Distortion of Motives

Fourth in the “As the Wall Turns” series,
Delivered March 3, 2002 by Rev. George Antonakos.

Theme: How do we respond when our good motives are questioned?

In the series, “As the Wall Turns” we look at the obstacles Nehemiah faced as he sought to carry out his mission.

Sermon Text:
Nehemiah 6:1-9
and Matthew 5:1-11

… bottom line of all behavior by which all behavior eventually shall be judged. When yours are questioned, how do you respond? Now I ask, because nothing will deflate us faster. Anyone ever hear or heard it said during the school age years, “We know why you’re doing the extra credit work. You’re just an apple polisher.” Or on the job and somebody comes new on the job and they are very energetic and people say, “You’re just trying to show us up. You’re just trying to get in good with the boss.” It couldn’t possibly be that those who try harder are simply industrious; or maybe take pride in their work; or are seeking to glorify God. So when these are motives, and we seek to do good deeds or we undertake a worthy effort or simply reach beyond our grasp and take a risk, or when we try to turn a dream into a reality and then we get hit with distorted motives or false accusations, it can put quite a barrier in the way of our Christian growth and progress. And this is exactly what Nehemiah faced and the distortion of his motives as he sought to build for God and do good. Again this is an extension from last time that I preached on this, which was just two weeks ago and distortion of motives kind of falls under the category of diversion still. It’s a subset. So I want to take if from the top even though we read these first four verses two weeks ago, I would like to read them again and go through Verse 9.

“When word came to Sanballat, Tobiah, Geshem the Arab and the rest of our enemies that I had rebuilt the wall and not a gap was left in it- though up to that time I had not set the doors in the gates. Sanballat and Geshem sent me this message: “Come, let us meet together in one of the villages on the plain of Ono.” But they were scheming to harm me; so I sent messengers to them with this reply: “I am carrying on a great project and cannot go down. Why should the work stop while I leave it and go down to you?” Four times they sent me the same message, and each time I gave them the same answer. Then in Verse 5, Then, the fifth time, Sanballat sent his aide to me with the same message, and in his hand was an unsealed letter in which was written:”It is reported among the nations – and Geshem says it is true – that you and the Jews are plotting to revolt, and therefore you are building the wall. Moreover, according to these reports you are about to become their king and have even appointed prophets to make this proclamation about you in Jerusalem: “There is a king in Judah!” Now this report will get back to the king; so come, let us confer together.” I sent him this reply: “Nothing like what you are saying is happening; you are just making it up out of your head.” They were all trying to frighten us, thinking, “Their hands will get too weak for the work, and it will not be completed.” But I prayed, “Now strengthen my hands.”

Verse 5, the fifth time Sanballat tries again. It’s the old unsealed letter trick. An open letter was a sign of contempt. It was a documented way of talking behind someone’s back and then making sure that they found out about it. It was an information leak that said this is what I really think about Nehemiah and what he is doing. And then in Verses 5 through 7, come three rapid fired distorted accusations; you’re planning to rebel, you’re desirest of being King, you even have hired prophets to go stumping for you. They are making the posters right now. There’s a king in Judah, Nehemiah for President, and then the hook. This will get back to the real King Artaxerxes and you will look real bad. So come on now, let’s talk and see how I can help you. But the same reasoning is behind it all; to try to divert, or to try to distort. Why? In order to destroy. This is what Nehemiah said later, that the work would not be completed and that’s always the intention of the enemy. To destroy you, to stop the work, to put up a barrier in front of your motivation, to short circuit your goals and my guess there isn’t a person sitting here today or listening in that hasn’t had that happen to them. In school or work, in the neighborhood, in the apartment building, among relatives and even at church this can happen. And it usually happens when we have said, “I want to make a difference.” “I want to make right or wrong.” “I want to make my life count for eternity.” And just so we don’t over-identify with Nehemiah, which is usually our inclination, we always identify with the good guys. We have probably all succumbed to the behavior of Sanballat as well. When do we do this? When do we usually distort the motives of others? Well, think about Sanballat’s life. When we can’t get what we want, when we can’t get someone else to do what we want, when we are jealous of the success of others, or when we feel that we will in some way lose out if somebody else’s plans go forward.

