Missing the Primary Motive

Dear Adventists, I think we’re missing the primary motive …

John 3:16 is appropriately among the most popular verses in the Bible. In this succinct statement of the gospel, Jesus identifies God’s primary motive for carrying it out. God’s primary motive for giving His Son to save the world was not duty, or pride, or a desire for more worshippers. According to Jesus, love was His primary motive.

A few years ago, I began trying to grasp the complex implications of this simple truth. One thing I realized, was that when love is the primary motive for an action, that action is never its singular expression.

Consider the case of a cardiac surgeon. While she may be loving, love is not her primary motive in the operating room. Consequently, all of her motives can be fully expressed in the singular act of a successful surgery. In the post-op visit, if the patient shares his struggle with illiteracy or addiction or depression, the noble surgeon refers him to others as these are outside of the realm of her concern.

On the other hand, consider the case of a mother whose son has just scraped his knee. Love is the primary motive for her act of bandaging his wound. Consequently, this action is certainly not the singular expression of that love. After the wound is bandaged, should the boy share his hunger or sadness or shame, the loving mother will engage in any act within her power to address these concerns.

Jesus said God’s act of accomplishing the gospel was motivated by love. If this is true, His gospel action cannot be the singular expression of that love. He provided the gospel because those He loved needed the gospel. However, like the loving mother, His concern does not end there. If those He loves struggle with hunger, sadness, shame, illiteracy, addiction, depression, poverty, injustice, or any other evil, He will engage in any act within His power to address these concerns.

While it was never explicitly taught to me, somewhere along my Adventist way I adopted the belief that God’s concern for people is limited to their soul’s salvation. I would never say that out loud, but this belief was evident in my “concern” for people. My goal for every non-Adventist within my reach was to see them in a baptismal pool. In pursuit of this goal, I would often identify needs in their life that I could meet. However, the pool was the goal, and meeting the needs was a steppingstone. The actual needs of the person were outside of the realm of my concern. Their only relevance was in their ability to advance the accomplishment of my goal, the salvation of the person’s soul. Accomplishing this goal was my singular concern.

While we may never say it out loud, this approach is often evident in the work of our churches. The pool is the goal. If other needs are considered, they must be viewed as clear steppingstones towards the goal. While I sympathize with those who (like I did) understand the work of the church this way, it misses the primary motive.

If the primary motive is love, the acceptance of the gospel cannot be the singular goal. Love motivates us to be concerned with every need of every bearer of the image of God. Yes, acceptance of the gospel meets the greatest of humanity’s needs, but not all of humanity’s needs.

Jesus demonstrated this principle in His healing of a woman who had been crippled for 18 years (Luke 13:10-17). Unlike others Jesus healed, her handicap was neither life-threatening nor entirely debilitating. Unlike others Jesus healed, her condition was not connected to her sin. Unlike others Jesus healed, Jesus gave her no follow-up appeal. In this story we just see Jesus improving the quality of life of one of His beloved children. Making this point Himself, He compared His action to giving an animal water on the Sabbath. Certainly, the animal could survive without water for a day. But the act was simply to improve the quality of the animal’s life during that day. It was to do all one could to relieve the suffering of the brute beast. Then Jesus stated the obvious – how much more should the quality of life of this daughter of Abraham be urgently improved, even if that fell outside of the norms of Pharisaic Sabbath-keeping?

Jesus’ concern for this woman was bigger than her acceptance of the gospel. He loved her. And His love motivated Him to urgently destroy what Satan was using to diminish the quality of her life (Luke 13:16).

The story of this woman was not a one-off. Peter summarized Jesus’ entire ministry this way: “He went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil” (Acts 10:38). Unlike my former approach, Jesus’ approach was to simply do whatever good was most needed, with no strings attached.

As Jesus was sent into the world, He has now sent us into the world (John 20:21). Individually and collectively our primary motive must be love. Love must motivate us to share the everlasting gospel with the people within our reach. But love must also motivate us to share our sympathy, our listening ear, our voice in comfort and in advocacy, our time, our money, our influence, and whatever else we have been entrusted with to urgently destroy whatever Satan is using to diminish the quality of life of the people within our reach. If love is our motive, our efforts in these areas will be just as passionate as our efforts to share the gospel.

As I have tried to follow this approach, I have realized how little genuine love I have for people. It’s easier to focus on convincing them to be baptized and doing what’s necessary to accomplish that goal than it is to genuinely care about them and their various needs. But this work is the character development Jesus desires to accomplish in us. We must bring this to Him in prayer. We must increase our focus on the love He has shown us. This is the inspiration and model for our love of others. If we keep this before Him, He will not fail us as He desires this more than we ever can. By His grace, His love can become our primary motive.

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