I hate to admit it, but a growing self-awareness emerges from a quiet place in my prayer: most of the time, I have a hidden agenda and ulterior motives. I do something nice for someone, but I’m secretly hoping to be liked. I donate to a worthwhile cause, but I also want to feel good about myself. I go the extra mile to serve a client, but I have a covert desire for recognition and appreciation.
All behavior includes both a “what” and a “why.” “What” is the content of the action: doing something nice for someone. “Why” describes the motivation behind it: I secretly hope to be liked. Motivation, like an onion, has multiple layers. There is a generous part of me that sincerely wants to do something nice. But, when I peel back the layers, it reveals a dimension of self-interest: I want something in return.
In his book The Better Part, Thomas Keating provides an insightful reflection on Martha’s struggle with “what” and “why.” In the well-known story of preparing dinner for Jesus and the disciples, the conflict revolves around Martha’s frantic efforts while Mary sits at Jesus’ feet. (Luke 10: 38-42) Martha loves Jesus, and there is nothing wrong with her “what” – extending herself to provide hospitality. Martha’s dilemma is that she has a “why” problem – her motivation is flawed. As Keating puts it:
Although Martha is busy serving Jesus, her motivation is shot through with selfishness . .. There is nothing wrong with Martha’s activity. It is her motivation that is defective. In Christianity, motivation is everything. 1
Keating’s commentary provides us with helpful insights that can lead to increasing our own self-awareness.
Any time we are upset by anything, the source of the problem is primarily in ourselves. Complaining about Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet is (Martha’s) way of projecting her problem onto someone else. Martha needs to let go of her attachment to the results of her work. She is active in the service of God, but . . . she is working for herself. No doubt she thinks she is working solely for God, but in fact her motivation is mixed. 2
When I peel back the layers of my own motivation, it reveals that – like Martha – most of the time I have a “why problem.” One of the temptations of living a spiritual life is the tendency to see our motivation as noble and selfless. It’s hard to admit that, all too often, self-interest is part of the mix. It’s humbling to come to grips with the why of our actions, to acknowledge that our motives aren’t as pure as we’d like to think they are.
When a deeper awareness of our mixed motivation emerges, it can be disheartening. It can cause us to digress into negative thoughts, self-judgement, and even self-condemnation. When that occurs, there is much we can learn from the wisdom of St. Therese of Lisieux, the Little Flower. After confronting her own weakness and being nagged by self-doubt and self-judgment, Therese provided the following advice to her sister Celine: “When you are able to bear serenely the trial of being displeasing to yourself, then you will be for Jesus a pleasant place of shelter.” 3
Serenely bearing the trial includes an unflinching willingness to grow in self-awareness – even when doing so leads to unflattering conclusions. It encompasses letting go of the egocentric need to be perfect and our misguided attempts to pretend to be. Serenely bearing the trial allow us to move beyond our own ego-driven efforts and open ourselves to the mercy, forgiveness, and love of God. In doing that, we create the room for God to work – inviting Jesus in, giving him a pleasant place of shelter, and allowing the divine presence to grow within us.
Paul’s letter to the community at Philippi builds on Therese’s advice to Celine. It urges us to take on the mind of Christ – moving beyond self-interest to embrace self-emptying.
Let each of you not look to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross. (Phil 2: 4-8)
The spiritual journey is a lifelong process of coming to ever deeper self-awareness. It inevitably leads to confronting the hidden agendas and ulterior motives of our mixed motivation. When we discover – like Martha – that we have a “why problem”, it is an invitation to join Therese and Celine in serenely bearing the trial of being displeasing to ourselves. Accepting that invitation urges us to become a pleasant place of shelter for Jesus, take on the mind of Christ, and empty ourselves. The spiritual journey is a lifelong process of conversion is which we give God the room to work within us – opening ourselves to receive the divine gifts of mercy, forgiveness, and love.
Questions to Ponder
Here are some questions to help you ponder more deeply.
– In what ways do you have a “why problem” – mixed motivation that includes a hidden agenda and self-interest?
– In what ways do you need to learn to “serenely bear the trial of being displeasing to yourself?”
– In what ways do you need to move beyond your own ego-driven efforts and open yourself to the mercy, forgiveness, and love of God?
– How are you being called to take on the mind of Christ – engaging in humbling self-emptying?
1 Thomas Keating, The Better Part: Stages of Contemplative Living (New York, Continuum International Publishing Group, Inc. 2002), pp. 17-18. (Keating’s unique description of Martha, Mary, and Lazarus is a rich integration of spiritual wisdom and psychological insight. It is much richer than the brief highlights I cover here. I recommend that you go directly to the source.)
2 Ibid., p. 17-18.
3 F.J. Sheed, The Collected Letters of St. Therese of Lisieux (London, Sheed and Ward, 1949) p. 303.