I remember a man who came to my office with his son. He was trying to enlist my help with the God and Country Award for scouting, and I could see right away that the boy was not into it and he finally said so. But, he was reluctant to disappoint his dad. I kind of cringed when his dad said; “Well I guess you just don’t have what it takes to make Eagle.” See that must be your motive. Your motivation must be wrong. When distortion is going on, a person is usually over invested in their own agenda. Just like Sanballat. And the chief sin is pride. Now again, I feel like I am always preaching to the choir that this is preventive. Even in a great church like Central Presbyterian Church, on the eve of flourishing ministry teams, where more breath in ministry might happen, and probably will happen more than ever before, when there are many diverse teams going at many kinds of ministries, there might be the attitude if somebody doesn’t want to be part of your team, well they just must not be committed. Or even as Pastor Jerry said last Sunday. Again, in the diversity of our worship. If somebody doesn’t like a particular style of music or a certain way of worshipping style of music, then they ought to be committed, that we can have these kinds of attitudes one to another. And just a little bit removed from distorting somebody else’s motive is assigning motives to others.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer as you probably know was a Lutheran pastor who was imprisoned in Nazi, Germany. In the last years of his life he wrote a number of books, one called “Life Together.” And he started thinking a lot about Christian community and what made it healthy. He quoted from Luke 9:46 when he wrote this in his book:

“There are rows of reasoning among them, which of them should be greatest? We know who it is, who shows this thought in the Christian community. But perhaps we do not bear in mind enough that no Christian community ever comes together without this thought immediately emerging as a seed of discord. Thus at the very beginning of Christian fellowship there is engendered and invisible, often unconscious life and death contests. There are rows of reasoning among them.”

This is enough to destroy a fellowship. And when this kind of thing happens and spreads, the work of God can stop real fast. Which is what Nehemiah knew to be his enemy’s goal. Because he says again in Verse 9, they were trying to frighten us. Their hands will get too weak they are thinking and the work won’t be completed.

Do you remember a few weeks back I mentioned to you about hate mail in the offering plate. It was never my intention, but I got such kind notes since then. What I am going to show, it gets worse, but I am going to share it with you today, and please don’t send a lot of mail. I mean I love the affirmations, but I am not doing this to get mail. But that fellow that did that about a year later in my ministry, it was the Sunday before Thanksgiving and perhaps it was a naive sermon for a guy right out of seminary and is preaching in a small conservative community in Central Pennsylvania. It dawned on me that here we were about to celebrate Thanksgiving, a very American holiday and the last Sunday of the church year is called, as you know, Christ the King Sunday. So I thought, what an opportunity and I preached a sermon called, “When Kingdoms Collide.” And I was trying to make a point that Christ is the king who is above all, even national commitments. And so at one point in the sermon I pointed to the flag and then I pointed to the cross and I said, “which of these two symbols gives you the bigger goosebumps?” And then I went on to say without going in great detail, that our country hasn’t always in its history operated in the best motives. Well after the service the sanctuary is upstairs and I was downstairs greeting the people and the first one down the steps was the fellow who had been the message sender in the offering plate. Never saw an angrier face. He came right at me and he came up almost nose to nose and he started poking his finger into my shoulder. He said, “you Jane Fonda communists, pinko, hippie,” And I am like stunned, totally stunned. I didn’t know what to do. You know, what do you do? Your thoughts kind of leave you at that moment. And I just gently kind of put his hand down and I said, “please you misunderstood, I was preaching Christ above all.” Because he could not conceive somehow or understand what I was trying to say, he impugned my motives in the most direct sense. In his goal, even though it wasn’t stated, was basically get out of here. Get on your horse and get out of town. If I had, the work would have stopped and would have been incomplete. Now that’s an example of how I was the offended. Let me tell you an example when I was the offender. This gets even more interesting.

The ministry was cruising along about five years later. We had done some good things. The church had just thrown an appreciation dinner in my honor because of five years of ministry. Dinner at a hotel restaurant, balloons and everything. And so I am thinking after this, “boy I guess they really think I am doing okay. That I am leading pretty well.” So I thought I would take it up a notch. And by the way two major criticisms of leaders, you’re not leading enough and you’re leading too much. So you’re always in a tough position. Well, I thought at that time I had a particular concern that a certain person was being slighted from being on the session or the elder board. And I thought that they kept being slighted every year and they had served in the church and all of that and they ought to be able to serve in that way. I was starting to develop an agenda. And so in my reasoning, in the words of the Scripture and what Dietrich Bonhoeffer has written, reasoning arose in my head. That they were being exclusive. Now in hindsight, I thought to myself after the fact and well beyond the fact that there probably were some reasons that they had that weren’t unreasonable as to why this particular person might not be ready to be on session. I probably should have inquired about those things, rather than assign motives to other people. But borrowing a page from Sanballat book of stupidity, I sent letters to the session elders and to the nominating committee. A letter of motive assignment. I didn’t call it that, but I am sure that’s how it was read. Well, at the next session meeting, which wasn’t too long after that, all Hades broke loose and hit the fan simultaneously, mostly because of my junior mind-reading attempt. I am not saying that we should not confront behavior that’s negative, we should. I am just saying that we ought to reserve judgment and reserve it hard on why the behavior is going on. Well, things settled down and apologies were made and forgiveness was granted. It wasn’t long after that, that I started talking to myself with questions like this, “Why did you do that?” “Were you believing your own press?” “Were you trying to be king?” And then it gets worse. “You know, you’re not the person.” “You’re such an unfit leader.” “You shouldn’t even be in ministry.” And the same motive, different chapter comes not from outside but from inside, “just get out of here.” “Just stop, just quit.” “The work should just end.” You know when we are thinking in this way, we are really getting off track. When we start saying things like, who do they think they are, and I am going to show them, and I kid you not I know a pastor who whenever things got bad at the leadership level, maybe at a session meeting or whatever, he had his personal information form in his top drawer and he would pull it out and start waving it around. I mean that is sick. That is really sick. And when we do those kinds of things, when we are tempted to start doing all that, it’s like the spirit of God comes into my mind and the Lord seems to say, “George, exactly who are you trying to defend? Me? I’ve got a news flash for you. I don’t need you to defend me or my honor. I can take care of that myself. Are you trying to defend yourself? Well another news flash. You don’t need to. I am the defense of your life. Shelter yourself under my wings, run into the strong tower which is my name and besides the primary reason you’re here is not for you anyway. And it’s not for them. You’re here because of me. You follow me.”

