[CCEF] Motives: Why Do I Do the Things I Do?
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Motives: Why Do I Dothe Things I Do?
By Edward T. Welch
People are complex. We’ve beencompared to icebergs (with more under thesurface than above it) and onions (with multiplelayers). We see behaviors, but not theunderlying motives behind those behaviors. Acolleague appears to be very nice, but he usesyou to climb the corporate ladder. A friendseems unresponsive when you share a painfulstory, but the truth is she is terrified of hurtingyou by saying the wrong thing. A football playerswaggers around like the big man on campus,when beneath the bravado he meekly carriesout his father’s “show-no-weakness” policy. Noone sees that he lives in fear of his father’sunpredictable temper.
Our public actions tell one story; ourprivate intentions tell another. Behind the“what we do” of our lives—our words andactions—is the “why we do it”—our motives.
Chances are that you have consideredsome of the “whys” of your behavior.
questions come knocking.
• Why am I alive? What is the purpose of my life?• Or, more generally, Why do I do what I do?
These questions usually arise when wehave regrets about something we’ve done.Otherwise, we tend to relegate them to themargins of our lives.
Motives Are Important
Even though we don’t always think aboutthem, motives are important. This is why welike Robin Hood and loathe the Sheriff ofNottingham. Robin Hood may have been anoutlaw, but we consider his motives noble.
If a husband is meeting his wife’s bestfriend to get gift ideas for his wife, he is praised.But if his motive is to test the waters for apossible affair, he is a scoundrel.
Parents are not simply interested inmechanical or angry obedience from theirchildren. They are concerned about a child’sattitude, which is another name for motive.Parents care what children do—and why.
Or consider the realm of addictions.Whether it is food, sex, drugs, or alcohol, anaddiction seems automatic. The addictedperson has been taken captive. To ask whyseems as silly as asking, “Why did you catch acold?” But even here, motives are important.Beneath addictive behaviors lie wants anddesires. Addicts may be enslaved, but, at somelevel, they volunteer to be. They are motivated
*Edward T. Welch is a professor of practicaltheology at Westminster Theological Seminary.
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to continue their addiction because it givesthem comfort, pleasure, power, temporaryfreedom from pain, revenge, autonomy, and soon. Ignoring these possible motives leavespeople at the mercy of their addictive cravings.Even if they are abstinent or self-controlled,their own efforts will not be enough to changetheir fundamental motivations.
In other words, motives are not onlyimportant, in many situations they must berevealed and changed. If our motives don’tchange, we won’t change.
A list of possible motivations would beendless, but the most common can be reducedto a dozen or so. To discover your motives, askyourself these questions: What motivates me?Why do I do what I do? Even better, ask, What doI really want? If I don’t have ______, I ammiserable. Here are some typical answers.
Pleasure Freedom/AutonomyPower PeaceLove/Intimacy Happiness
parent asks her to do anything. Her inner life isnot that simple. She may crave independencebecause others will think she is cool if she takesa stand against her parents. Perhaps she isdriven by a desire for love, and she wants to beout with friends to increase her chances offinding a boyfriend. It is even possible that sheis saying to her parents, “Can you still love meeven when I am not perfect?”
At this point, we need more guidance. Weknow that motives are important, but we alsoknow that the more we examine them, the morecomplex they become. We need Scripture totake us farther than we can take ourselves.Since motives are such an important part of life,we would expect God’s Word to speak aboutthem, and it certainly does. In fact, the entireBible is a book about motivation.
It’s All About the Heart
The key word is the heart. In Scripture,the heart is the source of all human motivation.It is the wellspring of life (Prov. 4:23), the rootthat determines whether the fruit of the tree willbe good or bad (Jer. 17:5-8; Luke 6:43-45). It isour true self. Appearing nearly 1000 times inthe Bible, heart can have a broad range ofmeaning, but at its core are our motivations.Simply put, the heart’s root motivation is, “IWANT.” “I want comfort, power, pleasure,control . . . for myself, against God.” By nature,the heart is selfish. It wants what it wants whenit wants it. It doesn’t want God setting limits orproviding direction. When changed by GodHimself, the heart’s selfish and anti-Godmotives are not erased, but they are graduallyreplaced by a desire to love God and live forHim alone.
