“I had good intentions”
“It was just a mistake.”
“I didn’t mean anything by it.”
“I thought I was doing the right thing.”
When someone has hurt you, how many times have you heard these responses? How many times have you tried to justify your own actions by using one of these excuses?
How Sinners Think
Motives are important. But some people are under the impression that good motives can wash away sins. The thought process seems to go something like this:
“In retrospect, I realize that is not what I should have done. But at the time, I thought it was the right thing to do. I had good intentions. So, it wasn’t really a sin. It’s not something I need to feel bad about, and it’s not something I really need to repent of. God knows my heart.”
Of course, if good motives cancelled out all sins, then most of us would be sin-free, and we would not need forgiveness. We may wish we had done things differently. But most of us can honestly say, “It seemed to be a good idea at the time.”
Many people have a mistaken view of how unrepentant sinners think. When we hear news stories of people committing murder, rape, theft, and other crimes, we assume the criminals are thinking, “I know this is wrong, but I want to do it anyway!”
Do sinners actually think like that? Yes, sometimes they do.
Those are sins of presumption, and they are especially serious.
But often, that is not how they are thinking. Rather, they actually think they are doing the right things. It seems like a good idea at the time. They believe their actions are justified.
How can that be? It might be possible to make an “innocent little mistake” by accident. But for really heinous sins, is it possible to be so deluded that you think you are doing what is right?
Yes. It happens all the time.
Let’s look at a few examples from Scripture.
These things I have spoken to you, that you should not be made to stumble. . . . yes, the time is coming that whoever kills you will think that he offers God service. (John 16:1-2)
The man Micah had a shrine, and made an ephod and household idols; and he consecrated one of his sons, who became his priest. In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes. (Judges 17:5-6)
Therefore they instructed the children of Benjamin, saying, “Go, lie in wait in the vineyards, and watch; and just when the daughters of Shiloh come out to perform their dances, then come out from the vineyards, and every man catch a wife for himself from the daughters of Shiloh; then go to the land of Benjamin. Then it shall be, when their fathers or their brothers come to us to complain, that we will say to them, ‘Be kind to them for our sakes, because we did not take a wife for any of them in the war . . . .’” And the children of Benjamin did so; they took enough wives for their number from those who danced, whom they caught . . . In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” (Judges 21:20-25)
In all of these passages, the incredible fact is that sinners believe they are doing what is right. They think it is OK to kidnap women, and to forcibly marry them. They think it is OK to worship idols. And when they murder Christians, they really believe they are offering a helpful service to God.
There often seems to be an unstated assumption that “if it was a sin, but I thought I was doing the right thing, then it was only a tiny little sin.” But the Scriptures above reveal that this assumption is false. Even big sins can be committed by people who think they are doing the right thing.
And the thought processes of sinners have not changed over the centuries. To this day, people continue to commit heinous sins, believing that their motives are pure. Believing themselves to be righteous, people slack off in their duties as parents, they waste money in self-centered pursuits, they commit fornication and adultery, and they use their tongues to gossip and destroy relationships.
And they do it all with clear consciences, believing themselves to be basically good people.
Unintentional Sin is Still Sin
According to Scripture, and according to the Church, ignorance is no excuse. Sin is sin, and it must be addressed:
“If a person commits a trespass, and sins unintentionally . . . he shall make restitution for the harm that he has done in regard to the holy thing, and shall add one-fifth to it and give it to the priest. So the priest shall make atonement for him . . . and it shall be forgiven him.” (Leviticus 5:15-16)
“If a person sins, and commits any of these things which are forbidden to be done by the commandments of the Lord, though he does not know it, yet he is guilty and shall bear his iniquity. . . . So the priest shall make atonement for him regarding his ignorance in which he erred and did not know it, and it shall be forgiven him. It is a trespass offering; he has certainly trespassed against the Lord.” (Leviticus 5:17-19)
And in every Orthodox church, the following prayer is offered in preparation for communion:
I believe, O Lord, and I confess that thou art truly the Christ, the Son of the living God, who didst come into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief. And I believe that this is truly thine own immaculate Body, and that this is truly thine own precious Blood. Wherefore I pray thee, have mercy upon me and forgive my transgressions both voluntary and involuntary, of word and of deed, of knowledge and of ignorance; and make me worthy to partake without condemnation of thine immaculate Mysteries, unto remission of my sins and unto life everlasting. Amen.
In Scripture and in the liturgy, the message is the same. A sin is a sin, regardless of what one’s motives happened to be at the time. And every sin requires an appropriate amount of remorse, repentance, and absolution.
The Proper Response: Heartfelt Repentance
I know of a man who committed adultery. He didn’t feel too bad about it at first, because he thought he wasn’t like “other adulterers”. He thought most adulterers were filthy, because they consciously wanted to commit adultery. Meanwhile, he thought he was justified in his actions, because he felt he was “motivated by love”. Later, when he came to realize that virtually all adulterers share similar feelings, the spell was broken, and he came to realize his deep need for repentance.
So it is with virtually every other sin. We easily condemn those “others” who commit that sin. But we justify ourselves because “it seemed like a good idea at the time”.
In regard to others, the gracious response is to admit that it probably “seemed like a good idea at the time” for them, too. If we are going to be merciful on ourselves because “we thought we were doing the right thing”, then we need to be just as merciful on everyone else who commits the same sin. Chances are, they had a smidgen of good motives too.
In regard to ourselves, the proper response is heartfelt repentance. We need to stop making excuses. Regardless of what we think our motives were, we need to confess that we have sinned against God and against our fellow man. Sin hurts people deeply, whether you “intended” to sin or not.
The Moral to the Story:
Never, ever, ever try to justify your sin, excusing it because you “thought it was the right thing to do at the time”. Once you identify it as a sin, admit that it was NOT the right thing to do. Thus you confess it, repent of it, and do whatever it takes to make things right.
Never, ever, ever try to minimize your sin, believing that your “good motives” will get you off the hook. As we saw earlier, it is possible to commit some of the very worst sins, even while believing you are doing the right thing.