The Motive Police


Perhaps you’ve heard of the Nashville Statement. It’s not a tourist brochure. On August 29, 2017 the document was released by a group of 150+ Christian signatories as a “statement of the core Christian position regarding human sexuality and gender,” expressed as 14 affirmations and denials. As you’d expect, there was an immediate social media response. Christian critics tweeted their displeasure and anger.

“The fruit of the ‘Nashville Statement’ is suffering, rejection, shame, and despair. The timing is callous beyond words.” (Jen Hatmaker tweet)

I have my own statement on the #NashvilleStatement. It could be lots of words but honestly I could probably narrow it down to just a finger. (John Pavlovitz tweet)

After #Charlottesville & #Harvey, a bunch of mostly-white, mostly-male evangelicals release a “manifesto” on sexuality. (Shane Claiborne)

Then the Christian supporters of the statement volleyed back.

“I understand that (Rachel Held) Evans is fond of distancing herself from orthodox Christianity – it opens far more worldly doors for her that way.” “Let those motivated by the love of Christ rather than the love of self choose wiser.”
Peter Heck, (

No Christian truly committed to the faith could object to the wording of the Nashville Statement. (Erick Erickson tweet)

I’ve a concern about the responses of my Christian brothers and sisters, many of whom have encouraged my own faith in their writings and who love God more than I do, I’m sure. So, what’s my concern? The responses of these good-hearted people seem to shut off any opportunity for partly wrong people to work together to figure out where each may be wrong. One factor that always works against transformative dialogue is judging the motives of others.

Judging motives. We all do it, but is that wrong? Is that a bad thing? The word “judge” has a range of meaning, one of which is “to assess.” Assessing motives is natural and unavoidable. We are—all of us—detectives at heart, or motive police. This isn’t a bad thing. When we see a person’s action, we invariably consider why, often unconsciously. We are wired to ask why.

In our home, my wife usually gives me a “good night” and “I love you” before she goes to bed, but one night she doesn’t. Without any conscious decision, an internal computer works to figure out why. There are a range of options: She’s terribly tired and sleepy. She’s feeling really sad and depressed. She’s pissed off at me. She’s feeling a bit ill. She’s forgetful (we are, after all, well into our 50’s now). Take a moment to think of other possibilities.

A crack member of the motive police, I choose one of the possibilities. I draw a conclusion. Here’s where it often gets criminal. For me, there’s this disturbing magnetic pull to the darkest option. So my conclusion is likely to be: She’s angry, and she’s sending me that “silent treatment” message. Having determined her motive, I’ll find myself mentally responding to it. “Oh, so that’s how it is.” Or “That is so immature” or “Well, I don’t have to say anything to you when I go to bed either” or (fill in your own suggestion). My response will usually impact on our next morning specifically and our marriage generally. Not in a good way.

Assessing motive is a normal, helpful part of being human. But notice that I’ve done far more than simply assess. I’ve concluded what her motive was, I’ve assumed I was right, and I’ve treated her accordingly—some combination of anger, isolation, and pride. This judgment of motive divides, wounds, and stunts growth. It discourages dialogue and undermines relationship. It hurts both me and the other. And it keeps partly wrong people firmly entrenched in where they’re wrong.

I go back to the Nashville statement. Both the critics of the statement and the critics of the critics are motivated by something. There are an array of options for us to choose. I immediately feel the negative ones rise to the top: That person is grasping at control. That person loves the praise of people more than the praise of God. That person hates gays. That person’s insecure. That person is prejudiced.

But there’s another possibility, isn’t there? Like this one: That’s a person like me who deeply loves God and is trying to figure out what God’s heart for human flourishing is, but like me, they sometimes get things wrong.

This is exactly where God wants us partly wrong people to start. I Corinthians 13:7 reminds us that love “believeth all things (KJV) or “love trusts.” Love believes the best motive, which is closely tied to the chapter’s uncomfortable reminders that love keeps no record of wrongs and is not easily angered (13:6). This love that believes the best motive opens the door for so much good.

But Roger, sometimes people’s motives are broken and unhealthy. Of course they are, as I know well from observing my own heart. Neither you nor I, however, are in the position to know anyone’s motives as God does. Remember, we’re partly wrong. More than that, negative motive assessments are typically destructive. There’s a reason why God calls us to believe the best motive. It’s better to believe the best about someone and be wrong than to believe the worst and be right. When people’s ideas or motives are flawed, they’re most likely to change in the context of a community where the best is believed about them.

Isn’t that true about you? How open to conversation and change are you when people say things like:

I knew you’d get it wrong.
You always just look out for yourself.
You only do things to impress people.
You’ll never change.
I told her you’d forget, and I was right.

Those kinds of words shut me down. Beat me down. End any conversation. Any civil conversation. And my partly wrong is not likely to change. When we assume the worst about people, we make it less likely for their partly wrong to be changed.

I come back one final time to the Nashville Statement. The statement broaches some subjects that Christians desperately need to discuss together to better understand the heart of God and where each of us is wrong. That’ll begin with believing the very best motives about people who hold a different position than our own.

When we embrace a negative motive narrative, these vital conversations just won’t happen. They won’t want to learn anything from us, and we’ll conclude we’ve nothing to learn from them. We’ll stay more ignorant, missing the opportunity to learn where we may be wrong. We’ll stay more arrogant—certain that we know people’s motives and can’t possibly be wrong.

Signers of the Nashville Statement like John Piper and Francis Chan and Jackie Hill-Perry have influenced me for good. Critics of the statement like Brian McLaren and Jen Hatmaker and Shaine Claiborne are writers whose words have influenced me for good. I need them all. We all need what they have to say. We all need to be in dialogue together, seeking to hear God in community rather than retreating to increasingly smaller circles where people believe mostly like I do. I’m not saying that we’ll end up agreeing on everything, but we’ll grow wiser in the dialogue, and we‘ll reflect a grace and unity our world desperately needs to see and know.

It’s better to believe the best about someone and be wrong than to believe the worst and be right. And when we believe the best, we open the door to vital conversations that can help us all get a bit more right.

[The feature photo is by djgmix at]


For each weekday of the month of July (and Aug. 1-3), I am blogging a chapter from my book, Partly Wrong, to be published this fall. This blog is chapter twenty. I welcome any feedback that will help to make it a better chapter.


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