This is why intent matters.

December 16, 2014.

The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.”
(Genesis 6:5-6)

Just a few chapters after God created man, we find this condemning verse that goes to tell just how quickly we can mess things up when given the opportunity. By Genesis 6, mankind had already grown so wicked that the record says that God regretted making man. Have you ever considered how strong those words are? God, the Almighty, creator of all things good (this is an important point), looked down on his creation, and wished He had not created us. Wow. Mankind had definitively sunk to rock bottom. But notice the comment that is made about man, the reason that we had grieved the Almighty. There is no mention of the physical sins that were being committed, no mention of murder, no mention of lewdness, no mention of following after foreign gods (though I’m sure each of these and more were happening). But the comment that is made is “every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” Mankind’s intent and thoughts of his heart is what is blamed for our deviation off the path set forth by God.

Just about every physical sin that I can think of boils down to one concept: heart problems. It is our intent that is the basis of most, if not all sin. We often quote a verse from Jeremiah about the heart being deceitful, but I had forgotten about the verse that follows and goes along with this concept.

The heart is deceitful above all things,
    and desperately sick;
    who can understand it?
“I the Lord search the heart
    and test the mind,
to give every man according to his ways,
    according to the fruit of his deeds.”
(Jeremiah 17:9-10)

Notice the phrasing here. The Lord searches the heart and mind of man, so that He can give each man according to his actions. So, He searches the heart to judge the actions. It is what is on the inside that matters to God, not inherently our actions, because our intent drives our actions. This is the same principle that is displayed when Samuel is told to anoint the next king over Israel after Saul had forsaken the command of the Lord. He goes to the house of Jessie and sees Jessie’s older sons, starting with Eliab:

When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord‘s anointed is before him.” But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lordlooks on the heart.”
(I Samuel 16:6-7)

We tend to judge by outward appearances because we cannot see into the heart of man. God, however, can. He will judge us righteously, according to the intent of our heart as opposed to our outward actions. I believe this is why Peter responds the way he does to Simon when Simon tries to buy the power of the Holy Spirit with money:

Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, saying, “Give me this power also, so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.” But Peter said to him, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! You have neither part nor lot in this matter, for your heart is not right before God. Repent, therefore, of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity.”
(Acts 8:18-23)

It was the intent of Simon’s heart that was not right with God. He desired the gift of giving the out pouring of the Holy Spirit for the wrong reasons. He had the wrong intent, and thus he was found to be in the “gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity.” All sin starts in our heart, and it is the evil intent that drives the sin, not the physical action (in most cases, there probably is an exception or two that I’m not thinking about). To illustrate this point, I would like to examine some common sins that we often go after, trying to treat the symptoms of the sin (the physical action) rather than the cause of the sin (the intent of the heart). Once we gain a better understanding of the underlying cause of sin, I think we will be better equipped to fight against it. I have organized this in such a way that the action (which is not inherently sinful) comes first, followed by the sin that is caused when the action is done with the wrong intent. Let’s take a look.

Action: Taking a life.

Sin: Murder.

I have decided to put a “big” one first to best illustrate the point. I believe that murder (or rather, the action of taking someone’s life) is a heart problem and not due to the physical act. If the act of taking a human life was inherently sinful, then there are many instances in the Old Testament (and in the New) that we are going to have a very hard time defending the righteousness of God. For example, consider the last plague that the Lord used to convince Pharaoh to let the children of Israel go:

And the Lord said to Moses, “When you go back to Egypt, see that you do before Pharaoh all the miracles that I have put in your power. But I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go.Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the Lord, Israel is my firstborn son, and I say to you, “Let my son go that he may serve me.” If you refuse to let him go, behold, I will kill your firstborn son.’”
(Exodus 4:21-23)

The story continues with Pharaoh indeed hardening his heart and not letting the people go, so that God is true to His word and sends the death angle to kill all the firstborn in Egypt on whose houses did not have the sign that was given to the people to avoid the death angel (ref. Ex. 12). This is only one of the many instances that the Lord Himself takes life and instructs His people to take the life of certain people, such as the wicked inhabitants of the promised land and those who violate a law that was punishable by death. If taking the life of a human was inherently sinful, then this would paint a lot of sin on God and the children of God. Thus, it must be the intent that makes it sinful. And indeed, shedding innocent life is very sinful. It is one of the 10 commandments.

“You shall not murder.”
(Exodus 20:13)

God never sanctioned the killing of the innocent, nor will He. It is the intent behind the action that causes sin.

Action: Saying a false word.

Sin: Lying.

This one might be a little harder to convince you, but stick with me. It is hard to see any reason why lying would not be a sin (though the cases of Rahab in Joshua 2 and the lying spirit in I Kings 22 are very curious studies if you are interested), and indeed lying is clearly a sin (ref. Rev. 21:8). But lying is not the action. The action is something that is false. Let me ask you a question. If you tell someone that you are going to town A to pick up some groceries, and afterwards you realize that the store is in town B so you have to go there instead, did you lie? Or what if you answer a question incorrectly in class. Did you lie? I fully contend that in each case you did not. Why? Because the definition of lying is telling something intended to deceive (i.e. telling your parents that you are going to the grocery store, which you will do, but not telling them about the party that they told you not to go to that you’re going to afterwards). You can say something that is completely true, and still be lying if are giving the true information in order to deceive. On the other side of the coin, you can say something that is false and still not be lying, as in the cases above. It is the intent of the statement that matters.

