot see motives. We can only see actions. We can only see — to use a more picturesque phrase — the fruit of the garden of the other. 

Dr. Charles Davis, founding president of an Alabama community college and a diplomatic peacemaker among leaders, said, “In all my years of serving people, I’ve never seen a motive. While people debate their differences sitting before me in my office, I’ve never seen a motive scurry from behind somebody’s chair and dive under the coffee table. Believe me, I’ve tried to catch a glimpse of one of those critters while people are talkin’ to me, but in all my ninety-one years on earth I still haven’t seen a motive.”

The comment would be more penetrating if you could hear it with his Southern accent, but the droll quality still comes through: it is virtually impossible to completely understand another person’s motives. Instead, we have to look at actions, at the fruit of their leadership and lifestyle. 

But there is a deeper problem than the difficulty of discerning another person’s motives. That problem is me, for I cannot completely understand myself. And because of this, I do not fully know how others see me. To be sure, I have an image of how I desire other people to see me (note the long hours spent in crafting a social media presence), but that image is inevitably off the mark. 

It takes humility of a supernatural kind to overcome this deep obstacle: Are we to live our lives as one long effort for people to perceive us according to the image we have of ourselves, or are we to live our lives vulnerable to the reality that the only way we can fully understand ourselves is by listening to what people have to say, in all of its complicated mixture of accuracy and inaccuracy?

Let us say you see something deeply disturbing in my leadership or lifestyle. You come to me and raise the concern, but I do not see it, for I am fixed on a compelling vision, a core value, or some noble conviction convincing me that my motive is good. I live and lead in such a way that all things are pressed through that imagined ideal. Your concerns challenge this sacred thing I live for, and therefore I cannot listen, for you threaten the thing I live for. 

Or, perhaps worse, I am fixed on an image of myself that simply does not tolerate incriminations. “You don’t know my heart,” I say, and I leave you feeling frustrated, or perhaps even embarrassed, for having raised the matter. You depart knowing that what you touched was not “my heart,” but the teflon coat of my imagined self. The result: no change, but a continued trajectory away from harmony, health, and progress. 

And let us say you do all you can to help me see what you see. You bring trusted friends and advisors before me. You appeal in a long letter. In desperation, you “copy up” a candid email to my superiors. You hold a private prayer vigil for me. You own all you may have done wrong on your end. You speak the truth in love. And yet I do not respond, because I conclude you have a bad motive. 

“Your motive is not good,” I say. “You are trying to control me.”

What happens to the relationship once I have drawn that conclusion? It breaks down, for everything you say and do is now forced through the lens of the perceived evil motive I have placed on you. A birthday gift is perceived as a bribe. A blessing is perceived as a curse; a kindness as guilt manipulation; an exhortation as a rebuke. The relationship ends. 

Where is hope in this condition? Where is the way forward? It is outside of ourselves. Outside of you. Outside of me. There is only One who knows me. There is only One who knows you. There is only One who has an accurate record of our motives — and oh, how interesting those books must be! Not even angels have permission to read them! And I myself have only read the title page of my own record! The prophet Daniel (chapter 7) and the apostle Paul (I Cor 4:3-5) found this to be true for themselves. How much more for us!

There is both comfort and terror in this truth, but not the kind of fear that should drive us away if our hearts hunger for transformation (or, to use the more ancient word, salvation). Rather, it is the kind of reckoning that should cause us to draw near on bended knee. For there is still hope. As long as we breathe, there is still hope for a better outcome — perhaps not with the ones who have judged you, or the ones you must break with for conscience’s sake — but with the One who works all things together for good.

“The heart is deep beyond all things,” the prophet Jeremiah laments, “and it is the man. Even so, who can know him? I, the Lord, examine hearts and test minds, to give each man according to his ways and fruits and practices.” (Greek version, OSB, Jer 17:5-6) 

Here again we see that motives are a mystery, but actions are not. The Hebrew version of this statement cannot tolerate the ambiguity, and lands on, “the heart is desperately wicked; who can know it?” In which case we are all in deep trouble for doing anything, for our best efforts will still injure like a fragrant rose whose thorns wound the fingers of the receiver. Only a new mercy from heaven can give us fuel to go on if such is our state.

My suggestion: meditate on Psalm 139 (Psalm 138 in the Greek version). Whisper these words before the One who Created you. Soak up the comfort of being known, enjoyed, and cared for. Wrestle with the awkward portion of the psalm revealing a hostility at work in the psalmist that is seemingly out of tune with the rest of the words and see if there is, likewise, anything out of tune in your own soul. Then accept this reality. You are just as much a mystery to solve as the ones who lead you. And conclude along with the psalmist in verses 23-24:

“Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! See if there be any hurtful way in me, And lead me in the way everlasting!”

© Kurt Mähler

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