At first, this description might not seem tofit your own experience. Life does not feel likeit is always about God. Some people haven’teven heard of the true God, so how can theirbehavior have anything to do with Him?However, you don’t have to be self-consciouslythinking about God to be for or against Him.
When a teen violates a parent’s directions,it isn’t always an act of rebellion against theparent. It is just that the teen wants to do whathe or she wants to do! The disobedience is“nothing personal,” yet it is personal. It is adesire for freedom from the parent’s authority.
You have probably been motivated by all ofthese at one time or another, but some peoplehave specialties.
when there is work to be done might be
motivated by comfort.
visitor saw her messy house is motivated by
whose wife is cautious wants power.
with a babysitter wants control.
Or consider the teen who wants to answerto no one but herself and grumbles whenever a
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Or take Internet pornography. For manypeople, it feels like a little-less-than-innocentindulgence. It might not be honorable, but itdoesn’t feel like it’s against anyone. No one isgetting hurt, and it’s just a small pleasure. Butthe reality goes deeper than that. People arehurt by it, and it is against the spouse. It breaksthe vows once made to her and is a temporaryshifting of marital allegiance. The pornographylover is saying that his desires cannot be metthrough his spouse, so he can indulge in mentalbetrayal to find the satisfaction he craves.Going even deeper into the heart, suchbehavior is against God. These actions say thatGod is either blind or far away. After all, whowould do such a thing if he believed he was inthe presence of the King? The pornographylover is implicitly saying that God is just aperson, limited in what He does and where Hecan be. Furthermore, when God says, “Be holyas I am holy,” the pornography lover responds bysaying “No” or “Later.” He responds to theKing’s command to pursue sexual purity as if it
were a mere suggestion.
of life is personal. Whether we consciouslythink about it or not, we know the God (Rom.1:21), the Searcher of hearts (Jer. 17:10). Wedon’t just have a fuzzy idea that there is a god ora “higher power.” The Bible says that in ourhearts, we have a personal knowledge of theGod who truly is. The problem is that we don’talways like his intrusive or disruptive ways, andwe try to ignore or avoid him. We “suppress thetruth” that we know (Rom. 1:18-21).
But we are not always blind to thesemotives. When we are going through especiallyhard times, our God-motives often come to thesurface. We may find ourselves saying, “God,what did I ever do to deserve this? How couldyou do this to me?” The tough times expose ourbasic allegiances. Do we live for God or forourselves?
Even with atheists, the God-ward heartwill be revealed. Atheists might live with aprofound fear of death, revealing that, at some
level, they know they will someday face theliving God. Or they might consult palm readersfor direction, tacitly acknowledging a divineplan and their fear that it might not go well forthem. These behaviors echo their God-oriented motivations. Their faith commitmentis in their hearts: “I will to live independent ofGod rather than acknowledge Him as Lord.”
Granted, we are not always aware of thesemotives, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist.All of our motives are hard to see. Consider thecase of the ancient Israelites in Numbers 14.They had just seen unparalleled miraclesperformed by the God who had chosen them asHis very own people. After leading them out ofslavery in Egypt and destroying Pharaoh’s army,God provided them with a new and fertile land.The problem was that the people living in theland thought it was theirs, and they weren’tgoing to give it up without a fight.
The spies who scouted the land came backwith a mixed report: the land was ideal, but thepeople in it were powerful. At this news, the
people complained and grumbled. “That nightall the people of the community raised theirvoices and wept aloud. All the Israelitesgrumbled against Moses and Aaron, and thewhole assembly said to them, ‘If only we haddied in the desert’” (Num.14:1-2).
In this case, the complaint seemslegitimate. Moses and Aaron led the Israelitesto a land filled with mighty warriors, but thepeople were more familiar with making bricksthan with waging war. Who wouldn’t grumble?Their motivation was simple: they wanted tolive! They reasoned that life, even in slavery,was better than death. Most of us would agreewith that.
But their motivations went deeper. “Andthe Lord said to Moses, ‘How long will thispeople despise me? How long shall this wickedcongregation grumble against Me?’” (Num.14:11, 27).
