Right Relationship: How intent matters

"The road to hell is paved with good intentions"


Good intentions have a very bad reputation. 

Yes, we all understand that good intentions are not enough. We've been there...


"I intended to buy you a gift" is not the same when I show up empty handed.

"I intended to pay you back" is not the same when you're out of money and I'm still intending.

"I didn't intend to break your arm" isn't the same when you're stuck in a cast for 6 weeks and in pain.


Good intentions are not enough.


Worse yet, we can't tell if people are being honest about their intentions in any case. "Oh, I didn't mean to eat your last chocolate" is a pretty weak excuse for depriving me of the treat I was so looking forward to at the end of my day.


And so, we are told about the structural composition of that road to hell and cautioned to ignore intentions. As Einstein suggested, "Don't listen to their words, fix your attention on their deeds."


And Einstein is right in many ways. If someone shows us a pattern of intentions without matching actions, it's probably a good idea not to expect too much of them.

But we should not take his words to mean that we should always judge people on their actions rather than their intentions.


Good intentions - even when they are sincere and even when we have responsibly acted upon them - can lead to bad results. 


Aldous Huxley explained how good intentions need to be complemented by good and thorough analysis and understanding. His words: "The evil that is in the world almost always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence if they lack understanding."


This is a trap we fall into more than we'd like to think. 


Life is so often more complicated than we imagine. For a while, I thought that forgoing meat and getting my protein from eggs instead was a valuable way to avoid unnecessarily taking lives. The eggs would never become chickens, after all, so fewer chickens, pigs, and cows would be killed for me.


My intentions were great. And then I learned more. I learned about how the egg industry inevitably kills many, many, chickens as a part of its process. Free range or not, this is true. My good intentions probably resulted in more rather than fewer animal deaths.


Many of us have opposed and continue to fight against the nuclear power industry. One of the consequences of this, however, is that we've encouraged the production of more power using fossil fuels - a path that has increased the severity of global climate change.


Foreign aid has been notorious for having great intentions but all too often feeding corruption and distorting local economies.


I'm sure you can think of many other examples where intentions were good but consequences were not. 


Well, then, if intentions matter so little, why do we have "assume good intent" enshrined in our guidelines of right relationship in this congregation? Why do we want to focus on intention at all if the only thing that matters is our actions and how our actions turn out?


Imagine a world in which we actually discount intent entirely. Accidents would be treated the same as deliberate acts. Inadvertently causing offense would be no better than acting with the intent to embarrass and insult.


We know that's not right. We know that what is in our hearts does matter, even if something does not turn out for the best,


The truth is that we look at actions - we weigh their impact upon us - and we infer intent. When someone does something that pleases us, we assume they meant it that way. When someone does something that hurts us, we very quickly assume that they mean us ill.


This escalates. When a hurt person gets angry or distant toward us, we assume bad intent too. We assume they are acting deliberately to harm us! And so it goes, back and forth, assumption built upon assumption, until - in the best case - true discussion and understanding begins to clear away the mountains of accumulated assumptions. 


Of course, the end comes frequently with a complete disruption of relationship and it is never repaired.


Right relationship is about creating an environment where each of us can grow, can be ourselves, and can be safe.


When we make judgements and assumptions of intent based on actions alone, we are all left unsafe. We are readily accused of ill-will when we do something inadvertently that causes hurt or offense. We are accused of bad intent when we do something with good will but without all the analysis and understanding it would take to create the best possible outcome.

And when bad intent is assumed, vast chasms open up between us. Trust is lost. Suspicion grows. A hardening anger appears and there is no longer hope for reconciliation.


That is not a place where we can feel safe to be vulnerable, to grow, or to be ourselves.


And so, instead, we strive to assume in the first instance that any action or the failure to take an action was done with good intent.


I promise that this is a hard discipline - perhaps the hardest in our guidelines. We are very ready to assume bad intent whenever we feel bad. 


If someone does not ask about our sick relative, we assume they don't care about us.

If someone organises something without consulting us, we assume they deliberately left us out.

If someone chooses a song we don't like for a service, we assume they chose it to annoy us.


Assuming good intent in any of those situations means letting go of our anger and hurt. It means putting aside a bit of defensiveness we were building to protect ourselves from further hurt or disappointment.


And it also means giving each other a chance.


It means having faith in our fellow human beings.

It means putting our lofty words about human worth and dignity into practice.

It means helping to create a space of understanding and possibility and love.


Let's give understanding a chance.


Let's give each other a chance.


Let's give love a chance.