Intent Isn’t Everything

by | Apr 8, 2021

Jesus was clear about the intent behind our actions. In clashes with the Pharisees, he was often critical of their superficial obedience. He memorably invoked  an Old Testament quote and said, “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” (Matthew 15:8; Isaiah 29:13). Jesus is clear—intent matters. We can do the right thing for the wrong reason, ultimately displeasing the Lord.

Intent matters. But it is not all that matters.

When Paul writes to the Corinthians to defend himself against false accusation, he speaks to his intentions during his time with them. Then he says something fascinating: “For I am not conscious of anything against myself, but I am not justified by this. It is the Lord who judges me” (1 Corinthians 4:4). Paul acknowledges the limitations of his own judgment. He knew he was trying to do the right thing, but he is humble enough to recognize that the final verdict belongs to God.

While both of these passages highlight that one’s intent is important, our sinfulness and imperfection mean that our intent is often clouded and our ability to carry it out is limited.

Recently, I said something to my wife which hurt her feelings. It hurt her feelings because she understood my words differently than how I intended. In that moment, what had more of an effect on my wife, my words or my intent? My intent played a role in our reconciliation after the hurt, but it did not prevent my wife from being hurt.

Life in a fallen world is hard. We don’t always accomplish what we intend. Even when we do, it isn’t always perceived as we hoped.

I want to consider intent as it relates to racism through two paradigms:

 

1. Reception

White people such as myself need to remember that our intent is not the only thing that matters when considering how to love our minority neighbors anymore than it’s the only consideration I have in how I love my wife.

If a minority brother or sister comes to us in courage and humility to say, “What you said or did in this moment hurt me,” we have at least two options. We can match humility with humility, or we can dig our heels in. We can apologize and seek reconciliation, using the experience as a way to be more sensitive and caring. Or we can insist on our own way, demanding our wounded brother or sister see things our way.

 

2. Results

We have all had moments when we attempted to do something and failed. Sometimes, the consequences for that failure fall on someone else. In that moment, the results matter for that person more than our intent.

There are an infinite number of reasons why one can build a statue, start a school, vote for a particular politician, or pick a neighborhood to live in. Those reasons might not arise from racist intentions. But the results might have racist effects. Failing to understand this point is one reason people seem to talk past each other in conversations about race.

We see this misunderstanding every time there is a call to take a statue down or rename a holiday. Claims that a statue offends are met with a chorus claiming that was not the intent. The implication is that intent is the defining factor in whether or not a change should be made. I am not saying intent is irrelevant. I am saying that if I have the same attitude toward my wife, I wouldn’t be a good husband.

Whatever motivations and intentions we recognize in the course of making a decision, we must be grounded by a sturdier commitment.  These should always be to love God and love our neighbor (Matthew 22:37–39). When our immediate intentions fail us, having Spirit-shaped intentions at the deepest level will allow us to acknowledge our shortcomings, repent, seek reconciliation, and move forward in love. May God give each of us the moral clarity to examine ourselves and our motives and to understand that even the purest motives can sometimes fail us this side of Glory.

 


Prayer Requests:

  1. Pray for God to give you insight into your personal motivations for godliness and unity.
  2. Pray that God would give you the humility to accept when your actions are not received as you intended.
  3. Pray that God would unify his Bride around our shared commitment to the gospel of His Son and may that be more precious to us than anything to which we’re clinging.

 

Recent POdcasts

Biblical Theology: Exodus

Biblical Theology: Exodus

We continue our Bible study series by looking at the book of Exodus. There are many ethnic issues in this book, from the oppression of the Israelites by the Egyptians, to the covenant faithfulness of Zipporah. This was a fascinating discussion and we hope you are...

read more
Biblical Theology: Genesis

Biblical Theology: Genesis

We are kicking off our Bible Study or Biblical Theology series with the book of Genesis. Adrianna Anderson brings her expertise as a Bible scholar to help us look at Scripture to see God's plan for diversity and ethnic harmony. There is so much in Scripture on this...

read more

Upcoming Events

Isaac-Adams-United-We-Pray-speaking-at-an-event

Click Here to View Now

Recent Articles

Presidents’ Day and Godly Authority

Presidents’ Day and Godly Authority

On Monday, our nation observed Presidents’ Day. This holiday gives us an opportunity to honor the role and office of President in our country. It also serves as an opportunity to reflect how we as Christians can pray for those who represent us as citizen servants in...

read more
Anthropology and Antisemitism

Anthropology and Antisemitism

Antisemitism is back in the news. Multiple presidents of prominent universities were recently summoned to Congress to testify about a rise in antisemitic incidents on their campuses. Their refusal to answer questions about whether antisemitism violates school policies...

read more
Dear White Woman

Dear White Woman

I don’t run at night or before the sun comes up. I wonder if you don’t either. While my husband can strap on a headlamp and reflectors and hit the neighborhood running, I have to be more cautious—even in the suburbs. Common sense tells women that running in the dark...

read more

We’d love to hear what you think about this article. Submit your feedback by clicking here to contact us.

Author

  • Austin Suter

    Austin is the executive director and editor for U?WP. He is a husband, father and seminary student at RTS Charlotte. Austin is a member at Iron City Church in Birmingham, AL. @amsuter

Related Articles

Dear White Woman

Dear White Woman

Courtney Reissig shares her experience of choosing to run at specific times of day in order to stay safe. She reflects on her own privilege and how she might leverage that in service of her minority brothers and sisters.

read more

Stay Connected