There it is, the heart’s ever-presentquestion: “Whom will you follow, worship, andtrust?” The people complained against God.
When we are going through especially hard times,our God-motives often come to the surface.
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God Himself was their leader, their Father, theOne who had promised them the land andwould lead them in battle. He had alreadydefeated the Egyptians without one Israeliteraising a sword. He had already taken care oftheir daily needs. In that context, the why ofIsrael’s complaining had everything to do withGod. As Moses had pointed out in an earlierepisode, “Your grumbling is not against us butagainst the Lord” (Ex. 16: 8).
We can paraphrase the motives behindtheir grumbling this way: “God, we don’t thinkyou are powerful. We don’t think you are good.You haven’t given us everything we want whenwe want it.” Their motives were against God.
The event can be charted like this.
Our circumstances(The difficulties of the desert)
Our words and deeds(Complaining and grumbling)
Our surface motives-personal desires
such as significance, security, or love(“We want to live in Egypt rather than die inthe desert.”)
Our deeper motives-are we for self or forothers?
Our deepest motives—are we for self or for God?(“We are angry with God.”)
Some have suggested that modernthought has tried to cut the cord between Godand ourselves. But, try as it might, nothing candisentangle us from our creator. And that is avery good thing.
Idols of the Heart
Notice how Scripture constantly brings usback to variations on the same question.
1 John 2:15)
• Do you obey the devil or the Lord? (1 John3:10)
• Do you live for your own glory or God’s? (Rom.1:21-23)
• Is your treasure in the world or in Christ? (Matt.6:21)
• Do you belong to the devil or God? (John 8:44)The heart is always asking these questions.At the most basic level, we are either for God or
describing this choice is through the question,Whom will you worship? The choice is eitherthe true God or idols. The entire history ofIsrael was the conflict between the two (Ex.20:2-6; 1 Kings 11:9-11; 19:10). All sin wassummarized as idolatry (Deut. 4:23). Althoughthis language sounds old-fashioned to us, whatmotivates our hearts today is no different. Aquick survey of our hearts will most likely revealage-old idols.
The most transparent illustration ofmodern idolatry is drug or alcohol addiction. Goto any AA meeting and you will hear thelanguage of idolatry spoken. “Before I was sober,nothing came between me and my booze. Boozewas my spouse and my best friend. It waspriority number one. It was my life. Iworshipped it.”
The bottle or my kids? This is a matter ofallegiances and worship. You can almost see theaddict taking the beloved idol and bowing downto it, asking it to bless the day and bringincreased boldness or freedom from pain.
On the surface, the addict is motivated bythe pleasure he takes in his drug. One stepdeeper, it is easy to see that his allegiance ismore personal: it is against his spouse and hischildren, and for his drug. Yet the allegiances godeeper still. Will it be God or idols? Whom willhe worship? The idol in this case is a bottle ofbooze. But even the alcohol is not the majorproblem. We are the problem. The problemresides in our hearts.
Through our idols we try to satisfy ourhearts’ desires. Booze is a means to get what wewant. So is money. Even people can be objectsof our worship because they can give us thepower, love, or respect we crave. All idols areobjects of the heart’s self-centered affections(Ezek. 14:3). Whatever we trust in or love is an
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idol if it replaces the true God.
Most of these are not bad in themselves, butwhen we value them more than God, theybecome idols. The problem is not so much thatwe want these things, but that we want themtoo much. They become our goal, our hope, ourpurpose. We feel like we need them. Whenthey are out of reach, life seems meaningless.
Ask yourself the following questions to seeif some of the deeper motives of your heart beginto emerge.
As a result, he feels anger towards his co-worker.He declares war! But even more, he resists thefact that God uses difficult people to refine us.Instead of submitting to God’s sovereigndecisions and learning to forgive and love, Stevesays, “I will be God, at least in this case.” Hisdesires rule.
Here is a general principle: your attitudetoward God will be revealed in your worsthuman relationship. If you hate someone, youultimately hate God. If you don’t forgive, youusurp God’s authority to act as judge.
