Doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. It happens all the time, especially in church settings. People attend church and “do ministry”—good things in and of themselves—for all the wrong reasons.

Examples: the businessman who attends church to make contacts; the young woman who goes so she can see her sweetheart; the pianist who dreads having to play for special choir practices for her church’s upcoming holiday extravaganza; the pastor who groans about ministering during extended “open” services where parishioners come and go for prayer and communion over several hours.

Doing the right thing, but for the wrong reasons—and perhaps even hating it. Wasn’t that why Cain’s offering was rejected while Abel’s was accepted? Wasn’t it attitude that made all the difference?

In churches across the land, people are confronted with extra rehearsals and services to meet the expectations of—who? Does God require these rites?

Isaiah and Micah confronted these situations in eighth-century B.C. The people worshipped like crazy, but for all the wrong reasons. The prophets condemned the worship practices because people’s hearts were elsewhere.

Instead of making an offering to God, they were making offerings for the sake of making offerings. Worship had become an end in itself instead of a means to an end: the adoration of God.

With large productions taking place in many churches at Christmas, Easter and the Fourth of July, it is easy to let the tail wag the dog. Frenzied activities, people reason, translate into commitment to God; yet God usually gets lost in the shuffle and the striving to perform well.

Jesus observed a similar set of circumstances in his day. Performing religious rites in public was the big thing then, as now. After all, what good was it to put all that effort into religion if nobody saw or heard it?

Jesus warned his disciples to perform their religious rituals in private so that God—who could see them anyway—would reward them. He said those who do their religion publicly have their reward immediately: being seen and heard by people.

What kind of a trade-off is it to be seen by others—and have one’s reward immediately by way of human applause—rather than to have the reward of God’s approval?

Religion for human approval is not acceptable worship to God, but simply entertainment or grandstanding.

Adoration of or for self takes the place, then, of adoration for God. Who “makes” us do this? God? Hardly.

A pastor of a “difficult” church was asked why he stuck it out, and with such a joyous attitude. His reply: “I pastor [sic] the church for free, and I love to preach; they pay me to put up with the deacons.”

If our service to God is a burden, then we must be doing it for the wrong reasons. For the Christian, serving God is a joy, something done in gratitude for God’s gracious gift, Jesus Christ.

Perhaps this test is helpful for all of us, but especially for religious professionals: Would you do what you do even if you were not getting paid to do it and no other person saw you do it?

Yes? Then your service to God is from a pure motive. Enter into the joy of your Master. No? Perhaps you need to rethink your religious devotion and your commitment to God. Your offering looks a lot like Cain’s.

Mike Mitchell is a husband, dad, pastor, oil seller and mission educator in Fort Payne, Ala.

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