The evangelical world was shaken this week. A massive independent investigation into abuse was released about the largest evangelical denomination in the West. Our Southern Baptist brothers and sisters in Christ are reeling from the revelations, and those of us on the outside are left standing by; waiting, praying.
But one of the rejoinders we will hear, and have already begun to hear, in the face of egregious sin is downplaying one’s culpability. There are many ways the accused try and lessen the impact of what has taken place. And if we’re willing to be self-reflective, we make the same kind of arguments all the time. That is, we try and focus on aspects surrounding our sin instead of the sin itself. We speak of our motives or our intentions, and we attempt to discard the impact our actions have on others.
The Scriptures do not allow us to be so dismissive. Sin is sin. Its heinousness is only made more severe by our underlying motivations or intentions—not less so because “we meant well” or some other such reasons offered.
No, biblically speaking, we may analyze every action on the basis of at least 5 ethical considerations. They are: motive, intention, the action itself, the impact it has on others, and people’s perception of the given action.
- Motive - We always do what we want to do, and we have a motivation behind why we do what we do. It can be a sinful motive or a selfless/holy motive. A sinful action is made more sinful by sinful motives. Take for instance the internal motive of: “I lied to protect my own neck, and I don’t care about the harm it may cause.” Very seldom would we admit something so baldly, and yet, we can easily see how such sinful motives (self-preservation) make the sin itself (lying) more odious. Motivation is only ever an aggravator of sin, never a mitigator, but we often attempt to use it as the latter. “My motives were pure, therefore my actions must be pure, too”—sadly, this is not so. Pure motives cannot rehabilitate violations of God’s law.
- Intention - We can be motivated by sin while intending a good outcome. I can bring my wife flowers (a good act), aimed at genuinely blessing her (a good intention toward her) but with the self-serving purpose of getting her off of my back for something I refuse to repent of (wicked motive)—or any combination thereof. I can have a good motive to do a sinful act because I believe the ends justify the means. For example, I can tell a “little white lie” to prevent someone’s harm when asked “does this outfit look good?” And yet we can never use sinful means to accomplish good ends. In other words, good intentions do not baptize bad behavior.
Once again we see intention is an aggravator, not a mitigator. Disobeying the law of the Lord with bad intentions is only made more sinful as a result. Alternatively, a sinful act is not made less disobedient because harm was not intended. Take for instance, Job’s rather terrible friends. The Text tells us they desired to comfort and bless Job in his suffering (Job 2:11), and yet their words of intended sympathy receive the sharpest of rebukes from the Lord (Job 42:7-9). Yet how often do we try and minimize the harm done to someone by appealing to our intentions? “I didn’t mean to sin against you in that way”—as though this somehow makes the sin acceptable. Again, sadly, it does not.
- Action - The action itself is either moral, immoral, or amoral (i.e. matters indifferent). Here is where we assess our words or our deeds on the explicit commands of Scripture alone. Does God say the behavior is sinful or not? And matters indifferent may be sinful in one circumstance and acceptable in another (e.g. eating food sacrificed to idols, 1 Cor 8:7-13). We would all be well-served by being willing to look full in the face of what we have just said or done. Then, on the merits of the action alone, saying “I sinned, would you please forgive me.” More often than not, we tend to skirt the issue itself by pointing to the preceding elements of motive and intention instead.
- Impact - The outcome of sin must also be recognized. We can have sinful actions that produce sinful results. Also, I may have very pure motives and holy intentions, but still harm my brother or sister. In such a scenario, we must recognize the harm done. This happens in arguments between spouses all the time: “I wasn’t angry at you (motive) and while I didn’t mean to raise my voice (intent), I did speak harshly (action) and I hurt you with my words (impact), would you please forgive me?” So regardless of the other person’s perception (next bullet point) there is a measurable result of our actions. That impact upon the other person should be sufficient to warrant our grief, sorrow, and repentance.
- Perception - Regardless of the four above elements, the Scriptures call us to take care about the perceptions of others (e.g. the weaker brother discussions of 1 Cor 8, Rom 14, and “avoid even the appearance of evil” in 1 Thes 5:22). While we could take this category way too far and make ourselves slaves to others’ consciences, there is still a place to honor another’s understanding of the situation. If I do not believe I’ve sinned against my wife, I still need to hear her and listen to her, and search myself and ask “is there anything I can repent of in what she is saying? Lord, search me, know me, and find any impure way in me.” Therefore, a truly repentant person will want to know how the wronged party perceives the situation, and to hear if the wronged party perceives additional sin beyond what the sinner perceives. A truly repentant person will say “let a righteous man strike me…let him rebuke me—it is oil for my head; let me not refuse it.” (Ps. 141:5)
At a time when people will be downplaying and dismissing sin, may the Lord call each of us to a more robust appreciation of the offensiveness of our sin. May we never make excuses for our actions based upon good motives and pure intentions. May we examine the morality of our actions, or lack thereof, and may we sincerely care about the impact our behaviors have on others. And may we never discount and disregard another’s perceptions because we are right in our own eyes. Instead, let us humble ourselves before the holy law of the Lord, and let us never say “there is no sin in us” (1 John 1:8,10).