In 1 Cor 4:5, Paul tells us not to judge the motives of other believers. Every time I have heard this verse discussed, it has been said that if we see a Christian doing a good work, we should not question their motive. We don’t know their motive. Perhaps somebody is doing a Christian work that seems to be a good thing. But maybe they have ulterior motives. We must wait until we stand before the Judgment Seat of Christ. He will determine whether the works that appeared good were done in a way that pleased Him.
All of that is true. But it occurred to me recently that we can also look at something we perceive as sinful and misjudge the motives involved. What we judge as being bad may not be when we consider the motive that led to the action.
A true story from my own illustrates this. When I was in the ninth grade, I was on the school basketball team. There were twelve guys on the team and ten of them were black. A guy named Clay and I were the team’s only white players. We were the same height and build and looked very similar.
I broke my glasses during practice one day and spent the rest of the practice unable to see very well. When practice was over, I thought I would do something I considered funny. Our coach, Coach Ward, was also white. I walked up to him and said, “See you later, Clay.”
Obviously, I knew Coach Ward was not Clay. The point I was trying to make was that I couldn’t see. My intent was to appear to be mistaking him for the only other white guy in the gym. I was trying to say that without my glasses I was so blind that I thought Coach Ward was Clay.
OK, that was not a very funny joke. Still, I expected the coach to give a little laugh and tell me that Clay was on the other side of the gym and that I needed to get my glasses fixed. That is not what happened.
Coach Ward called the team together. He then asked me to stand in front of the team. He then screamed at me. He said, “Ken, if you ever call me by my first name again, I will wear your butt out.” (OK, he was really mad and did not use the word butt.) In those days, paddling was permitted in school. Coaches, in particular, were known to hit the hardest of all school officials. Their wooden paddles were huge. You didn’t want a paddling from them.
And yes, it turns out that Coach Ward’s first name was Clay. What were the odds that the only two white guys in the gym with me that day had that same fairly uncommon first name? I had had no idea what Coach Ward’s name was. To me, his first name was Coach. He thought I was being disrespectful to him and that I had the boldness to do so during practice. To his mind, I was trying to make him look foolish. He made an example of me, and let the team know that nobody was going to treat him that way. None of us would dare call him by his first name again.
I never explained to him what I was trying to do. It would have taken me too long, and I probably felt that he wouldn’t have believed me anyway. My lame attempt at a joke had obviously fallen seriously short. I was just glad that I didn’t get a big paddle applied to my backside.
I am sure that Coach Ward told other teachers and coaches what I had done. I am sure they laughed at how stupid I was. I am also sure they thought I was a brat and had foolishly and publicly disrespected someone in authority. They would have looked at me in a different way when they saw me in the school hallways. I am pretty confident that some of them said, “I would have worn Ken out if he had done that to me.”
The team felt the same way. Anybody who saw me do what I did would have come to the same conclusion. But all who saw or heard about what happened were wrong. They misjudged my motives. I had a world of respect for Coach Ward. I would never have disrespected him. I felt terrible that he thought I had. I just didn’t have the courage to let him know.
There is a lesson here for us. Clearly, there are sinful actions. But motives are a tricky thing. Some things may appear to be sinful, but actually are not. When we encounter such situations, maybe we should lean to the side of grace. Let’s let the Lord be the Judge.