Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “no idol in the world really exists” and that “there is no God but one.” Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as in fact there are many gods and many lords— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.It is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge. Since some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. “Food will not bring us close to God.” We are no worse off if we do not eat and no better off if we do. But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. -I Cor. 8:4-9
I went to worship on June 12. I imagine that doesn’t come as much of a surprise. Even while traveling to a conference, it was important to stop and take the time for worship. So, I found the nearest ELCA congregation to my hotel and made my way there. Once inside, I realized that only about 15 people attended the early service. Once seated and listening to the welcome to worship, I realized something else.
They expected me to introduce myself.
Now, I like churches. And I like church people. And I like to think I’m a reasonably social person.
But I do not like to be unprepared to introduce myself to a room full of people who already know each other. Now, I am quite certain that the invitation to be introduced was intended with the kindest of intentions. I’m sure they wanted to be welcoming, to make a visitor feel like part of the congregation. However, the intention (welcome, connection) was in fact the opposite of the outcome (discomfort, being singled out).
Intentions don’t always match up with outcomes, do they? In I Corinthians 8, we read that some of the believers ate meat that had been sacrificed to idols, intending it to nourish their bodies and also to show their belief in the one God. The outcome, however unintended, was that other believers were offended and their faith was shaken. Paul pointed out that the intended benefits of eating meat were far less than the resultant detriment to other people’s wellbeing.
Our intentions matter- absolutely. Yet, they are not the only thing that matters. As the saying goes, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Outcomes matter, too. Often, the outcome matters even more than the intention.
We very often see this with humor—someone makes a joke, intending to offer a laugh to everyone who hears it. Humor is a good intention! Yet, the hearer is upset by a joke made at the expense of them or someone or a group they care about. Should a Christian double down on the joke, insisting that the offended hearer is too sensitive, or should they listen to the hearer and avoid making jokes that upset the people around them?
Sometimes, our intentions and the results that follow are even more out of alignment. In college, I spent a summer working at a shelter, where women and children fleeing domestic violence could find safety. Often they’d be looking for work, housing, or community support as they made this transition. After I’d been there a month, one of the other workers pulled me aside and said, “I notice you giving advice to the clients, even when they haven’t asked for it. I know you’re trying to be helpful. But the thing is, these women have been controlled and told what to do in every part of their lives. When you tell them what to do, you are also telling them that you don’t trust them to make responsible decisions. You need to stop.”
I felt terrible. I had such good intentions! The outcomes, though, were hurting the people I wanted to help. Then, I felt grateful. This other worker wanted to help me match my outcomes with my intentions. Even though it was painful and embarrassing to realize that what I was doing didn’t work as I planned, I knew that the other worker would never have pointed it out if she thought I was trying to cause problems or if she didn’t think I could change to do better.
So, back to that introduction on June 12. It wasn’t intended, but it made me uncomfortable. It makes me wonder: are my intentions as an individual and ours as a community in alignment with the outcomes we’re getting? If so, how can we continue? If not, would we have the awareness to notice? Would we be willing to take the gentle feedback from a fellow worshiper, colleague, friend, or family member telling us that our good intentions are not producing good outcomes? It isn’t easy, but it’s important.
God, you know that we want to love you and our neighbors. Yet, you also know that what we intend doesn’t always come through in our outcomes. Help us to be humble, willing to change as needed; and confident, willing to speak out when intentions and outcomes are misaligned; and gracious, willing to believe the best of those who remind us to match our outcomes to our intentions. Amen.