A Word from the Pastor: The Motivation Trap
I once had a student* who immediately started falling behind in our course. I emailed him to see how I could help him get on board without falling farther behind. This was, in part, his response:
“I have a hard time being motivated to do things these days. It’s all in my head, I know. I’m sure you’ve heard it all before. I’m slowly trying to put myself together and get into the correct mindset. I’m looking for the motivation to do things in a stressful environment. Thanks for your concern.”
And can you identify with that? I sure can. Whether it’s exercising, cleaning out the garage, or fixing some minor thing around the house, sometimes the motivation to do those things is elusive. Who wouldn’t rather read an entertaining book or watch TV instead of cleaning out the dryer vent!? And it turns into a vicious cycle: we don’t feel like exercising, so we don’t; then we feel disgusted with ourselves for not doing the thing we should be doing; then finally, we kick ourselves for failing and feel ashamed of ourselves. This is how New Year’s resolutions die a slow, painful death, by the way.
In our Western minds, we all carry a common assumption: that motivation precedes action. It’s a simple idea that makes sense. If we are going to do something—whatever it is—we have to have the proper motivation to do it. If it is to be authentic and long-lasting, then we must wait for inspiration to strike us. Otherwise, if we’re not adequately motivated, then our desired behavior will die out, right?
This is why many people don’t go to worship or don’t read their Bibles or pray (not to mention exercising and eating right). That is, they don’t feel like doing it. They’re not motivated to go to church or pick up their Bibles. Their phones and devices are far more alluring than a Bible. And any movie or football game is more exciting than church.
But what if we get it all wrong? What if we—along with my student—have it backwards? What if instead of motivation preceding action, the action precedes motivation? My student perfectly articulates what psychologists call the Motivation Myth or the Motivation Trap. The motivation trap, as articulated by Dr. Russ Harris “states that we wait to feel motivated before we take any action.” Which sounds perfectly normal to our ears. What’s the big deal? Well, “the problem is that if you’re always waiting for motivation to hit, you may be waiting your whole life! While you’re waiting on motivation, motivation is waiting on you. Because committed action comes first, and motivation comes second.” (Rubin Khoddam)
And this insight from psychology works in the spiritual life, too. If we are seeking to lead a life that draws us closer to Jesus Christ, then we need to avoid the Motivation Trap. To borrow a phrase, we need to “just do it.” It’s not a multi-step process to overcome our lethargy. It is a one-step technique: We take committed, valued action, regardless of our perceived feelings of motivation. We simply must gather our will and do the thing we know is right. We don’t wait around until we “feel” like going to church; we simply get dressed, get in the car, and go. Then, after we have done it—and after we keep doing it many times—we start to learn a new habit, and we begin to be changed by our behaviors, from the outside in.
Note well: this is not works righteousness. We don’t earn salvation; we don’t work our way toward God. But I’m telling you, the flesh is weak, even if the spirit is willing. Because of our fallen human nature (that even psychologists acknowledge), we need to overcome our limitations and inclinations and simply do what is right. It may seem absurd, but we have to trick ourselves into new behaviors.
The apostle James gives us sage advice from centuries past: “But be doers of the word and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” (James 1:23 CSB) That is, we may have great intentions, and we may be (on some level) desperately searching for spiritual renewal. But the basic truth is, we just need to get busy doing the things that put us in touch with God.
I wish the story of my student had a happy ending, but it doesn’t. The Motivation Myth is deeply etched into our collective minds. Like he said, it’s all in our heads. And sadly, it has a way of defeating us making us complacent, waiting around for inspiration to strike. But I say, strike first.
* The details of this example have been intentionally obscured to protect the student’s identity.
The Life of Our Church
Online or In-Person Services
We are open in a “new normal”! Feel free to worship in-person, with common-sense precautions (e.g., masks and keeping social distance). But if you are uncomfortable coming to worship, you may worship virtually through our YouTube channel. We will stream the service live, and the service will be archived after that.
Please visit and subscribe to our YouTube channel to discover our videos:
“Socially Distanced Sunday School.” Bring your Bible and a friend. Every Sunday at 9:30 a.m. We will be starting the Letter of James, so this is a great time to get involved!
American Baptist Women’s Ministries
ABWM will meet on Wednesday, March 17, at 1:30 p.m.
Daylight Saving Time will begin on Sunday, March 14. Please set your clocks ahead one hour, or you will come to church just in time for the benediction! In related news, did you see that the Iowa legislature is considering a bill to make Standard Time permanent? The Gazette reports here.
Catholic Charities Domestic Violence
Do you know someone who is in trouble? Domestic violence is a serious problem, even in our own neighborhood! Catholic Charities (Diocese of Des Moines) offers help and hope with their Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Program. They offer shelter, recovery, prevention, and a whole host of programs for those affected by domestic violence. For more information, visit: www.catholiccharitiesdm.org. Their 24/7 hotline is (888) 612-0266.
Our deacons will gather after worship on March 14.
Atlantic Food Pantry
The Atlantic Food Pantry has seen dramatically heavier usage this winter! They always need food and monetary donations. Please consider supporting the food pantry, either directly or by dropping off goods here at our sanctuary. Also, they don’t need any more empty egg cartons.
Communion in March
We will celebrate the Lord’s Supper on Sunday, February 7. And if you are watching worship on YouTube, you are certainly encouraged to participate at home with your own elements.
America for Christ Offering
“And he himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, to build up the body of Christ.” (Ephesians 4:11-12 CSB)
The American Baptist Home Mission Society strives to make a difference for Christ right here in our own land—through COVID-19 relief, natural disaster assistance, seminary student support, and programs for those in poverty. Please help them continue to bring healing and hope to communities, families, children and Jesus’ disciples in 2021 by supporting this year’s America for Christ Offering. We will receive this special offering on Sunday, March 21, and Sunday, March 28. To see how AFC gifts are used, or to give online, please visit:
Our Presbyterian brethren have invited us to observe a solemn Maundy Thursday service at their house of worship (616 Chestnut) at 6:00 p.m. on Thursday, April 1. We will share the Lord’s Supper during that service. This service will also be live streamed on FUPC’s YouTube channel: www.tinyurl.com/atlanticpresbyterian.
Our ecumenical Good Friday service will be Friday, April 2, at 6:00 p.m. at the First United Presbyterian Church. Come and remember Jesus’ death for our sakes. And likewise, this service will be live streamed on their YouTube channel: www.tinyurl.com/atlanticpresbyterian.
Bring a friend and your family as we celebrate the pinnacle of the Christian year: Jesus’ resurrection. 10:30 a.m. on Sunday, April 4. We will share the Lord’s Supper on that day.
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