Can people proclaim the best news in the world with really bad intentions? They can—and they’ve been doing it since day one. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul was all kinds of happy that his imprisonment was serving as a catalyst for increased gospel proclamation (Philippians 1:18). But he didn’t neglect to mention that some people were preaching Christ from envy and rivalry (Philippians 1:15), desiring to intensify Paul’s already heavy affliction. These guys weren’t talking about Jesus because they loved Jesus and wanted to see others love Him—they wanted to diminish Paul’s influence and strengthen their own causes. They had ulterior motives.
There is no doubt that the Christian culture of 2016 is still plagued by insincere Jesus-talkers. Just turn your television to TBN for a few hours, and you’ll encounter all sorts of phonies who are using the gospel to serve their own self-advancing agendas. And articles titled things like “Pastor Arrested For Embezzling Thousands” or “Missionary Charged With Sexual Assault” pop up all the time, detailing the corrupt secret lives of those who, on the surface, appeared to be stand up guys. An eloquent articulation of the gospel can easily flow from the mouth of someone whose heart is all jacked up. But what about those of us who aren’t preachers or teachers and have no money or big praise to gain in sharing the gospel privately with our friends? Though we may not be driven by envy or greed or the praise of men, can our evangelistic efforts still be rooted in attitudes of the heart that are not so great? Can we be motivated by something that is less than love for Christ and a desire to see others love Christ? I think so.
I’ve been a member of a church plant (startup) in New Orleans since 2012. And in church plant life, evangelism is the name of the game. We definitely love, serve, and disciple one another; a biblical community without fellowship is no biblical community at all. But when you do church in an unreached city that proudly waves the “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die” banner, your focus is obviously going to be largely evangelistic. We are always seeking to befriend, love, and share Christ with the unbelieving residents of our community. Our eyes are always peeled for opportunities to do this; our minds are always spinning with ideas about how to better do this; our prayers are always filled with pleas to God to help us do this. We eat, drink, and sleep evangelism.
But if I’m honest, sometimes I find myself merely going through the motions of all this “reaching people with the gospel” stuff. I find myself living on mission for Jesus merely because I am supposed to live on mission for Jesus. I find myself sharing the gospel merely because I have an obligation to share the gospel.
Now I know what some of you are thinking: “Matt, there’s nothing wrong with that! Sharing the gospel is something we are supposed to do; it is an obligation.” I almost totally agree. Jesus didn’t insist we make disciples; he demanded it. We are supposed to do it; it is an obligation. But superficial adherence to the will of God is not pleasing to God (Matthew 15:8)—and this is where I’m saying I’m at, sometimes. There are seasons when I find myself generally unaffectionate toward God, apathetic about others’ need for him, and just robotically performing my evangelistic obligations. And I think this might be just as displeasing to God as the person who preaches Christ from envy and rivalry.
Though I may be doing and saying the right things on the surface, the indifference in my heart robs God of glory. It makes him look, even if just within my own soul, to be dull and insignificant. The truth is that God is the most beautiful, satisfying, and intriguing Reality in existence, and living on mission for him is the ultimate privilege. But my “I’m only doing this because I have to” state of heart denies that truth. I dishonor God in my mechanical obedience. I devalue God in my indifference. Will he move in people’s lives when I share the gospel despite my apathy? Sure. But is he pleased with the intentions of my heart? I doubt it.
I’m not saying I need to always be 100% filled with an emotionally charged love for Christ and others in order for my evangelistic efforts to be sincere and pleasing to God. I don’t even think that’s possible! Conflicting desires and mixed motives are always present, to some degree, in the heart of every Christian. However, the general disposition of my heart should be such that my endeavor to live a gospel-sharing life flows out of a real love for God and others—not a mere sense of obligation.
Since becoming aware of my propensity towards robotic obedience, I’ve learned to keep diligent watch over myself. When I find my heart slipping into a state of dullness and apathy toward Jesus and his mission, I get on my knees and start pleading. I plead with the Spirit to give my spirit strength. I plead with him to enable me to see the beauty of Jesus. I plead with him to open my eyes to others’ need for Jesus. And he always responds to these pleas. Every single time.