Uncovering Ulterior Motives (A Free, Simple Formula)

Uncovering Ulterior Motives

Sometimes our motives are obvious. Other times, we have ulterior motives guiding us, affecting our decision-making and discernment.

For me, guilt has often been an ulterior motive. Every time the teacher reprimanded the whole class for bad behavior instead of singling someone out, I was sure it was all my fault. Even now, if a Project Manager contacts the group about common errors, I’m instantly guilty.

My guilt had a way of guiding me into people-pleasing and letting others take advantage of me for a long time. I would insist it wasn’t guilt, but that I just loved helping. As a result, I was often beholden, serving with impure motives, deceived by my own heart.

Paul prayed this for believers:

That your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless” –Ph 1:9-10

Living as a slave of men” was my pattern, and it had to stop. But I struggled to recognize my own motives.


Someone wise offered me this mechanism for helping discern my true (ulterior) motives:

If this (___________________________) is my motive, then what if (_________________________) isn’t part of the equation?


For example:

Step 1:

If you desire to go on a missions trip but aren’t sure if your motives are pure, think of godly motives to fill in the first blank:

-Setting aside time specifically to serve

-Rendering a service to someone who needs it

-Reflecting Christ while offering a service

Step 2:

For the second half of the mechanism, think of worldly desires that could distort your godly motives:

-Getting to take an exotic trip while looking righteous

-Building up an ego or a reputation for selfish gain

-Feeling like a savior or hero as mission recipients gives you thanks

Step 3:

Using the first examples from the lists, you might ask:

If this (setting aside time to serve others in the name of Jesus) is my motive, then what if (traveling to an exotic place) isn’t part of the equation?

Will you still take time to serve? Will you still see serving others in Jesus’ name as what you need to do with that time? What changes?

Your answers to this kind of question tend to reveal what you’re really motivated by. That’s helpful for gaining “depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best.” (Ph 1:9-10)

If your motives are revealed as impure it may indicate that a particular course of action isn’t God-led. Sometimes though, God wants to purify our motives first but still asks us to do what we were considering after all.

Uncovering wrongs motives reveals an opportunity to repent and turn to God to cleanse your heart! Click To Tweet

When our motives are pure, we can be “filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.” (Ph 1:11)

It’s worth uncovering our ulterior motives so that we can rightly praise and glorify God!


Ulterior motive formula

You can download and print this image as a PDF if you’d like to. Just click: Ulterior motive check-up


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14 Replies to “Uncovering Ulterior Motives (A Free, Simple Formula)

    1. Thanks, Meg! I loved it and have found it so helpful ever since someone shared it with me. I pray that this question bolsters your motive-searching in Scripture and prayer : )

  1. Love this! What an honest, essential conversation to have, with ourselves and one another. We can be so great at hiding our true motives beneath layers of right answers (at least I can!) But this really gets to the heart of it, and draws us closer to God!

    1. Thanks, Becky! I am good at hiding motives too, especially from myself. When someone shared this question with me, it was a vital blessing. I pray it’s helpful for you, too!

  2. Thanks for sharing this, Bethany! It looks like a really helpful tool. Sometimes I find it really hard to identify my true motives. I’ll give this a try the next time I’m struggling!

  3. Wow, Bethany! This is fresh and powerful. I never thought about it this way or if we could even determine our hidden agenda and motives. Love the formula and examples. Thanks for this practical application in our Christian lives.

    1. I’m really thankful to the person who shared it with me, too, Karen! I hope you find this useful for move-discerning and are able to apply it fruitfully, too!

    1. I find this helpful for most decisions that are hard to navigate feelings in, so I suspect this may help with a college decision! Thank you- I pray it proves useful!

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