During this time of year, many of us aspire to change. We say we’re going to work out more or eat healthier or make more money, etc. But what really lies at the root of our desire for change? Is it healthy? Or better yet, is it Christ-like?
I want to become a better person—someone who lives like Christ—but that so often means I must search the depths of myself to find the underlying motivation behind doing certain things.
This is because while we can aspire to change and being better, it means nothing if it’s coming from the wrong place.
So what does correct motivation for change look like? Before I discuss this, let me share with you common motivations for change that exist in our culture.
We live in an obvious culture of comparison, where we value our public, external image more than we do our internal character. Because of this, many people’s motivation for change is driven by an external circumstance rather than an internal conviction.
Two examples of this happening are a shame-based motivation and a fear-based motivation—two wrong, but common, motivations for change.
Using the example of working out, here’s what shame-based motivation looks like: “I need to work out because I’m ashamed of my body.”
This type of motivation is formed by the decisions we make or the shame that others place on us.
It’s true that sometimes we make poor decisions that drive us deeper into our shame.
We are not always the victims of shame. Sometimes, we are the purveyors of it.
For example, when Peter denied Jesus three times, he felt shame after realizing what he had done. But the thing was, he had made that choice.
This is important to mention because so often we want to see ourselves as the victim of shame. We want to believe that we feel shame because of culture or our friends, and that it’s not truly our fault that we feel this way. But before we decipher whether we have a shame-based motivation or not, we need to discern whether we are the cause of our shame or if it truly is because others place shame on us.
On the other side of things, people can place shame on us when they tell us we are not who we should be or that we should be perfect. This is troubling because sometimes shame can be blurred to sound like correct motivation.
What I mean is, we all know that we can be better, so when someone tells us we should, for example, work out because we’re getting unhealthy, that sounds good. But what I’ve learned is, it depends on the heart of the person and what relational equity they have with us whether this advice is shame or not. So for example, if a person tells you to work out or promotes the idea that you should hate your body without establishing the authority to say that to you (meaning they are not someone you trust or love), then that is often someone placing shame on you.
Shame-based motivation is not a healthy motivation because while it does promote you getting better, it does so at the expense of your self-identity. It promotes hatred for yourself and behaviors of beating yourself up.
And the pinnacle of these behaviors committed over and over again can lead to paralysis—where we give up on change because we believe it’s hopeless to better ourselves.
If we tell ourselves we are not worth anything long enough, we’ll actually start to believe it.
Shame never belongs as an ingredient for change, no matter what people say.
Or for example, “I want to work out because I don’t want to become like that.”
This is another motivation that’s driven by looking around us rather than in us. In our culture of fear and shame, we often see people who are doing wrong and become scared by that. We fear we’ll end up just like them. So sometimes, we take this fear and use it as motivation to become better.
But this is also not a healthy motivation. Why?
Because fear is controlling.
Think about moments you fall into fear and panic. You often don’t know what you’re doing in these moments, right? When we surrender to fear, we let it control our actions and thinking.
So when we have a fear-based motivation for change, we think we are doing good by wanting to become better, but we’re actually giving fear more power than it should have in our lives. As a result, we gain an unhealthy compulsion or obsession with change.
This is why people become oddly obsessed with their aspiration for change—because at the root of it, fear is driving them.
Also, an odd thing sometimes happens to those who have fear-based motivation: they sometimes become so obsessed with wanting to avoid a certain reality that they somehow make it happen.
For instance, people who want to work out because they don’t want to become like a certain person end up becoming like that person in some form or fashion. They might not gain the unhealthiness that the other person has, but they might gain the person’s shame for their body.
How does this happen? This happens because we often become like the things we dwell on. If fear is leading us to obsess over a certain person and their choices, without knowing, we often become like that person because we’ve spent so long dwelling on them.
A compulsion for change is not healthy, because believe it or not, we do not have absolute control over our lives. And if something were to happen tomorrow, we must be okay with it rather than trying to control things once more.
So this leads me to finally say what the correct motivation for change is.
Or for example, “I want to work out because I want to become a good steward of my body.”
I often talk about the importance of having core values in your life. But if we are to live like Christ and become better people, those core values need to be shaped with a theological perspective—meaning, the values we have for ourselves must have a Biblical foundation. Otherwise, we could be giving power to shame and fear in our lives rather than God.
A God-based motivation allows us to live within God’s design. This means, it incorporates freedom, humility, flexibility, and forgiveness. Fear and shame lead to worry and anxiety, but when we adopt God’s design, we give ourselves the grace to know we are loved in whatever state we’re in.
We need this understanding in our lives. We need to know that God loves us before we desire to become better. We need to anchor ourselves on the idea that God wants the best for us. Because once we can truly start to believe this, then our motivation for change will stem from wanting to give Him glory and honor.
So as you’re plotting out change for the New Year, take the time to ask yourself why you’re aspiring to change. Is it because there’s shame or fear in your life? Or is it because you want to live within God’s design?
If you want to explore a God-based motivation for all your endeavors, then take the time to read and study the Bible. I used to hate when older adults told me to read the Bible because it sounded like such a cliché response to all my problems. Now I understand just how crucial it is.
To have the values that align with God’s design for us, we have to be in His word.
There’s no other way of knowing His intention for our lives.
Let the word of Scripture, the love of community, and the mission of the Church penetrate your values and push you toward the correct motivation for change.