Rob Heusevelet and his son came upon a bison calf in Yellowstone National Park that was shivering in the cold. They were afraid for the health and survival of the animal, so they put it into their SUV and drove it to a ranger station in the park. A witness who took a picture of the calf in the car said, “They were demanding to speak with a ranger. They were seriously worried that the calf was freezing and dying” (NPR). Ironically, their “intervention” ultimately cost the animal his life. His mother and the rest of the family rejected him because of the contact with people, and, isolated and alone, the baby bison had to be eventually euthanized. This act of ignorance was more than foolish; it was fatal!
Good intentions are fine enough, as long as they are built on the right foundation. A 12th-century French mystic and Catholic monk, Bernard of Clairvaux, is often credited with a saying antecedent to our modern aphorism, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions” (Ammer, The American Heritage of Idioms, np). We appreciate the meaning of the proverb. No matter how well-meaning our motivation, how we act from it have consequences and they matter. The Bible shows us those whose motivation was unimpeachable, but whose resulting actions were tragic. There was Jephthah’s rash vow (Judges 11:30ff). There were so many examples provided by Peter’s impetuousness. There was Paul’s persecution of the church, motivated by religious fervor (Acts 26:9). These are examples enough to show that simply intending to do right is not enough.
Today, we can do much harm in trying to help. Consider three specific ways that are common, though critical.
- Making the gospel plan of salvation or gospel requirements broader, easier, or different than what Scripture teaches. We do not want to offend or hurt feelings. We do not want to face rejection. We do not want to seem arrogant. Paul calls such “scratching itching ears” (Acts 4:3-4). There is only one way (John 14:6; Gal. 1:6-9).
- Offering false hope or peace. This is often done at funerals for the non-Christian or unfaithful Christian. We should always be comforting and gentle, but we cannot swing to the other extreme and tell anyone living (or on behalf of the dead) that they are “right” when they are not. We do them no service, and we do disservice to our own souls.
- Pretending like nothing is wrong when a loved one (relative, friend, Christian family member) is living in sin. Sometimes, we act as though time equals repentance. We gradually accept and embrace one whose deeds are in rebellion to God. We may even never have the nerve to imitate the great spirit of Nathan and tell the guilty, “You are the man!” (2 Sam. 12:7). But such pretense cannot change divine facts!
Paul preaches the imperative of proper motivation (cf. Phil. 1:15-17). Jesus stresses the value of a good heart (Luke 8:15). Neither of these is a substitute for the grave duty we face as Christians to not do harm as we seek to do good. It is not an either-or proposition. It is both-and.