What do you want? What do you desire? What is your ambition?
Do you really want to know? Look at your behavior. You do what you want.
This is a devastatingly simple psychology of motivation. But it’s what the Bible teaches:
James: Faith without works is dead. Don’t tell me you have faith if the way you live doesn’t back up what you say. (James 2:17–18)
John: Love without deeds is dead. Don’t tell me you love if the way you live doesn’t back up what you say. (1 John 3:17–18)
Paul: Grace without holiness is dead. Don’t tell me you revel in God’s grace if the way you live doesn’t back up what you say. (Romans 6:12–14)
Jesus: Discipleship without obedience is dead. Don’t tell me I’m your Lord if the way you live doesn’t back up what you say. (Matthew 7:21)
We may say what sounds orthodox, but we do what we really believe. We may say what sounds loving, but we do what we love. We may say what sounds like gospel, but we do what is our gospel. We may say what sounds like a disciple, but we do what our Master demands.
The same is true when it comes to our desire: we may say what we wish, but we do what we want. Our pesky behaviors — they’re our worst betrayers. They keep leaking to the press what’s going on behind the closed doors of our hearts and undermining all the hard work our press-secretary tongues do trying to manage public perception.
We need this biblical straight talk. We often need it without much nuance or qualification. Because we live in an age of paralyzing complexity. Life is complex. We are complex. When the Bible often speaks in black-and-white terms, we quickly want to qualify things. We want to explain the shaping effect of our family of origin, the massive influence of our painful experiences, the added difficulty of our particular disorders, and what our Myers-Briggs personality profile reveals about our motivations. Cut us some slack! We have reasons why our walk doesn’t match our talk.
Well, James, John, and Paul would totally get it. In fact, if they could, they’d shed some light on the complexities and hardships of life and discipleship in the first century: the grinding work from early childhood, the frequent deaths they witnessed growing up, the brutality of every governing power, the arduous and dangerous travel, the difficulty of teaching illiterate people, the struggle to communicate between churches, the constant threat of death when evangelizing, the horrifying persecutions of friends, and the martyrdoms they themselves eventually experienced.
And yes, Jesus understands us, too. He created us (John 1:3). And he also became one of us (John 1:14). He is more sympathetic than we know (Hebrews 4:15). He knows how complex we are. And he really knows how simple we are: we do what we believe, we do what we love, we do what we want (Matthew 6:21, 24).
So, when we look at what we do and reach the place where we don’t want to want what we want anymore, what do we do? We stop traversing the labyrinth of our mind and heart in search of the keys that will unlock the prison doors of our past, and we liberate the repressed potential of our personalities, and we go to Jesus. And what does Jesus tell us to do? He calls us to action, because action not only reveals desire; it reinforces desire.
First, Jesus calls us to repent (Mark 1:15). Repentance is not mere remorse. Repentance is ceasing sinful behavior, and beginning to behave in ways consistent with holy desires. John the Baptist called these the fruits of repentance (Luke 3:8). Repentance may be more than a change in behavior, but it is not less.
Second, Jesus calls us to believe (Mark 1:15; 9:23). For Jesus, believing is never mere intellectual assent to a creed. It always implies and requires action. James’s statement that faith without works is dead is backed up by the entire Bible. If you believe God, you will do what he says (Matthew 7:21; John 14:15).
Third, Jesus calls us to follow Him (John 10:27). Following Jesus is a life of pursuit of Jesus. It is a call to renounce everything (Luke 14:33). Yes, everything. We keep nothing from Jesus, and what we have, we receive from him and steward for him. We are not our own; we are his (1 Corinthians 6:19–20). Our lives become an active seeking of Christ’s kingdom ahead of everything else (Matthew 6:33).
Now, I know all this action talk can be misunderstood and abused, because it always has been. No, we are not saved by our behaviors, but by God’s grace through the gift of faith (Ephesians 2:8). But Jesus calls us to receive this grace by exercising faith — by making behavioral demands on us. He does this because (1) our behaviors are the external demonstrations of our true internal desires, and (2) our behaviors themselves become a means of sanctifying grace. “If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them” (John 13:17). Holy habits actually work to deepen our beliefs, increase our affections, and intensify our desires.
Christianity wages war on passivity and inaction. Our faith without action is dead. Eternal life is to be taken hold of (1 Timothy 6:19). Christians must be graciously aggressive when it comes to the way we live. Words like striving (Hebrews 4:11), straining (Philippians 3:13), self-denial (Luke 9:23), fighting (1 Timothy 6:12), whatever it takes (Philippians 3:11), and courage (Psalm 27:14) are not for our lips only. They are words of behavioral action. And they are words of grace, not works-righteousness.
What do you want? What is your ambition? For God’s sake, be ambitious. Of course, avoid selfish ambition like hell (James 3:14–15). But like Paul, who made reaching the unreached his great ambition (Romans 15:20), make Christ’s kingdom and his holy call on you your great and holy and life-consuming ambition — the church he’s placed you in, and the people he’s called for you to love, and the work he’s given your hands to do, and the sin he’s called you to overcome, and the weaknesses he’s allowed you to struggle with, and the adversity he’s called you to strive against, and the suffering he’s called you to endure. Do what Jesus says. Do whatever it takes to want what’s right. And then, with that new heart, do what you want.
Jon Bloom (@Bloom_Jon) serves as author, board chair, and co-founder of Desiring God. He is author of three books, Not by Sight, Things Not Seen, and Don’t Follow Your Heart. He and his wife live in the Twin Cities with their five children.