Action: Being jealous.

Sin: Covetousness.

What? Can jealousy be anything other than sinful?

“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousandsof those who love me and keep my commandments.”
(Exodus 20:4-6)

God is a jealous God. You might say, “Well, that’s different. He’s God, ultimately righteous. His jealousy is not like our jealousy.” Sure, I agree with that point. But it would seem that we can posses this type of jealousy too. Before the children of Israel entered the promised land, some of them started inter coupling with foreign people, which kindled God’s anger (yet another emotion that is not inherently sinful, but can lead to sin) against the people. One priest, Phinehas, took a spear and slew a man who was the head of the people who had taken a Midianite woman into his tent. This is what God says about Phinehas:

“Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, has turned back my wrath from the people of Israel, in that he was jealous with my jealousy among them, so that I did not consume the people of Israel in my jealousy. Therefore say, ‘Behold, I give to him my covenant of peace, and it shall be to him and to his descendants after him the covenant of a perpetual priesthood, because he was jealous for his God and made atonement for the people of Israel.’”
(Numbers 25:11-13)

Thus, it must not be inherently jealousy that is the sin, but rather jealousy with the wrong intent, otherwise known as covetousness.

“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.”
(Exodus 20:17)

Action: Eating.

Sin: Gluttony.

I think this should be a case study when we deal with sins that are sins of indulgence. We often misapply the “body is the temple of the Lord” concept (ref. I Cor. 6:19-20) to fight against only sins that look like they are always harmful to the body (i.e. drugs). It is true that we are not to harm the body, and I do believe it is a sin to destroy the body. However, if we say that the material that is being used to destroy is inherently sinful, then we could never eat anything that is bad for us (i.e. just about everything you can eat out in America… Is it sin to eat at McDonalds? I guarantee you that food is not good for your body). However, the sin is not in eating. This point is made clear by Paul when he is talking about weaker members who were saying it was sinful to eat food sacrificed to idols (ref. I Cor. 8, Romans 14). The sin was not in eating, but in causing a brother to stumble.

It is the same way with gluttony. The sin is not in eating food, but rather in over-indulging in food. It is not the food itself that destroys the body, but the intent (and by extension the action caused by our intent) that we have when we eat it. This is pretty easy to see with gluttony.

Action: Drinking.

Sin: Drunkenness.

Though it is easy to see that food is not inherently sinful in the case of gluttony, it is sometimes hard for us (myself included) to see this for wine. But the fact of the matter is wine in and of itself is not inherently sinful. If it were, then Paul would have been telling Timothy to sin when he told him to drink some wine for his stomach’s sake (ref. I tim. 5:23). You might object, “No, that’s just an exception to the rule!” However, in admitting to an exception, or at least one place where wine is not inherently sinful, you must concede that wine is indeed not inherently sinful. This makes a lot of sense with the greater picture of the bible. Wine cannot be inherently sinful, for the psalmist praises God for giving the blessing of wine:

You cause the grass to grow for the livestock
    and plants for man to cultivate,
that he may bring forth food from the earth
    and wine to gladden the heart of man,
oil to make his face shine
    and bread to strengthen man’s heart.”
(Psalm 104:14-15)

How can it be said that something made by God is inherently sinful? I believe you should tread very lightly if you consider making statements like this. There are other scriptures similar to this. But that is not to say that there is no sin that accompanies it. Our abuse of wine is very sinful, and is spoken against and condemned time and again in scripture. It is the intent, not necessarily the action, that causes the sin. For a more in depth study of this, see “Is drinking a sin?

Action: Sex.

Sin: Adultery/fornication.

I would highly doubt that you could find any Christian that would tell you that sex is in an of itself a sin. Yet, it is a sin that we attack so much that many of the younger generation have a very unhealthy view of sex, and those who indeed wait until marriage often find that they still feel very guilty and ashamed in the first part of their marriage. I believe this is due to our misunderstanding and wrong approach to teaching about sex and the sin that is associated with it. Let’s consider one of the first times sex is mentioned in the bible:

“So God created man in his own image,
    in the image of God he created him;
    male and female he created them.

And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
(Genesis 1:27-28)

You can’t be fruitful and multiply without having sex. And in the confines of marriage, sex is a blessing from God. It is a very good thing. But we are so afraid of the sin that can be associated with sex, that is adultery (sexual immorality of a married person) or fornication (sexual immorality of a married or unmarried person), that we for get to teach about the blessings of it. We forget that it is our intention that causes us to sin, not the act itself.

I think you probably see the pattern that has emerged from all these sins of the heart. I was going to go on with making money (as opposed to the love of money), thinking you did a good job (as opposed to pride) and talking about someone (as opposed to gossip), but I think you get the point. God judges the intent of the heart, not the outward actions. This is why He is righteous and does not make mistakes. That is not to say that all of these actions are good, but rather they can, in some instances, be considered good. Since sin is a matter of the heart, I believe that we must treating it as such and in doing so, develop more effective methods of combating it. We need to start treating the underlying cause of our sickness as opposed to just dealing with the symptoms of it. This is the only way we will ever find the cure.

Suggested Daily Reading: Genesis 1, 6, Exodus 20, Romans 14.

Grace and peace.

-Walter

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