Steve’s case offers a glimpse of the behind-the-scenes motives of idolatry. He reminds usthat no one has to be taught idolatry: we figureit out all by ourselves. Like ancient Israel, wehave front row seats to the power and glory ofGod. We are told explicitly by God not toworship idols, yet we too make our version of agolden calf (Ex. 32). What drives us to do this?As creatures, we are designed to trust insomething beyond ourselves. But why do wetrust in things that don’t seem to merit ourtrust?
Be warned. The answers aren’t pretty, butthey apply to us all.
We are proud. Isaiah 2:6-22 reveals thatidolaters are arrogant. Idolaters, even whenthey are bowing down, are “arrogant,” “proud,”and “lofty.” Apparently, our idols actually exaltus and our own desires; even in our idolatry wewant nothing above ourselves. We choose idolsin part because we believe they can give us whatwe want. The god of drugs brings fearlessness;the god of sex promises pleasure; and the god ofwealth holds out power and influence. Like theprophets of Baal, we are arrogant enough tobelieve that we can manipulate the idol—whether by self-mutilation or some othermeans—so it will serve us.
We crave autonomy. Autonomy meansthat we call the shots. Idolaters want to makethe rules rather than submit to the lordship ofthe living God. This was the essence of Adam’soriginal sin. Even though God had clearlyspoken, Adam wanted to devise his ownguidelines. In idolatry, we want to establish ourown parallel universe, separate from God’s.
We want to indulge our desires. Both
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pride and autonomy point to the fact that weare creatures who want something. We wantmore (Eph. 4:19). In the Old Testament,idolatry was typically associated with orgies,drunkenness, and other forms of self-indulgence(Ex. 32; 1 Cor. 10:7), but throughout the NewTestament, idolatry is described as covetousness,greed (Eph. 5:5) and desire.
So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will notgratify the desires of the sinful nature.(Gal. 5:16)
All of us also lived among them at onetime, gratifying the cravings of oursinful nature and following its desiresand thoughts. (Eph. 2:3)
Having lost all sensitivity, they have giventhemselves over to sensuality so as toindulge in every kind of impurity, with acontinual lust for more. (Eph. 4:19)
Each one is tempted when, by his own evildesire, he is dragged away and enticed.(James 1:14)
Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens andstrangers in the world, to abstain fromsinful desires, which war against yoursoul. (1 Pet. 2:11)
These verses remind us again that “IWANT” is the song of the human heart.Arrogance, autonomy, and unrestrained desirereside within it. Idolatry is about me—mydesires, my wants. My purpose is not to exaltthe idol above myself, but to use the idol to giveme what I want. When I am afraid, I look to theidol of money to give me security. I don’t wantmoneytoruleme;IwanttouseittogetwhatIwant. When I want pleasure, I cling to the idolsof sex, food, or sleep. The problem is that Inever quite feel like I have enough. So I wantmore.
This is why idols multiply. Our desires areinsatiable. When we place our trust in idols, wefind that they cannot satisfy our desires orsustain our hopes. So we look for even more.The multiplication of gods in Greek mythologyor Hinduism depicts what goes on in our heartsevery day. The heart is, indeed, an idol factory.
Idols and Christians
All this talk about lurking idols seemsforeign to many Christians. After all, we don’t
have idols in our homes and we have alreadysworn allegiance to Jesus Christ. Don’t forget,however, that idolatry quietly resides in everyheart. Christians are not sinless yet; that willonly happen when Jesus Christ returns. In themeantime, we battle, especially at the level ofour motivations and imaginations. Thewarnings against idolatry and hypocrisy arerightly directed to us.
Christian idolatry is more subtle than anoutright, vocal abandonment of Christ. We maysimply feel that Christ is not enough. Wereason, He can be counted on for eternalsalvation, but will He really give me the things Ifeel I need, like money, marriage, or personalpleasure? So, just to be safe, we spread our trustbetween the true God and various idols. It’s likehaving a diversified stock portfolio. We cheat onour taxes, excuse our premarital sexualrelationships, and avoid inconvenient people. Itdoesn’t seem so bad because we haven’t actuallyrenounced Christ, but this compromised trust isequivalent to turning away from God.
