When decrying instances of do-gooder activism gone wrong, it’s become rather routine for critics to respond by saying, “good intentions aren’t enough” — and to a great extent, rightly so.
Yet, as I’ve argued before, in addition to critiquing the outcomes of our actions, we should also pause and ask whether our “good intentions” are all that good to begin with. If we are responding to some blurry impulse to “do something,” and that certain something ends up harming the very people we’re trying to help, what does that say about the origins of our actions? What does it say about the nature of the voices we’re heeding?
As Christians, we are called to help those in need. But from where does our direction come, and to whom does the glory ultimately go? As Peter Greer and Chris Horst explain, we outght to reach beyond humanitarianism, stretching for a level of whole-life transformation not easily comprehended by our earthbound categories and metrics. Such transformation will surely be “of this world” in many of its methods and effects, but it will necessarily correspond with a supernatural order — one that often runs contrary to our own plans and designs.
Far too often, we embrace God’s message even as we ignore his method. Each requires our close attention, of course, but the latter demands a closer level of prudence, prayer, and discernment than we typically acknowledge.
In 1 Samuel 15, the implications of this are made particularly clear. Samuel is sent by God to tell King Saul to destroy the Amalekites, a command that comes with specific instructions: “Go and smite Amalek and utterly destroy all they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.”
King Saul conquers the Amalekites (command), but proceeds to stray from the specifics (method), sparing the king, as well as “the best of the sheep and of the oxen and of the fattened calves and the lambs, and all that was good.” His excuse? They were destined for sacrifice.
When Samuel returns, Saul brags about his “good deeds,” rejoicing about the spoils he has secured as a “sacrifice to the Lord.” But despite his attempts to convert disobedience into a blessing, Samuel’s response is damning:
“Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices,
as in obeying the voice of the Lord?
Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice,
and to listen than the fat of rams.
For rebellion is as the sin of divination,
and presumption is as iniquity and idolatry.
Because you have rejected the word of the Lord,
he has also rejected you from being king.”
We don’t know Saul’s actual attitude and aims — whether he actually had “good intentions” or not — but regardless, how often do we convince ourselves of the same, believing that our sacrifice can somehow be “good” apart from obedience to God?
Such active and particular obedience can be difficult to perceive and achieve, but God has given us plenty of tools to assist us: the Word, the Holy Spirit, the Church, prayer, community, accountability, reason, tradition, history, and so on. As fallen beings, we are bound to falter and fail, even with these tools, but how much more so if we fail to even ask that first question? “Lord, what would you have me do?”
The way of the Christian is one of altruism — of generosity, sacrifice, and service. For God so loved, he gave. But only when our love for others is rooted in the love of God, enacted according to ways that are higher than our ways, can we expect ends that are higher than our ends.
So where is your heart ultimately pointed? Toward “good results” based on your own “good intentions,” or toward obeying and glorifying God based on his? Alas, if your “good intentions aren’t enough,” your “good results” probably won’t be, either.