Awakening to Pathological Motivations

by Dr. James Willingham

There are all kinds of awakenings, but one of the most important is that of becoming aware of the shortcomings of one’s own motivations.  I have called these shortcomings pathological motivations, because they are basically destructive to all parties concerned where they become evident.  One of the extreme examples was the mass suicides of Jonestown in South America, evil produced by the sick motivations of the leader of the group, the so-called pastor, the Rev. Jim Jones. Such examples are not all that rare.  They just happen to be not that extreme.  Consider how some people can use a controversy to advance their own causes, their own careers, and do it at the expense of others.  There are instances of pastors who must have their people at church so often that the poor souls have no time for family life or anything else, except to work and support by offerings and presence, that pastor who suffers from an inner sense of insecurity.  An inner insecurity can often be satisfied only by outward signs of security, that is, by the control the individual exercises over others.  Other forms of this can involve having the biggest church, the most baptisms, etc.  I once heard of two pastors who came to the point of actually getting in a fist fight over who had the most in Sunday School on a given Sunday Morning.

      Yes, even Christians can have pathological motives.  Just consider how the Disciples of our Lord were arguing over who would be greatest in His kingdom – even in the shadow of the cross.  Two of Disciples had their mother make an effort to influence the Lord Jesus in granting them the privileges (and the power and fame they thought came with it is understood) of setting on His right hand and His left.  And this was done practically in the shadow of the cross.

     I can remember awakening to one such reality at the beginning of my seminary studies.  It was the idea that hanging out with God (to put it in common language) did not guarantee to me that I had any special powers or privileges as a result of that association.  Our Lord’s commendation of humility as well as the promoting of that virtue by His servants in their writings underscores the counteractions instituted for that pathology, the pathology of big-headedness or self-importance.  Examples of practically all of the pathologies one would find in a standard work on the subject in a university course can be found in the word of God.  Even the techniques for dealing with them are sometimes evident in the Bible.

     I once heard a pastor speak of the dysfunctional families of the Patriarchs.  And then there is the technique of reframing an event or something remarkably like it.  Joseph cast a new light on his brothers selling him into slavery, saying, “you meant it for evil, but God meant it for good, to bring it to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive.”(Gen.50:20)


About dr. james willingham

B.S. Ed. Lincoln Univ., Mo., '67; M.A. (American Social and Intellectual History) (GPA 3.7) Morehead State Univ., Ky. '71; work toward a Ph.D. in American and Black History, 6 hrs. Univ. of South Carolina and 12 at Columbia Univ., NY, Spring and Summer of '71 respectively; M.Div. '74; D. Min. '76 Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, NC; M.A. '88 Liberty Univ., Va, (counseling). Honors: Phi Alpha theta - the International Honor Society of Historians; Pi Gamma Mu - The National Honor Society of Social Scientists Graduate Assistant, Morehead State, '69-70; Lecture: The Stanley Elkins Thesis: A Critique. Summer Afternoon Lecture Series Columbia University, Summer '71; Instructor, South Carolina State College, 1970-72 (taught 4-5 sections in American History. taught one course in Philosophy, Spring of '71), Adjunct faculty" Richmond Community College, Rockingham, NC 1985, taught two quarters of Political Science. Thesis for M.A. in American Social & Intellectual History: "The Baptists & Ministerial Qualifications:1750-1850." Prospectus for Doctoral Dissertation at Columbia University, Summer of '71, "The Baptists and Slavery." Instructor Seminary Extension: Greater Gaston Baptist Association, Gastonia, NC, 2002-2004. Taught Systematic Theology, Baptist History, Church History, Preaching, Isaiah, Hebrews Introduction to New Testament Theology. Pastorates: Pilot Knob Baptist Church, Belle, Mo., '62-64; Elston Baptist Church, Elston, Mo., '65-66; Gum Springs Baptist Church, Moncure, NC., '72-83; Heritage Baptist Church, Rockingham, NC, '84-96; Interim, Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church, Casar, NC, 1/2001-3/2001. Chairman, Historical Committee, Sandy Creek Baptist Association, '77=81; Chairman, Historical Committee, Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, '85-86. Annual Sermon, Sandy Creek Association, 1981 Lecture: "The Genius of Orthodoxy: Eldresses." BSCNC. Delivered as Chairman of the Committee Fall of '85. Play: The Mirror of Our Past. Visual History of Jersey Baptist Church
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One Response to Awakening to Pathological Motivations

  1. Christiane says:

    Hi Dr. Willingham,
    You wrote this: “Our Lord’s commendation of humility as well as the promoting of that virtue by His servants in their writings underscores the counteractions instituted for that pathology, the pathology of big-headedness or self-importance.” I agree completely with your statement. ‘Humility’ may be the missing element in the ways we have chosen to bear Christ to those who wait for Him. I believe that the Church IS asking ‘what need does Our Lord have of us now’ in regard to bringing Him to the world. I was reading a Palm Sunday meditation about the little donkey that Our Lord ‘had need of’ to bring Him into Jerusalem,
    and we know that the humble little donkey was unassuming, did not call attention to himself, and did not seek to aggrandize his own ego with his performance;
    but instead, he became a ‘Christ-bearer’, serving in response to Our Lord’s need of him.

    For the Church to be more open to responding with greater humility to Our Lord’s needs and to the world’s need of Him, that tells me this is a response to the Holy Spirit and that, in God’s good time, we shall see the fruit of this patient, humble service of Christ-bearing to the world
    . . . although there may be difficult days ahead as there were on that Palm Sunday long ago, good will come from the Church’s providing a far more humble service to Christ in a way that the world was not expecting.

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