Change from the Heart
When we face this fact, all we can do issay, “OK, I give up. ‘The heart is deceitful aboveall things and beyond cure’ (Jer. 17:9). Guilty ascharged.” Now what? Do we simply wait forChrist to return, or is there something we cando now?
The answer, of course, is that we begin thefight against sin immediately. All Scripturepoints to this, and the fact that the Father hassent us the Holy Spirit indicates that we havemore ammunition than we need. But how dowe go about it?
We consider our hearts. The path ofchange always goes through the heart. We lookat the fruit of our lives—the big and little sins,the anxieties and fears, the disappointments anddespair—and ask what they tell us about ourrelationship with God. We ask ourselves theserevealing questions: What do I want? What doI believe? How is this against other people? Inwhat do I trust? What am I saying about God?
If, when we consider our hearts and seesexual sin, then our hearts are full of wants. Webelieve that God is not good and doesn’t reallysee our private lives. We trust in our owndevices to find satisfaction.
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If we see jealousy, our hearts believe thatlife can be found in what other people have.Furthermore, not only do we want it, we wishthey didn’t have it. We see God as our errandboy who has not given us what we wanted ordeserved.
If we see disrespect of authority, our heartssay that we want nothing above ourselves: notparents, not a boss, not God.
If children fight over a toy, change does notcome by discovering who had it first. Instead,change begins when children admit that fightsand quarrels come from “your desires that battlewithin you.”
You want something but don’t get it. Youdo not have, because you do not ask God.When you ask, you do not receive,because you ask with wrong motives, thatyou may spend what you get on your ownpleasures. You adulterous people, don’t youknow that friendship with the world ishatred toward God? (James 4:1-4)
To omit this step is to nurture Phariseeswho look good on the outside but whose “heartsare far from Me” (Matt. 15:8). We all can dothe right thing to protect our reputations, butGod wants more. He doesn’t want sacrifices andofferings that make us look good in front ofothers. “The sacrifices of God are a brokenspirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, youwill not despise” (Ps. 51:17).
We turn to and know the triune God.Having looked at our hearts, we turn to Jesus.True change takes place when we focus onknowing the One who truly deserves ourworship (2 Pet. 1:3). Though many of us assumethat change begins with a plan and a series ofsteps, change on the heart level instead centerson knowing a person.
This is true even on a human level. If youthink about the things that have led to changein your life, you will probably find that peoplewere usually the catalyst. Perhaps it was aperson’s presence during a difficult time, a wordof encouragement when you felt like a misfit, a
friend who stayed closer than a brother, aspouse’s gentle rebuke, or a person whosecharacter and life were inspirational. If peoplecan change us so, then how much more shouldwe expect God to change us!
That is why the path of change goesthrough the heart and continues forward to thegospel, where God chose to most fully revealhimself in the death and resurrection of Christ.It is in Jesus that the Father ultimately displaysHis goodness, His power, and His glory. And it isin Jesus that we find the power to change.
When you come to Jesus, expect to besurprised. You can’t be changed by someoneordinary. Having seen a little of our heart’smotives, start by being surprised that Jesusaccepts and forgives all who come to Him. Thisis what the cross ensures. There is no work ofpenance required, no “going to the woodshedfor a licking,” no sitting in the time-out chair.Instead, forgiveness of sins comes from God. It isreceived as a gift through faith (Rom. 1:17). If
forgiveness came by anything we did, it woulddetract from the glory of what Christ did. Itwould make God’s forgiveness ordinary. Itwould be no different from the way we forgivepeople who repay us for what they have done.But divine forgiveness is like nothing you haveever experienced. It was extended to us whilewe were sinners against God, not simply after wetried to reform ourselves. Given this jaw-dropping love, we can “approach the throne ofgrace with confidence” (Heb. 4:16). And this isjust the beginning. This love also changes theway we respond to the circumstances of life.
Do you complain and grumble? Now youknow that it is against God. Now you affirmthat he is generous and gives in abundance.
Do you indulge in sins you think arehidden? Now you know that these are againstGod. You acknowledge that the Revealer ofhearts is the One who sees all of his creation atall times (Ps. 139). What’s more, you thankHim for forgiving and liberating you from theslavery of sin.
