Don’t Trust Good Intentions
A quote from Virgil’s Aeneid says “The descent to hell is easy.” And no one ever expects their good intentions to turn out bad. That’s the “law of unintended consequences.” It seems we humans are better at coming up with witty quotes than we are at avoiding the mistakes of our “good intentions” gone bad.
But why is that? Nobody ever thinks their intentions are actually harmful. Most of us think (and, truth be told, we actually do) we act with a sincere heart most of the time. We don’t sit around wondering how to manipulate our surroundings and the people around us with the intention of destroying our own lives and the lives of those around us. We really don’t want to be unhappy. We really don’t want to end up broken and being our own worst enemy, and yet all our good intentions have a way of never quite playing out like we imagined! Where’s the disconnect? Why is the road to hell paved with… well, you know?
Part of the problem is an honest evaluation of our expectations and our priorities. It’s just not going to be easy to get to the “right” destination when you start with all the wrong instructions.
So, how do we honestly confess we meant well without that old excuse becoming just another reason we stay lost?
Look at our Gospel Lesson in Mark 8:30-34:
At that time, Jesus charged his disciples to tell no one that he is the Christ. And he began to teach them that the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. And he said this plainly. And Peter took him, and began to rebuke him. But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter, and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not on the side of God, but of men.” And he called to him the multitude with his disciples, and said to them, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
Our Lord is telling His disciples that things aren’t going to end up in a pleasant way for Him very soon. He tells His disciples the truth about what is going to happen to Him during what we will eventually call “Holy Week” and St. Peter doesn’t take this well at all. He (I love this image) “took” Jesus. Can you see Peter grabbing the Lord’s arm and pulling Him off to the side to “rebuke” Him? Imagine Peter’s surprise when the Lord reacts as He does! “Get behind me, Satan!” I’m sure Peter is absolutely shocked at how wrong his good intentions turned out to be, so completely wrong that they were actually the enemy of the Lord’s purpose and mission. Peter simply and fatally failed to pay attention AND he also failed to trust the Lord knew what He was doing! Yep, the road to hell is paved with stuff like this!
So, how do we avoid this? Again, it’s simple (just not easy): Love God! It is love for God that keeps me awake to His gentle wisdom for my life. It is love for God that keeps me humble about my own plans and my own ideas. It is love for God that sets me free to trust that current circumstances are all under His care! It is love for God that allows me to actually pay attention to His words and not superimpose my own desires, hopes, and dreams on His will for my life. Love keeps me awake to His wisdom. And love is what I must nurture in my everyday life if I am going to avoid paving my own road to hell with my good intentions. Love, ultimately, is discovered not to be a feeling or an emotion, but a willful choice to embrace an honest intimacy with God. That’s why all of Orthodoxy is about fostering love and intimacy with God in my life. All the prayers, all the incense, all the liturgies, all the fasting disciplines, the feasting joys, all the lives of the saints, and especially the Mystery of confession; all of this has ONE AIM! And it is shaping my life in such a way that I can love God FIRST and my neighbor as myself. Orthodoxy is the “science” of spiritual labor that produces love for God!
This call to an authentic intimacy with God forever removes my motivations for being faithful and pious just to be a good rulekeeper. Genuine love for Christ so transforms my motivations that my intentions get healed along the way! If I want to escape the dead end of excusing the making of “Well, I meant well,” I’m going to have to be diligent in learning to love God first and foremost! No wonder Christmas is God’s true expression of His love for us. He wants us to allow that love to change us.
St. Herman of Alaska is a model of a man whose intentions were submitted to God for transformation. He was born near Moscow in the mid-18th century and became a monk as a young man. In 1794 he answered the call for missionaries to share the Orthodox Faith with the native Alaskans and settled on Spruce Islan, which he renamed “New Valaam” after the monastery he lived in during his time in Russia. St. Herman endured much suffering, mostly at the hands of his own people, because they were more interested in trade and tasking from the rich Alaskan land. But St. Herman never allowed these troubles to steer him away from his purpose, which was to be Christ-like and share the Faith. Many native Alaskans came to Christ because of his witness. It is said that angels would descend on the Feast of Theophany to consecrate the waters because St. Herman was not a priest. He was just a monk! This mighty man of God loved the people and Christ. That so transformed him that he bore hardship as a gift, and ended his life as a faithful witness to Orthodoxy in 1837. He is rightly called “the Enlightener of the Aleuts” and the “Wonderworker.”
Today, how are your good intentions working out for you? Are your daily practices strengthening your Love for God? As we move toward Bethlehem, we must realize that all the pious practices in our Faith have ONE AIM – Love God and love our neighbor. Living that way is Normal Orthodoxy!