The Hell(ow) Brick Road - Why Intentions Aren't The Pavement

One of the most divisive issues currently facing Methodists is what official ecclesiastical position the United Methodist Church (UMC) should take on matters of human sexuality. This issue threatens to split the church, which I think would be an unfortunate outcome.

I understand the theological position of both sides. What I didn't understand until recently was why the conservatives felt that the difference required a schism. While attending the 2016 UMC quadrennial General Conference, I seized the opportunity to speak with two conservative Methodists. One was a twenty-three year old certified candidate for ordained ministry and the other a renowned member for the UMC's conservative caucus.

I was sincerely interested in learning and understanding their perspective on how God might view each side of the debate, since both sides seem sincerely well intentioned.

Among many other thoughtful and reasonable responses, I was reminded - when I asked one of them why God might ever punish someone who sincerely believes they are following God's will - that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

That sentence stuck in my head. I understand exactly what was meant, though, I realized that - given how important this matter was - the sentiment was so imprecise that it actually causes harm.

As a Muslim, I believe that when we speak on theological matters, we must speak with the highest degree of precision, choosing each word deliberately and carefully, especially when we find ourselves in opposition to others. Precision of language has been an important part of Islam from the very beginning. Unlike all the other prophets who performed physical miracles, like the parting the seas or the raising of the dead, Prophet Muhammad's miracle was the Qur'an with its use of beautiful, multi-layered, rhyming poetry to convey a precise, nuanced, consistent, coherent message.(1)

What we say and how we say it are both important, which brings me back to what paves the road to hell.

If we take the aphorism on good intentions at face value, it seems to suggest that God cares only about the outcome and not the intentions behind it. In this earthly world, we mitigate - and often reduce punishment - based on intentions. We do so out of a desire for merciful justice.

If we truly believe the road to hell is paved with good intentions - with no need for elaboration - then we suggest that only the outcome matters and our intentions are totally irrelevant in how God judges our action. This feels patently unjust and counter to the nature of God. It is also rather arrogant, as it presumes God is less merciful than God's human creation.

What we really should be saying is that the road to hell is paved with deliberate or negligent injustice.

Clearly that version is neither pithy nor rolls off the tongue, yet, if the church might schism over the nature of our accountability before God, it seems that speaking with deliberate precision is wiser.

The more precise language is so critical because it creates a way forward for theological differences. If our intentions do factor into how God judges our actions, then two opposing theological views can be simultaneously pleasing to God.

Let's examine deliberate or negligent injustice verses righteous injustice to see how this is possible.

Deliberate injustice is someone who knows they are doing wrong and does it anyway. In this case what condemns the person is his or her bad intentions.(2)

Negligent injustice is when we have good intentions, but have not done our due diligence in trying to discern the will of God. In this case, it is not the good intentions that paved the way to condemnation. It was the act of creating injustice by negligently passing judgment on an issue without thorough, intelligent, discerning research. Our good intentions do not immunize us from having to thoroughly and humbly research.

An example of this would be a preacher who says that wives must remain patient and obedient to an abusive husband because God meant for marriage to be forever and for men to be the head of the household. If we give the preacher the benefit of the doubt, we can see how the preacher doesn't mean to be unjust, even though he is unjust.

The argument in favor of negligent (rather than deliberate injustice) on the part of the preacher is that the preacher may believe that God will reward a wife's patient perseverance in this life - which is temporary - with a huge reward in the afterlife - which is forever. He's doing what he thinks is in the long term interest of the wife.

He may believe that God views divorce as a much greater sin than patient perseverance. In which case, the divorce would exchange suffering in this world for much greater suffering in the afterlife. Objectively speaking - if the theology is correct - divorce is definitely not better. It's like pulling your hand out of uncomfortably hot water to later be forced to stick it in boiling oil.

I can recognize that the preacher's intentions need not be rooted in a deliberate desire to cause harm. Regardless, I find it absurd that God would compel us to endure an injustice that we are able to escape or end. I think a responsible preacher would offer his point of view along with the reasoning behind it, while also sharing other points of view along with the reasoning behind them. Then, the preacher can humbly allow the woman to make her own decision without coercion.

Ultimately, if God chooses to hold the preacher accountable in this case, it's not because of his good intentions, but because of negligence. In matters where we cause obvious temporal pain, we must be extra diligent.

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We are left with three other categories of behavior: righteous justice, righteous injustice, and agnostic justice.

Righteous and agnostic justice are fairly simple concepts. Righteous justice is deliberate, reasoned, good-intentioned actions that are also just.

Agnostic justice is if we do the right thing, but not for God's sake, just because we want to. In such a case, God would reward the person because no good deed should go uncompensated either in this life or the next.

What's more interesting to me is righteous injustice, by which I mean reasoned, deliberate, humble, thoroughly-researched, well-intentioned actions that end up still being unjust because humans are fallible. Essentially, we tried our best but failed.

Some might argue that the unjust action necessarily means the person must be punished. That doesn't feel right. Punishment is designed to correct behavior. There's nothing redemptive in the punishment because we've already done all we could. There I believe our good intentions pave the road away from hell. The good intentions intentions - coupled with the due deliberation - mitigate the injustice though only from a spiritual perspective.

Obviously if we later discover that we did something unjust, regardless of how we came to do it, if we want any reasonable hope of escaping punishment, we must acknowledge our error, repent, seek forgiveness from the person we have been unjust to, do our best to affirmatively restitute, and also seek forgiveness from God.

Our good intentions do not absolve us of the temporal consequences of our actions if we later discover we were wrong.

Even if we never discover we are wrong - and we die without ever repenting for this particular injustice - there is still room for justice that doesn't require punishment.

God has chosen to always act with justice towards everyone. If God chooses not to intervene in this life to prevent or undo an injustice, on the day of judgement, when we stand before God, God can reconcile between the unintentional oppressor and the oppressed. God can show the oppressed the true nature of his or her unintentional-oppressor. God can offer the oppressed whatever restitution her or she would like to forgive the oppressor so that no one need be punished yet all be fully satisfied with the outcome. Hence both mercy and justice prevail without the need for retributive punishment.

It is in recognizing how God may choose to deal with an unintentional injustice that allows us to be in communion with those who not only hold a belief opposite to our but also put into practice those beliefs, so long as we cannot identify a temporal harm associated with the action. If we see that the other side has done their due diligence, there is nothing more we can reasonably expect from them. If God judges by intentions and diligence rather than outcome, we should do the same.

-- Footnotes --

(1) What makes the Qur'an enough of a miracle is that it is akin to writing the entire U.S. tax code as rhyming, coherent, consistent, memorizable poetry.

(2) Though I can imagine that God, in God's infinite mercy, may pardon a person acting with bad intentions who accidentally does good through incompetence at being bad.

For example, let's imagine we are neighbors. I love rabbits and you love gardening. Because you are a trusting person, you don't put a fence around your vegetables. Because I'm a jerk, I decide to seize the opportunity to save on rabbit food by letting my rabbits run free in your yard where they can have their fill of your plants. As it turns out the rabbits don't like the particular vegetable you've grown, but they do enjoy the weeds in between, so they end up doing the weeding for you. The practical outcome was a nice one for you, however, because intentions matter, I deserve no reward for the good outcome. I meant to cause harm, yet my ignorance about what rabbits like to eat ends up leading to unintentional good. I was foiled by my own incompetence. I should have researched better.

There are two possible outcomes to this. God could choose to favor justice and therefore punish me for my intentions despite the positive outcome, or God may give mercy precedence and decide that since no harm was actually done, perhaps I need not be punished for this particular sin in the hopes that my eyes might open later.