When Going Through the Motions is Not Enough

by Mike Leake November 20, 2017

You’ve likely heard the old Christian slogan, “Fact! Faith! Feelings!” I remember when I first became a believer, I stumbled upon a picture of a train with those words inside each train car. The caboose was labeled “feelings” and the locomotive was labeled “fact.”And it was explained this way: “The train will run with or without the caboose. However, it would be futile to attempt to pull the train by the caboose.”

There is healthy truth in this slogan. In fact, I said something similar last Sunday when I told our congregation that we need our theology to inform our feelings instead of the other way around. This is similar to the wording of that tract, so there is a way in which this slogan can be very helpful.

There are times when I’m in the darkness of depression that I need to hear, “Get up, get to work, do the things you ought to be doing, and stop focusing so much on your feelings!” That’s good counsel for me in those moments. But I’m convinced there is also a way in which the "just keep doing stuff until you feel it" is deadly to my walk with Christ. In fact, as I study the Scriptures I’m increasingly convinced that a “going through the motions” Christianity is potentially Satanic. Let me explain through a set of propositions.

Real ministry is tough and comes with little affirmation. It’s very difficult to measure changed hearts. Ministry is messy in a messed up world. It’s difficult labor and the stuff that really matters is often what goes unnoticed. For example, people often only remember tiny snippets of some of your sermons. Yet, this is the way God has designed for his people to grow, through slow, plodding discipleship.

The outward stuff that can be measured is what tends to get affirmation. When a group of pastors get together, we tend to measure one another based upon mostly unimportant things like budgets, buildings, and numbers like professions of faith. The outside of the cup is what people notice, that’s why the Pharisees worked so vigorously to clean it. Jesus said they were hungry for the praise of men, so everything they did in ministry was outward.

When I’m running on empty, my foolish heart will gravitate towards the things that result in praise. When I’m just going through the motions, I am likely going to be doing all the outside stuff that people notice and that people praise. As pastors, we know that if our budgets, buildings, and numbers start to fade, then people are going to notice. Our inward life can crumble and collapse with little fanfare. But it’s when the outside of the cup starts to get smudges that we get the hint that we might want to tidy up our resume.

This is the point where that fact, faith, feeling thing gets really dangerous. We start running through the motions and putting all our time and energy into outward behavior. We climb on the praise of man treadmill. If people are pleased with us and celebrating out outward performance we assume that things are okay with our inward lives.

And this is how you end up with a guy standing before Jesus with a long list of things he did for the Lord, but winding up in hell (Matthew 7).

The devil doesn’t care one bit about preventing us from doing works for the Lord; he cares about preventing belief and trust in our union with Christ. Don’t believe me?

Notice what the devil prevents in Luke 8:12 – “The ones along the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved.”

Notice what Satan blinds unbelievers to in 2 Corinthians 4:4 – “In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.”

You see, the enemy is perfectly fine with us doing all sorts of works, even in the name of Jesus. He is perfectly fine with us going through the motions and being outwardly obedient, so long as the inner life is not captivated by Jesus. This is why I say at times telling someone to just keep doing stuff until they feel again might be helpful advice. But it also might be Satanic.

The key here is whether going through the motions is meant to get me by by keeping up an appearance or whether it is to hang onto hope even while our affections are disordered. It’s easy to go through the motions for a lengthy season, sometimes even seasons filled with the praise of man, and not even realize that our inward lives are out of order. When we realize, though, that we are just going through the motions, it is key that we mourn this fact, rather than minimize it with Christian slogans that keep us busy while our souls wither.