Discerning Good & Evil

The Book of Hebrews has always been one of my favorites. I’ve been reading it again on my path through the whole Bible. Two passages in chapter four stand out to me, the first reminding me that in a world filled with selfishness, duplicity, and enmity toward God and His ways, He is still the One who sees everything and takes it all into account:

swordFor the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.

And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are open and laid bare to the eyes of Him with whom we have to do.

The first application of any Scripture needs to be personal. I must keep in mind that the Lord is constantly seeing what’s in my heart. He knows my intent in everything I do. In one sense, that’s sobering, but in another, it’s a spur to keep my heart right out of love for Him and all He has done for me.

The second application is to the world in general, in which I can rest in the assurance that He does know the truth about everyone and that, in the end, things will be made right: those who deny Him and His truth and who may seem to be “winning” will have to give an account to Him ultimately for their intent and their actions.

Later in the chapter, there is a challenge to those who say they are His disciples to prove that they are disciples indeed.

good-evilFor though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food.

For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is an infant. But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil.

The message of that passage? Grow up.

One of the things that is most troubling to me is that so many Christians seem to believe the lies the world tells us, all the way from excuses for sinful behavior in society to the bald-faced untruths emanating from the mouths of politicians eager to puff up themselves as our “saviors.”

Sins as described in the Bible remain sins today regardless of the trends we see around us.

No politician is the answer to our myriad problems. No one should ever say he or she alone can set things right.

God wants to work through us to set things as right as possible in this unsettled and topsy-turvy world, but we must grow up first if we are to make a difference. We can’t stay in the infant seat, wanting all our needs met. We must discern good and evil and be steadfast in our determination to stand for the good.

God’s righteousness in our own lives and in our society must be our twin goals.

Finney: The Intent of the Heart

Of what does true virtue consist? What determines a person’s moral character? Charles Finney deals with that in his Systematic Theology. His language is not modern, so some of this may be hard to follow for some people, but I would urge you to think this through carefully. Here’s what he says:

Finney's Systematic TheologyIt has been shown that moral character consists in the supreme ultimate intention of the mind, and that this supreme, disinterested benevolence, good willing or intention, is the whole of virtue.

Now this intention originates volitions [i.e., the power to make one’s own choices or decisions]. It directs the attention of the mind, and therefore, produces thoughts, emotions, or affections. It also, through volition, produces bodily action. But moral character does not lie in outward actions. . . . Moral character belongs solely to the intention that produced the volition that moved the muscles to the performance of the outward act. . . .

Moral character no more lies in emotion, than in outward action. It does not lie in thought, or attention. It does not lie in the specific volition that directed the attention; but in that intention, or design of the mind, that produced the volition, which directed the attention, which, again, produced the thought, which, again, produced the emotion.

So it all comes down to the intent of the heart, the motive for why we do the things we do. There are only two ultimate intentions: to serve God or to serve self. That’s why Jesus condemned the Pharisees who, although they were doing outwardly good things, were doing so with a wrong motive: for their own vanity.

Once we get the intention/motive right, then God is pleased with the outward action.

Finney: Discerning the Intent of the Heart

Our outward actions are extremely important, but when the Lord looks at those actions, He goes deeper and sees the intent of the heart. Sometimes, the outward actions of two individuals may be exactly the same, but the intent of the heart completely different. One may be honoring God by his actions while someone else doing the very same thing may be sinning. Here’s how Charles Finney explains it further:

A student labors to get wages, to purchase books, to obtain an education, to preach the gospel, to save souls, and to please God. Another labors to get wages, to purchase books, to get an education, to preach the gospel, to secure a salary, and his own ease and popularity. In the first supposition he loves God and souls, and seeks, as his ultimate end, the happiness of souls, and the glory and gratification of God. In the last case supposed, he loves himself supremely and his ultimate end is his own gratification.

Motive of the HeartNow the . . . immediate objects of pursuit, in these two cases, are precisely alike, while their ultimate ends are entirely opposite. Their first, or nearest, end is to get wages. Their next end is to obtain books; and so we follow them, until we ascertain their ultimate end, before we learn the moral character of what they doing.

The means they are using . . . are the same, but the ultimate ends at which they aim are entirely different, and every moral agent, from a necessary law of his intellect, must, as soon as he understands the ultimate end of each, pronounce the one virtuous, and the other sinful, in his pursuits. One is selfish and the other benevolent.

Finney then later remarks [and these quotes come from his Systematic Theology],

It is undeniable that the vilest sinners do many things outwardly which the law of God requires. Now unless the intention decides the character of these acts, they must be regarded as really virtuous. But when the intention is found to be selfish, then it is ascertained that they are sinful notwithstanding their conformity to the letter of the law of God.

How often I’ve heard someone being praised for some outward action without taking into account the intention of the heart, also known as one’s motive. This is a clear reminder that God will judge the heart, and that, as His people, we need to do our best to make a sober and discerning judgment of intent/motive as well.