Motivation and Spiritual Formation

In his biography of Michael Jordan, Roland Lazenby recalls an important moment in Jordan’s childhood. While young Michael was assisting his Dad with fixing a car, James Jordan requested a particular wrench from his son. After watching his son fumble, unable to locate the correct size, James Jordan barked, “You don’t know what the h— you’re doing. Go in there with the women!”

This encounter replayed in Jordan’s mind. It became the fuel to his competitive fire. He didn’t belong with the women and he would do whatever it took to prove it. Reflecting on this incident, Michael’s sister Deloris recalled:

During the early days of his NBA career, [Jordan] confessed that it was my father’s early treatment of him and Daddy’s declaration of his worthlessness that became the driving force that motivated him…Each accomplishment that he achieved was his battle cry for defeating my father’s negative opinions of him.

One might conclude that Jordan’s motivation proved successful. He is, after all, considered to be the greatest professional basketball player of all-time. If all that matters are trophies that will ultimately turn to dust, then Jordan’s motivation certainly proved successful.

What struck me; however, were not the trophies and accomplishments, but the way in which Jordan’s motivation formed him into a particular type of person. Throughout Jordan’s career he made people feel the worthlessness that he once felt, berating them, mocking them, in what seemed to be an effort to bring out their best. To Jordan, everyone needed to prove his or her worth. What motivated Jordan formed him over time into the worst parts of his own father.

Motivations matter. And it’s a lesson I recently needed to hear.

While I was in seminary, I counted on going on to earn a PhD after completing my master’s. For three years I planned, prepared, and desired to do this. This goal dictated my class schedule, how I spent my winter and summer breaks, and the networks I chose for myself. All the while, I never paused and reflected honestly on what motivated this desire.

One spring break, I opened Lazenby’s biography of Michael Jordan, and suddenly the sinful layers of own heart lay open front of me. I realized that while growing up, I had often battled the feeling of worthlessness. For the majority of my childhood I modeled mediocrity. My grades were hardly excellent; I lacked athletic talent, and progressed in nothing to call my own. Making this worse was being surrounded in Western KY/ Southern, IL by men who were almost all tough, hard-working, and void of strong emotion. I was none of those things. For these reasons, a crisis of identity seemed to follow me year after year.

I would eventually become the first person in my immediate family to attend college, but the crisis followed. I spent the majority of my college career attempting to dispel these beliefs about myself without even realizing it.

I had to finally confront myself with the “why” of doing doctoral work. I broke down and admitted that I didn’t possess a burning passion to teach or a genuine desire to contribute to scholarly knowledge. I didn’t even have a strong desire to write, or publish—all fine reasons to pursue a PhD!

What motivated me was the desire to prove my own worth; to prove to myself that I wasn’t stupid, mediocre, or worthless.

Unfortunately, I came to realize that, like Michael Jordan, my motivation had formed me into a type of person. Rather than viewing my professors as helpful teachers, they became monsters I feared. I was paralyzed by the dread that they wouldn’t like me. I sat in class nervously hoping I wouldn’t hear something to the effect of, ‘You don’t know what you’re doing!” I also dreaded my friends as they became comparative measuring sticks for my own success, rather than comrades. This gnawing fear and drive left me with good grades, but I robbed myself of experiencing them in purity. My motivations formed me into something less than God intended me to be.

With this new knowledge about myself, I did the only thing I could do—I repented. I made a conscious decision to no longer pursue a PhD, the very thing I had coveted for the past three years. For me (and me alone) the achievement was not worth the price of what I would have had to become. The pursuit of a good thing with deviant motivations was wrong.

Like the old hymn says, “My worth is not in what I own,” but in the God who created me in His image and set his love on me before the foundation of the world. This love appeared in real time in Christ crucified and risen. It was then applied to me by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit. I am made by Christ and for Christ. My acceptance by my heavenly Father gives me the grounds on which to fight my fears and insecurities, and the gospel of grace purifies my motivations.

Why we do something is just as important as what we do. Our motivations reveal what we believe about ourselves and about those with whom we interact. In the Christian life this means that our motivations reveal what we really believe about God and what we really believe about our standing before God. The only proper motivation is the grace of God in Christ Jesus. If this can be what motivates us in all of life then we can trust it will also overflow into our being and slowly form us into the type of person God intends us to be.

*This post was improved because of suggestions by Samuel James.