Master’s Monday: “Intention was everything”

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Dover Castle

“But of course intention was everything in the question of right and wrong.”

Would you agree with that statement? Hang on, before that becomes a trick question, let me give you some context.

This quotation comes from Chapter 30 of George Eliot’s Middlemarch, where the reader happens upon the sentence embedded in the thought process of an extremely pious man…who is talking himself into murder.

I don’t know about you, but I find that quite jarring. It’s easy for me to become very comfortable with the everyday theological maxim, “God cares more about why you do what you do than He does about what you do per se.” “Intention is what matters,” we say, but is it really all that matters?

In the past, I have found George Eliot to be quite an adept in the portrayal of human nature. And after some thought on the matter, I believe I’ve now come to see what’s missing from her character’s assertion, what makes his words sound so hollow. The missing piece of the puzzle is, quite simply, honesty.

You know, intentions are some of the easiest things to lie about—especially to ourselves. How often have we quickly assured ourselves, “Well, that isn’t what I meant,” or, “I really had his best interest at heart”? We don’t like to think of ourselves as “gullible,” but so often we are the surest victims of our own self-comforting falsehoods. By telling ourselves our stated intentions are all that really matters, we do ourselves as great (or greater) a disservice as we do to anyone else.

In our rush to emphasize the importance of “intention” in place of “legalism” or “perfectionism,” it’s important that we not forget about the fragility and the absolute necessity of our own self-honesty. God is never fooled by our lack of intentional honesty. In fact, those around us who love us as He does are unlikely to be fooled by it either. It seems to me that it only makes sense that we should all seek the help of our brothers and sisters in Christ in our journeys toward greater self-honesty. If intentions really are “all” that matters, we must learn to uncover those intentions and bring them honestly and humbly before our God, the One who knows them before we do.

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