Good Intentions Are Not Enough
A man was church-shopping. He worshiped in a different church every Sunday, trying to find one where he felt comfortable. One Sunday, a congregation prayed the prayer we prayed this morning, “We have left undone those things we ought to have done, and we have done those things we ought not to have done.” The man relaxed, breathed a huge sigh of relief, and said to himself, “At last I have found a church where I fit. These are my kind of people.” He was an example of the bumper sticker, “I finally got it all together, but forgot where I put it.”
The apostle Paul had similar experiences. In the lesson read today, Paul lamented (Romans 7.15), “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” Paul’s experience is ours as well. There is a struggle going on within each of us-- a battle, a wrestling match, a war. A sign in front of a Baptist Church read, “If you’re tired of sin, come in!” Underneath someone had written, “If you ain’t, call Freda, 253-0001.”
Paul lamented, “I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” Good behavior, acts of righteousness, require more than good intentions. Last Sunday, Pastor Dick Corson encouraged us to move from spectator to disciple by even small actions—giving a cup of cold water. Acts of discipleship, however, require more than good intentions. Paul wrote in verse 18, “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.” Good intentions are not enough. Good intentions do not have the power to overcome the will to sin. Good intentions are not enough for us to do what is right.
Good intentions cannot rationalize or excuse behavior. It is popular today to believe that good intentions are enough. “You may not do what you want to do, you may not be able to do what is right, but as long as you have good intentions, your behavior is acceptable!” In other words, does it not matter what you do as long as you have good intentions? Does it not matter what you do or believe as long as you are sincere? Are good intentions enough? Are you satisfied when your husband says, “Oh, by the way, happy birthday. I intended to get you a present, but something came up.” Are his good intentions enough?
Our culture also excuses incompetency. Standards of performance, standards of excellence are lowered or ignored today. How many stores offer competent service? In one of my churches, the secretary was a gentle, mild mannered saint. But, one day she was calling one of these giant stores. Evidently she had been shuffled from one department to another, until I heard her holler (and my office was down the hall), “Doesn’t anyone know anything over there?”
How many purchases do you return because there is something wrong with the product? We accept mediocrity, inconsistency, failure and mistakes, all in the name of good intentions and sincerity. As a result, good intentions are even compromised to “I’ll do just enough to get by.” Most of us don’t get overly concerned with this nonchalant approach to standards. But, when I had my colonoscopy last week, I was thankful that my surgeon had skill as well as good intentions! I was thankful that she didn’t say, “I’ll do just enough to get by!” When you are flying on a jet, wouldn’t you hope that the air controllers and pilots are competent, as well has having good intentions?
Do you realize the United Methodist Church has no mechanism with which to deal with incompetent pastors? They are moved often, every few years, from church to church. We can predict that the church to which he/she is appointed will suffer, begin to decline, and people will be hurt; but we tolerate incompetent ministers. Oh well, they have good intentions. They are sincere. We have procedures to deal with immoral and offensive pastoral behavior, but not incompetency. Incompetent public school teachers are also tolerated. Once a teacher has tenure, it is almost impossible to terminate an ineffective teacher. It takes a principal with courage and careful work to build a case for the dismissal of an incompetent teacher. Our children lose, but good intentions are acceptable criteria in our country. “I can’t do what I want to do,” is excused!
In contrast, according to current emails making the rounds, Bill Gates spoke at a high school and made the following statements:
Life is not fair—get used to it!
The world won't care about your self-esteem. The world will expect you to accomplish something BEFORE you feel good about yourself.
If you think your teacher is tough, wait till you get a boss.
If you mess up, it's not your parents' fault, so don't whine about mistakes, learn from them.
Before you were born, your parents weren't as boring as they are now. They got that way from paying your bills, cleaning your clothes and listening to you talk about how cool you thought you were.
Your school may have done away with winners and losers, but life HAS NOT. In some schools, they have abolished failing grades and they'll give you as MANY TIMES as you want to get the right answer. This doesn't bear the slightest resemblance to ANYTHING in real life.
Good intentions are not enough. For the apostle Paul also, good intentions were not enough. He was baffled by his behavior. He was bothered and agitated when he failed to live up to his good intentions. He judged himself, not on the basis of intention, but on his actions. And the discrepancy between what he intended to do, and what he actually did made him miserable? Verse 7.24, “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” Paul believed that God judged him on the basis of his actions, not his intentions.
“Who will deliver me?” he cried. We rationalize and excuse, but Paul cried for deliverance. The traditional Jewish answer was the law. If you study God’s law, if you use your wisdom and reason, the evil impulse can be defeated. But Paul knew that the law in itself was not enough. Paul knew that it took more than head knowledge. “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it,” he cried. Knowledge is not enough. Good intentions are not enough. “Who will deliver me?”
Paul answered his question in 7.25, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” God has acted on our behalf, and continues to act on our behalf. Jesus is the way out of the moral dilemma. Good intentions are not enough, but Jesus is! Praise God! Through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit can move in our lives, redeeming us, changing us, giving us the power to do what we intend.
When good intentions fail us and we don’t do what we want to do, there is forgiveness, restitution, and reconciliation. God offers second chances, third, seventy times seven chances. But, forgiveness in itself is not enough, and this is where our culture gets mixed up. Forgiveness in itself becomes excusing. An air controller makes a mistake and two planes collide. Do we forgive him and say, “Too bad, but you are only human. After all, you had good intentions.” We might even rationalize his mistake and say, “You must have been tired.” But, people died because of his mistake. Is excusing him adequate? No, forgiveness in itself is not enough.
Forgiveness in the gospel includes the admonition, “Go and sin no more.” And Jesus gave not only the admonition, but the instruction, the means and the power to sin no more. In modern terminology and experience this might mean that we forgive the air controller, but we also send him back for more training, or give him more experience as an apprentice, or change the system so that not too much is expected of one person, or change the procedure to allow for more rest. Or, forgiveness as empowerment might mean, “You might be better suited at another profession, and we’ll help you choose one and prepare for it.”
Forgiveness in itself becomes excusing. Forgiveness with empowerment offers a new chance. God doesn’t leave you forgiven in order for you to repeat. God forgives and enables you, empowers you through the Holy Spirit, to do what you intend.
When you don’t do what you want to do, turn to Jesus. Come to Communion this morning and ask to be forgiven. Ask for guidance to learn from the failure, to grow from the experience, and to take steps that will move you from good intentions to actions.
© 2008 Douglas I. Norris