Monday, December 20, 2010

The Means Justify the Ends

In case you haven't noticed it, you live in a society that firmly believes in the motto, "the ends justify the means". I cannot think of a single avenue of our life where this is not the dominant mindset of American life.

Tiger Woods and Kobe Bryant had personalities that led them to be labeled as unsociable jerks; when they became winners, those same personalities were described as "passionate" and "driven"--and justified, because they helped lead them to their heights of talent. Sun Tzu, in The Art of War, tried to convince other generals to ignore the shame of using spies, saying that if it led to the proper end then it was worthwhile. A few years ago, many conservatives argued (and still do) that tortureis sometimes acceptable, as long as it is likely to save lives. The "shock and awe" approach to warfare often leads to numerous civilian deaths, but this is justified as acceptable due to the greater good of the war. Pro-choice advocates say that the end result of their policies (greater control of a woman's reproductive system) justifies the horrors of what is done to the children. Pastors justify ignoring their proper calling as shepherds and instead becoming CEOs, because churches that do so are growing so fast--and that must justify the means.

We all have a strong tendency to justify whatever means are necessary to achieve our goals.

And that is where Christianity is different.

In fact, Christianity is exactly the opposite. In Christianity, the means justify the ends. The Christian does not worry about what the end result is. All that matters is how we get there. Jesus made that very clear in His ministry, time and time again. Jesus' faith is not a destination, it is a journey.

Ours is not a faith of "where", but "how".

It does not matter whether you kill the man who angers you; what matters is that you are angry (Matt 5:21-26). It does not matter whether you end up cheating on your wife; what matters is that you are lusting after another woman (Matt 5:27-30). It does not matter that you are praying; what matters is that you are praying in the right way (Matt 6:5-6). It does not matter if your war against your enemy results in greater peace; what matters is that you were supposed to be loving your enemy and forgiving him (Matt 5:43-48). It does not matter whether your husband is effectively leading your house; what matters is that you are allowing him to spiritually lead (Eph 5:22-24). It does not matter whether you are a 'pretty good' husband; what matters is that you are loving your wife with the same sacrificial, servant-based love that Christ showed us (Eph 5:25-27). It does not matter if your children are disobedient; what matters is that you are not supposed to be provoking them (Eph 6:4). Pastor, it does not matter what the church down the road is preaching to pack in the aisles; what matters is that you are preaching Christ and His crucifixion (1 Cor 2:2). It does not matter whether you approve of the policies of the President; what matters is that you are to pray for him and support him anyway (Rom 13:1-7; 1 Pet 2:13-17)

There are many, many more. I could argue that this is the key overarching principle of the Christian walk--the ends are not at all important. The means are everything. They are, in fact, the only thing. Jesus made that quite clear.

As you go through your days, reflect on that principle. What matters is not, "How do I best achieve such-and-such goal?" What matters is, "What is the right thing to do here?"

That sounds great, but many of you will ignore it. A great example is in giving to peddlers on the side of the road. I have argued with many Christians--including in small groups. Time and again, I hear the same justifications: they will spend it all on booze; they should get a job; I read somewhere that one beggar in NYC makes six figures; I knew a guy that got beaten up for trying to help people. All of these are ends-based reasoning. Did Jesus ever tell us, "Give to the long as you feel the gift will be appropriately used?" If I give money to a poor person and he abuses that gift, am I any less generous as a result? When I gave money to the Salvation Army at our local Wal-Mart on December 6, and she ran off with the bucket at the end of the day (the police are still searching), is my gift less generous or godly, because it did not make it to where I thought it was going? No, of course not! But the human way of thinking is that we should not do things unless we will succeed at them.

That is the trap of ends-based reasoning. If you focus on the ends, then invariably you place effectiveness and efficiency as your overarching guidelines. And Jesus made it clear that was not so important to Him.

Try and keep that in mind when you go through your holiday season. Do not spend time worrying about what is most effective--instead, worry about what is Christlike.

To the Christian, the means justify the ends. It is not easy, this task that Christ has given:
* Playing the game the right way often will result in you losing.
* Forgiving your enemies will often cause them to hate you more, and they may well attack you and kill innocent civilians
* Raising your children in acceptance and grace will probably result in your child being seen as "behind" in one or more areas.
* Giving money generously probably means that you will be taken advantage of by some of those you want to help.
* Nonviolent protest of bad policies will usually not be as effective as a violent resistence.
* Giving people the benefit of the doubt will probably result in you being burned by one of them.
* Preaching and shepherding your church as the Bible may limit the size of your congregation.
* Putting God and family first will almost certainly limit your career aspirations.

Be forewarned: following Jesus will almost certainly result in some very ineffective aspects of your life, at least as far as others see it. You may be poor; or your kids may be wild; or you may be taken advantage of; or you may be seen as a hippy pacifist; or you may lead a small, slowly aging flock without the fiery passionate congregations that your pastor friends have.

But you will have gotten where you are by following Jesus. Which means that you are exactly where He intended you to be all along.

The means justify the ends.


  1. As an atheist I have to say that this is a great post and if Christians really believed this principle then there would be far fewer atheists in America.

    I do have to say that the statement that "the means justify the ends" is also wrong. The reason is that if the person taking action believes that the action is positive but the recipient of the action thinks that the action is negative, then the overall action is in fact negative. Just acting with good intentions is not enough. Because however positive the action is believed to be, the action must be received as positive in order for the action to truly be positive.

    1. I really appreciate the kind words, and hope you enjoy the blog. You might check out this post ( which has some of the most popular ones from last year linked in it.

      Christians do really believe this...but unfortunately many people who claim the name of Christ are not, in fact, Christians (see Matthew 7:21-23).

      I do see where you are coming from, and there is some truth to it. There are certainly times where someone wants to do something positive and, in fact, ends up creating a negative situation. But what I'm going for is the ethical analysis of that action: in other words, the action's goodness or badness is based upon the action itself, not how someone else reacts to it.

      For example, you posted a thoughtful comment on the blog. If I then responded by yelling and cursing and being wrongly offended, this would not mean that your post was wrong! So the ethics and morality of your action is fully dependent upon the intention and how you did it...the "rightness" of it is not dependent upon me receiving it properly.

      I know we probably don't disagree on this at all--I see what you're saying and there are absolutely things that I could do with good intentions but in the wrong way...but it is the "in the wrong way" that makes the action wrong, not how it is received. Something done for the right reasons and in the right way is right--regardless of how someone else responds to it.