True change takes place when we focus on knowingthe One who truly deserves our worship (2 Pet. 1:3).
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Do you struggle with fear? Now you knowthat He will never leave you or forsake you. Youaffirm that He is good.
Do you want to be the one to call the shotsin your own life, at least in one area? LikeAdam, you must think that there is life apartfrom the Life-giver. But now look at the crossagain. Doesn’t it prove His goodness and Hisgreat love for you? How can you think that,after giving His own Son, He will be stingy withyou now?
The power to change comes as we knowGod. Seek Him. Ask others to teach you aboutHim. Pray that you would know Him. If you do,you will know Him because God delights inrevealing Himself to us.
I keep asking that the God of our LordJesus Christ, the glorious Father, may giveyou the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, sothat you may know Him better. (Eph.1:17)
I pray that you, being rooted andestablished in love, may have power,together with all the saints, to grasp howwide and long and high and deep is thelove of Christ, and to know this love thatsurpasses knowledge—that you may befilled to the measure of all the fullness ofGod. (Eph 3:19)
We trust and obey. A growing knowledgeof a spouse or friend leads us to acts of love. Ina similar way, our personal knowledge of Godcompels us to action. It leads us to trust andobey.
When Steve, the angry man, sees that hisown heart is doing exactly what he accused hiscoworker of doing, and after he sees that theproblem rests more in his lack of trust in theLord than in his coworker’s alleged behavior, hecan take concrete steps in obedient love tocorrect the problem. For example, if hisattitudes toward his coworker were ever madepublic he should ask forgiveness.
[To his coworker] “I’ve been thinkingrecently about how self-centered I am. I amsure that you have seen it too. I want to askyour forgiveness for that. Please let me know ifyou see it again.”
Steve could include meditation on John13, where Jesus washes the disciples’ feet, as a
way to orient himself to life in Christ. He couldask other people to pray for him with thispassage in mind. The purpose in considering hismotivations is not just to have insight but also togrow and change.
The pattern of Scripture is clear. Its manystories reveal our hearts and then point us to theGod who forgives, woos, judges, initiates, andpursues. After seeing who God is and what Hehas done, we find a “therefore.”
Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearlyloved children and live a life of love, just asChrist loved us and gave Himself up for usas a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.(Eph. 5:1, 2)
Once we know Him, we want to followHim. Having been loved so much by Him, wewant to know how to love Him back.Everything that follows the “therefore” is God’sexplanation of how to do that.
We love Him, for example, by putting offfalsehood and speaking truthfully (Eph. 4:25),not sinning in our anger (Eph. 4:26), forgivingothers as we have been forgiven (Lk. 7:36-50),working rather than stealing (Eph.4:28), lovingfriends and enemies (Rom. 12:9-21), beingcontent in all our circumstances (Phil. 4:12),fighting the battle of self-control, and growing inpatience, gentleness, and joy (Gal. 5:23). In allthese ways, we love and honor our HeavenlyFather.
People are indeed complex. Beneath thesurface of life is a heart that is always on themove, looking for objects in which to trust(Luke 24:25; Rom. 10:10). The heart haspurposes (Prov. 20:5; Dan. 1:18), inclinations(Eccl. 10:2), intents (Heb. 4:12), imaginationsand schemes (Prov. 6:18), desires (Ps. 10:3,James 4:1), and cravings and lusts (1 John 2:16,Eph. 4:19). It is not surprising that, with suchcomplexity, our hearts are not alwaysimmediately understandable to others, or evento ourselves (Matt. 15:8; 1 Cor. 4:5; Prov. 16:2;Jer. 17:9). Like the bottom of a well or the rootsof trees, our hearts tend to be hidden, and wecan never fully know their depths.
But you don’t have to be a master analyst.All you need is a willingness to say, “Search me,O God” (Ps. 139:23), and you will begin to see.Don’t be too concerned if you feel like you are
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just scratching the surface. More importantthan knowing your motives is knowing God,and God is very generous in revealing Himself.He should be your primary focus. We should
spend more time looking at Christ than ininspecting our own hearts. For if you aregrowing in the knowledge of God, you will bechanged—even to the depths of your heart.
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