Ulterior motives stink

Have you ever known somebody who appeared to be your “friend,” only to find out later that there was an alternative motive at work in their generosity? Maybe they took you out for a fat vegetarian burger or did something especially nice, and then you found out they had an ulterior motive.

You probably felt cheated, betrayed and deceived, right?! Most agree that goodness is goodness, and kindness is kindness only when there is no alternative motive behind it.

Nowhere is this more true than when it comes to the way we Christians love others. We do damage if we are primarily motivated by a hidden agenda.

More than hidden motives exposed

When I was doing my undergrad in history, I had some really unique fellow students – and by “unique” I mean totally far out and as weird as radish and blue cheese flavoured cotton candy. One friend in particular was a massive military dude.

At just under 6 feet 3 inches, and with a good farm raised frame, he was BIG. Along with his bulk, the little hair he had, because it was shaved, was red. He reminded me of a Viking. All he was missing was the pointy armour and fearsome looking face paint. But he did wear chains and blackish leather. At the same time, he was actually a pleasantly personable guy (I should have learned a long time ago not to be so judgy).

One day, Mr. Biff comes to class wearing this gigantic smile. Because we both sat at the back of the class (if you think that smart people only sit at the front, you have been disgustingly deceived!) I got to hear the tail end of what his grin was about.

“So, I just got sick of it. I mean, I TOLD them that I work nights. I told them. And I was sweet about it too. But they kept coming. So this weekend I just went to the door buck naked. Yup. You should have seen the look on the mother’s face as she tried to desperately shoo her children away from the door.

I even invited them in for coffee and pie. ‘Oh, no that’s ok, we have to get going,’ was her prompt reply as they turned tale and took off for their car, post-haste. After that I have, thankfully, never had to deal with those [blanking expletives] ever again. I should have done it sooner.”

The damage of a hidden motive

The people at the door? Unfortunately, not Amway salespeople, but a religious group. What ticked my fellow student off wasn’t that they were knocking on his door early on a Saturday morning. To him, they were pretending to be friendly when what they really wanted to do was convert him.

This made him all kinds of hopping-angry mad. Worse still, it made it all the more difficult for anybody in the future to talk to him if they metaphorically “smelled” even remotely like “those religious freaks.”

I can sympathize and probably, so can you and just about everybody else too. After all, whether it’s someone being a good neighbour, or giving you a gift, if something is done in the spirit of generosity or done just for the sake of being nice you are endeared to that genuinely generous person. But you can almost always sniff out if a person has an ulterior motive or agenda and this sours all their pleasantries towards you.

And when you sniff it out, there is a good possibility that all their efforts to gain your favor can be kissed goodbye. If there is even a hint of an ulterior motive, it’s not actually a gift at all: it’s called manipulation.

That seedy politician known for kissing babies is viewed with just suspicion. The “friend” who suddenly wants to take you out for a meal and then later starts mentioning his “business opportunity,” is of course much less of a friend than someone who doesn’t have an agenda.

Keeping my ulterior motives in check

Having an ulterior motive is something I try to watch for within myself whenever I interact with people. I ask myself, “Am I being nice to this person because I want to be a good witness AND maybe give some good advertising for Christianity? Or am I just being Christlike because that is simply how I am supposed to be.”

In other words, do I have an ulterior motive for being nice to somebody? If so, it’s true that people can smell an ulterior motive like a fart in a car, I won’t get far with them.

I should not be “loving” somebody to get them saved. Neither should I be their friend in hopes of eventually winning them to Christ. Being Christian means loving unconditionally. We are not for instance, loving towards people to get them saved, they get saved as a result of seeing our love. The Christian message is not some utilitarian thing. We don’t just love because we are guaranteed a payback, a convert that we can credit to our work.

Are you really loving unconditionally?

Now, utilitarian has a rather large meaning, but for our purposes the following might be a good verse: “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” There is nothing utilitarian in love. An act of love is not done for another purpose.

Love, in addition to being non-utilitarian, has no ulterior motive either. As soon as it does, it would cease to be loving. Thus, when I am interacting with someone, I always try to keep in mind the love question: “When I am interacting with someone… what is my motive while interacting with them? Do any of my words, body language, or actions have strings attached?”

Recently I was doing an internal motive check and asked myself, “After I meet someone, and realize that they aren’t interested in Christianity, do I stop talking to them?”

And if I do, what does say that say about my motive? When I am being friendly for the sole purpose of converting them, am I not just being a spiritual headhunter? Being friendly and loving to try to make a convert? Or am I being as Jesus was.”

Is my purpose for being friendly or loving or whatever happens to be nice at the moment based on the sneaky motive that I am going to help them get a connection with God? Sure, God’s presence is life changing – obviously! – but if I am firstly trying to get them connected with God, isn’t that a slightly different motive than just being loving? Jesus went about doing good for everybody not just those who were going eventually follow him.

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About the Author

Matthew Steem

Matthew Steem is passionate about exploring the intellectual, imaginative and emotional vibrancy at the heart of the Christian tradition: a tradition all too frequently perceived, from both inside and out, as drab and bereft of true joy. Matthew has written for Our Daily Bread, Relief Journal: Art and Faith Unbound, Clarion: Journal of Spirituality and Justice, and many more publications both online and in print. You can find more at www.elicitinsight.com

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