Motivation: How Personality Theory And Research Can Be Used To Highlight The Beauty Of Gospel Grace

Psychology intrigues me, and I'm particularly fascinated by personality theory and research. The study of this subject has been invaluable in enhancing my ability to connect to the heart of those I counsel. The gospel transforms our thinking and revamps our orientation, but it doesn't eliminate patterns of response that are a part of our DNA. Understanding those patterns of default has been indispensable in helping me to love others with more compassion and to treat them with increasing grace. It's been critical in helping me to speak truth in a way that reaches the root of struggle. 

It disturbs me when Christians are dismissive of the research that social scientists bring to the table on human behavior. Claims that the Bible is all we need to be an effective counselor demonstrate a penurious and simplistic view of creation. It's arrogant to assume we have the ability to circumvent the complexities of individual functioning without the hard work of learning what makes each other tick. 

Motivational theory is an area of personality development that's been recently stirring my interest with its research. Social scientists have discovered that people tend to fall into one of four categories when it comes to their level of motivation to uphold their internal structure of values and the external structure of rules that surround them. Though research demonstrates this motivation is malleable, it's natural orientation shows itself to be fixed. 

The four categories of functioning are as follows:

1.) Those who possess high motivation to honor their internal values as well as high motivation to honor external rules. These individuals are naturally motivated to uphold defined structure without violation, both internally and externally.  

2.) Those who possess high motivation to honor their internal values, but low motivation to honor external rules. These individuals are naturally motivated to question and violate external structure. 

3.) Those who possess high motivation to uphold external rules, but low motivation to uphold their internal values. These individuals are naturally motivated to question and violate their internal structure even as they uphold (seemingly) external structure.

4.) Those who carry low motivation to uphold both internal values and external rules. These individuals are naturally motivated to question and violate both forms of structure.

I find these categories helpful, especially as I walk with parents through some of the challenges they face with their teens. The natural wiring of my own children lands them in polarizing positioning, and understanding their levels of motivation to either uphold or violate structure has been immensely helpful in praying for them more intelligently. I wish I had a better grasp of this when they were young. It's also helped me to better understand my husband who is extremely driven to uphold both internal and external structure. As a wife who is as strongly wired to question and violate external structure as I am wired to strictly uphold internal structure, it's a union of motivational mayhem. Basically, our household is marked by motivational madness.

Gaining an understanding of an individual's personality functioning is invaluable in pointing them to Christ. It helps in highlighting the beauty of gospel appropriation and restraining grace without unnecessarily generating resistance and breeding contempt. It provides a point of appeal that taps into a person's intrinsic motivation. It also provides a measure of understanding about sin violations that may or may not be a temptation to us. 

I recently enjoyed a sweet exchange with a close friend about one of her children whose personality is very similar to my own. Her daughter is a beautiful young woman who loves God passionately, but who doesn't necessarily adhere to the external structure of her culture in a way that always brings comfort. I had the privilege to spend time with this teen this year, and my heart was instantly drawn to her spirit of independence and internal passion to live out the gospel with intention and integrity. In my conversation with my friend, I shared how thankful I am that I have a husband who is secure enough to let me dwell on the edge of life in matters that have him standing far behind me in safety and comfort. I don't stand there with any desire to be rebellious, I stand there because my heart yearns to share my passion with the entire world. I want to observe everything as I breathe in every ounce of beauty. I want connection, and I struggle when needless rules restrict me. My internal values have me standing there with great care and caution, so I resist being forced back into safety. I don't stand on the edge recklessly. I value thoughtfulness. I value my relationship with Christ and I value the absolute authority that God's Word has in my life. I never take for granted how blessed I am to be married to a humble and loving Upholder of Structure who can stand back and smile on my freedom. (Okay. Sometimes he winces in doubt, but for the most part I'm graced with his smile of trust.) Knowing he can needlessly stir resistance in me with external rules, he is masterful at appealing to my internal motivation with probing questions directed at my heart.

I have learned that those individuals who fall into the fourth category (natural motivation to question and violate both internal values and external rules) are the ones in our lives who most powerfully highlight the beauty of gospel grace. We are all desperate for grace, but the well-manicured lives of Upholders don't always allow us to see that clearly. My daughter is just like her dad, and her strong motivation to uphold structure can make it challenging for me to pray for her with the kind of fervency that remembers she's desperate for grace. But I never forget to fervently pray for our son. From the moment he took his first breath, he entered into a raw struggle for freedom from structure. It's a struggle that didn't always garner my compassion as it does now. Individuals with his design don't possess a natural point of motivational appeal, and their strong inclination to question and violate structure often has them learning through choices that come with difficult consequences. This can be extremely frustrating if we're not wired with a strong motivation to dismantle structure or, if we are wired this way, we've learned what it means to apply the gospel to our strong rebel leaning. I'm no longer tempted to scoff and roll my eyes in disagreement when Michael asks us to accept the fact that he had to learn things the hard way as he was growing up. And no matter how many fumbles, I praise God that I'm no longer compelled to push him to the end goal with a rabid and prideful determination that has me missing the beauty of his sovereignly-ordered journey of grace.

Part of loving each other is being humble enough to look beyond the boundaries of our own natural functioning. It's cruel to measure the struggles of others against our own. We have absolutely no idea how much damage we inflict with our harmful comparisons that do nothing but reveal the narrowness of our mind and the arrogance of our heart. The more we take time to understand the struggles of the flesh and to inform ourselves about personality functioning, the more we can genuinely love others in a way that honors their God-given design. When we rob someone of that honor we also rob them of hope. That's why seeking to understand each other is such a vital part of gospel living. 

I encourage you to engage in stimulating conversation with your family and friends about these four categories of functioning. It's a great way to get to know each other better. And best of all, it's a powerful way to highlight the incredible beauty of the gospel that overshadows our sin with its life-changing grace.