Stanley Livingston faced the same thoughts and feelings and challenges as he tried to open up Africa to the gospel. He said this, and this is from his diary, “Some of the brethren do not hesitate to tell the natives that my object is to attain the applause of men. It bothers me, for I sometimes suspect my own motives. On the other hand I am conscious that though there is much impurity in my motives, they are in the name for the glory of Him, whom I have dedicated my all.” In other words he said my real motive is to be here for the glory of God and Nehemiah knew this. And that’s what caused him to operate the way he did. And notice in the text, he doesn’t run around trying to collect all the anti-Nehemiah flyers. He doesn’t go back to Geshem as it says in Verse 6, is says that Geshem says it is true that these things are so. You know Geshem is the patron saint of they. They say that this is true. If you are a leader in any capacity and someone comes to you says, “they say” do you know what the question you should ask is, right away? Not who are they, because you will never know. What do you think? What do you think, honestly? What’s your position? Because usually when we go to somebody and say, “they say” we are kind of in the same boat. And so it’s real healthy to just say, “well tell me what you believe?” And, “where do you stand on that position, honestly?” So he goes on and he says, he sends the message and he says, “Look Sanballat and all you folks, you’re dreaming. The things you are saying about me, they are just coming out of your own hat.” Which truly is the breeding ground of distorted motives. Our own head. So sometimes we must learn to ignore these distortions and sometimes we have to confront the distortions. Somebody says, “Well, how do you know whether you should ignore it or confront it?” I would say just ask two simple questions. Is someone being hurt? And is there a threat that the work will stop? If the answers to both of those questions are yes, then you probably need to confront. Your sense of what’s happening. If the answer is no, then just forget it. And he goes on to pray and at the end of Verse 9, he says, “But I prayed, now strengthen my hands.” Why did he pray that? Because I think his hands were getting heavy. You see this distortion gets to you. It does what it is intended to you, it tries to get you to just lay the work down. He says strengthen my hands Lord because I am here for your glory. And there is the other principle. That if you can ask the Lord’s blessing upon the work that God has called you to do, then the chances are your motives are mainly proper. If you can ask the Lord’s blessing for it. And so take comfort from Nehemiah’s response, but also as we come around this table, take strength from the Lord who endured so many distorted motivations against himself. What would you say if I said to you or if someone said to you, you are raving mad? Or, you are demon possessed and your work is empowered by Satan. Or you are illegitimately born. Or, you are a criminal. Or, you’re just not from God. What would you say? You know what you ought to say? Well that puts me in the same boat as Jesus, because they said every single one of those things to or about him. So come and take strength from this table. And if for some reason you may find yourself on the other side of the fence, and you need to rethink whether or not you may be assigning or distorting someone else’s motives, come and purify your heart. Just give it all to the Lord again. And be glad that Jesus didn’t let that stop Him, so that we could all be called the children of God. Just one more voice from 1st Corinthians, Chapter 4, Verses 3 to 5, from a man who endured much and who says this to us today and tells us to say it when we are tempted to give up the work, he says:

“I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. My conscious is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of people’s hearts. At that time each will receive his praise from God.”

Let us pray. Gracious Lord we do desire your praise and forgive us for those times that we have sought the praise of people who thought too much about what others think. Grant to us Lord a sense of grace and peace and forgiveness so that as we gather around this table we may be strengthened and made whole and again be the pure body of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, of whom he is the head. For we ask it in his Holy name, Amen.