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As surprising as it might sound, beauty lies at the heart of motive. Why we do what we do is a question of desire, and desire is rooted in what we think is good and beautiful.

Jonathan Edwards tackled the questions of motive, desire, and freedom in his work The Freedom of the Will. There Edwards argued that the strongest inclination is the choice one makes, and that choice is the same as the will. There is no neutral “deciding faculty” within us, independent of beauty. Whatever the mind perceives as the greatest apparent good, the heart chooses.

In Edwards’ view, the human will is not the faculty that decides, it is the decision itself. The mind knows the objects of desire, and the heart chooses, or loves what it desires as the greatest good. The greatest motive always prevails as the thing chosen. In other words, what the will chooses is precisely what it loves. This is why it is not strictly correct to speak of “choosing to love”, for one is really thereby saying “choosing to choose” or “loving so as to love”.

The will does not choose to love; the will chooses what it loves. Your chosen desires reflect what you think it best to choose. Loves can be formed and shaped, but they cannot simply be willed into being.  You always love what you think is most beautiful; or to put it differently, best.

Lying at the heart of human action is then a picture of beauty: what the good life is, what is most pleasurable valuable, reliable. Every one of us is inclined towards a vision of something we believe is good. J. K. A. Smith writes, “Our ultimate love is oriented by and to a picture of what we think it looks like for us to live well, and that picture then governs, shapes, and motivates our decisions and actions.” This picture is not a set of abstract ideas, as much as it is an aesthetic idea, an affective, sensible picture of what reality is really like or should be like. This is the telos to which the human heart is inclined; it is its treasure, to which you will always find the heart inclined (Matt. 6:21).

Here is another reason why beauty and morality are intertwined. Those who are hardened sinners do not only do what is evil, they “also approve of those who practice them.” (Rom. 1:32) That is, they delight in sin. They “love darkness, because their deeds are evil” (John 3:19), and they “take pleasure in unrighteousness (2 Thes 2:12). For them, their sin is beautiful. Evil is aesthetically pleasing to them. Wickedness is something to be gazed at, admired, courted, pursued, coveted, memorialised, shared, and celebrated. When you love or desire what God hates, then what is ugly to God has become beautiful to you, and what is beautiful to God has become ugly to you. You have inverted good and evil, beauty and ugliness (Is. 5:20).

If what motivates you is something God condemns, you are doubly condemned: you commit acts of evil, and you do so because you treasure what God abhors. On the other hand, if your heart finds joy and delight in holiness, you will pursue those things, and find joy in them. A background vision of God’s holiness, harmony and happiness will explain what a holy man pursues and why.

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  1. Avatar David



    That does depend whether you view Romans 7 as referring to a believer or an unbeliever under the law.
    As it happens, I think it does refer to Paul as a believer, so the question of motive certainly comes up in Romans 7.

    The idea that beauty lies at the heart of motive does not mean that one idea of beauty always predominates in our minds. We wrestle with competing beauties. This is exactly what makes temptation such a struggle. At the point of temptation, we “know” in our minds that the thing in question is wrong, but we “feel” such a strong attraction to it. At that moment, the pleasure, the adventure, the experience of the sin seems a form of inviting beauty.
    None of this would be so if we did not still have resident evil within us. It is our fallenness that can construe a real attractive (and yet false) beauty from the elements of temptation. Jesus, not having a sin nature, could have felt the outward pull of Satan’s temptations (the desire for food, the desire for relief, the desire to avoid an agonising death), but would not have felt the inward delight in pride or power. We feel both.
    Much of the process of sanctification is a re-shaping of our loves at the deepest level, so that sin is increasingly distasteful and ugly to us, while righteousness is attractive and lovely. Without this re-shaping, we will alternate between grimly choosing to do our duty (though we don’t like it), and trying to resist and refuse other things (though we love them). That might need to be the case at times, and perhaps at the start of our faith, but it should not be the norm.
    Paul’s experience is of a believer experiencing the tussle between loves, and knowing that sometimes one’s affections must choose what “feels” like a lesser beauty, even though we know it is the better and the greater beauty.

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