2013-05-24

Ends and Means

A long time ago, people used the words "means" and "ends" to talk about philosophy, and, as with most things philosophical, it was confusing. "Means" means (or meant) "method" or maybe "by way of". "Ends" meant "goal" AND "result". But we use those words in one important question: "Does the end justify the means?" If we translate that into modern language, we might say "Does your goal justify the things you are doing to achieve it?" It also means, "Does the result justify the actions you took to achieve it?" The ambiguity between "goal" and "result" is one that I would like to play with in this post.
Hitler in the 5th grade? Would you do it?

We most often ask the question "Does the end justify the means?" when when talking about moral dilemmas. For example, if you could have murdered Adolf Hitler as a 5th grader and prevented the Holocaust, would you have? Does the preventing the deaths of 6 million Jews justify the murder of a child? More realistically, if you could imprison and torture potential terrorists (some of whom are undoubtedly innocent) in order to prevent a possible terrorist attack, would you? Does the preventing a terrorist attack (end) justify torture (means)?

Most Christians would say that the end does not justify the means. What is right is right, regardless of the circumstances, though many would add caveats about self-defense or other extraordinary circumstances. Or maybe a better way to put it is that what is wrong is wrong, regardless of the circumstances. What do you think?

Now let's make this saying "walk the extra mile" by using the other meaning of "ends". Let's ask the same question about positive things. Is the worth of our actions determined by the result? Let me borrow an example from Jackie Pullinger, the woman whose speech at the Justice Conference Asia inspired this post. When Jackie was working and ministering in the slums, brothels, and opium dens of Hong Kong in the 60s and 70s, one of her friends hired her 14-year-old daughter to a pimp.  The life was not good, but she chose her own customers and kept most of the money. About a month later, this daughter came to Jackie and asked for $1,000 to pay off some gambling debts that she had run up after work. If this young girl did not pay off her debt, she would become a "snake", a personal sex slave of the gang boss for one or two years to be sold whenever and to whomever he wished. Jackie prayed about it, and received a word from the Lord, "Jesus gave his life for you. What's $1,000?" Since Jackie didn't even have $100, she went home and sold her precious oboe to raise the necessary money.

Fifty years later, on the stage of the Justice Conference, Jackie said something like this: "I wish I could tell you that my gift freed that girl. I wish I could tell you she became a Christian, or that she left the life on the street. But she didn't. Do I regret the gift? Of course  not! She was worth it anyway."

In other words, the ends (whether or not the girl makes the right decision) does not justify the means (selling her oboe paying off her debt). To take it a step farther, Jesus died for that girl.

Too many times our churches, our organizations, and we, as individuals, have tried to decide what is right based on what is effective. But the END does not justify the MEANS. We do not feed the poor SO THAT they will get saved. We feed the poor because we love them. Because we love them, we hope they believe. Because we love them we share the gospel. But to serve, to give, to clothe, to visit, to feed, or to cure because of what that love might do or might accomplish is WRONG. It is hypocritical and a misunderstanding of the gospel. Jesus died for you long before you believed in Him. And He died for a lot of people who may never choose to follow Him. But the result doesn't justify the action. Actions are right or not on their own merits.

Never forget that even in his short time on earth, Jesus poured his life into 12 men, one of whom was a traitor. If Jesus was willing to "waste" his precious time on this earth with Judas, who are you and I to try to do a better job?

Knowing this is freedom, brothers and sisters. You are free to do what is right and loving without too much concern for the results or the reactions of others. You ask yourself: "Am I enabling this beggar or this prostitute or this alcoholic?" Maybe you are. It is hard to know what the truly loving action is. So think hard about it and pray about it. But don't become paralyzed by how people may respond. Remember that the cross is the most loving action ever taken, but the response so far is not even close to completely positive. In one way or another, the sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross has caused a lot of wars and death and violence. That didn't stop him, did it. What's more is your generous, loving acts to those in need are done to Jesus and are commended as such, according to Matthew 25. In the same way, the generous, loving acts you don't do are acts which are not done for Jesus and are judged as such. So, we think, we pray, we act, and we hope for the best.

You may be crazy, Jackie. But I'm thankful for you.

This is and has been a very difficult area for me and I thank God for Jackie Pullinger and her wisdom.

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