intent and action

What is the relationship between action and intention? Which counts more?

What do I honestly feel about people I think are “missing the mark” in honest, well-intentioned, sincere ways?

How far do sincerity and good intent really go?

I think that question is really central in many ways to a traditional legalistic view of Christianity, but I think it has profound consequences in any new way of thinking as well. Previously we have said through our attitudes, though perhaps not through our words, that action was the only thing that mattered – well intended acts done for God that were done incorrectly were worse than no act at all. More recently we’ve transitioned into a feeling closer to our legal system – actions are most important, but intent matters also. Murder, we feel, is worse than accidental manslaughter, even though the result is the same. In those two cases, the only difference is the intent, but we feel murder deserves a harsher punishment than does manslaughter. Even still, intent only gives you partial credit – in the previous example, you still do time, even though you had no ill intent.

But I wonder what God thinks.

“Anyone who wants to come to him [God] must believe that there is a God and that he rewards those who sincerely seek him.”

I believe God places intent above action. It’s not something I am necessarily comfortable with, as it seems to challenge so many of the legalities of the system I’ve built and grown up with. It does not declare action to be irrelevant, but rather makes us reexamine both our actions and intentions to evaluate their sincerity and authenticity. It doesn’t allow us to do whatever we want so long as our intentions are good, since our sincere seeking of God doesn’t involve what we want, but what He wants. Furthermore, just as in the legal system, where our intent only gets us partial credit, our actions go only so far in truly pleasing God. It is not enough to only do the right things, our hearts must be clean and pure before God as well. To paraphrase an old debate, if you have people who always do right, but hate the fact they’re doing it, have you really created moral people, or only the appearance of moral people.

In placing our intent above action, we are forced to abandon result-orientations and look instead to intent-orientations. One of our biggest obstacles to being compassionate is that we cannot externally judge the internal motivations of others. If we judged others based on their intentions, like we often judge ourselves, instead of on the consequences of their actions, how much more forgiving and understanding would we be? If we were to believe that people who acted differently than we do were honestly trying to do the best they could, how would that chance our outlook on others?

Whatever the balance between intent and action, the reality for each of us remains the same – we are all called to honor God not only with what we do, but in the internal depths of our heart and soul.

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