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But I Didn’t Mean To! I Didn’t Know!

Daily Reflection / Produced by The High Calling
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If any of the common people sin by violating one of the LORD’s commands, but they don’t realize it, they are still guilty. When they become aware of their sin, they must bring as an offering for their sin a female goat with no defects.

Leviticus 4:27

When we do something wrong, we often try to make excuses for our behavior. One kind of excuse points to a lack of appropriate knowledge: "But officer, I didn't see the 'No Left Turn' sign. I didn't know I shouldn't turn here." Another common line of defense points to our intentions: "But I didn't mean to hurt your feelings." In fact, this excuse is also usually a claim of ignorance. "I didn't mean to hurt your feelings. I didn't know you'd be upset if I did that."

If we do something wrong in ignorance, not knowing that it was wrong or would lead to wrong, have we still done something wrong? Many in our day would claim that intentions are what really matters. Just so long as I mean well, you can't judge my actions as wrong, even if they lead to unfortunate, unforeseen consequences.

Leviticus takes into account the likelihood that people will do things that are wrong without knowing it or without meaning to do wrong. In fact, that's the focus of Leviticus 4, a chapter that deals with "those who sin unintentionally" (4:2). Specific instructions are given for sacrifices that follow unintended sin. For example, "If any of the common people sin by violating one of the LORD’s commands, but they don’t realize it, they are still guilty. When they become aware of their sin, they must bring as an offering for their sin a female goat with no defects" (4:27-28). Notice that the behavior done in ignorance is still regarded as a sin, and still requires an extra sacrifice. Leviticus, though allowing for unintentional sins, regards behavior as sinful or not according to an objective standard, God's standard revealed in the law.

As we reflect upon our actions and their moral value, we should certainly consider our motives. I want to act out of love for others, not out of selfishness. I want to bring glory to God, not to myself. But, as much as intentions matter, they do not overpower the objective character of our actions. Sin is doing what God forbids, whether I know it or not. If I wrong you unintentionally, that is better than wanting to wrong you and then doing it. But the fact of the wrong remains no matter what I meant to do. And for this I need to ask your forgiveness, not to mention God's forgiveness.

Let me close with an example from the first year of my marriage to Linda. Though I took her to Disneyland for her birthday, which she surely appreciated, I did not buy her a gift or give her a card. This hurt Linda's feelings. She didn't need anything expensive, but a small gift and card would have communicated love. When I realized that I had made Linda unhappy, of course I explained that I had not meant to hurt her and that I had not known of her expectations for her birthday. Both of these were true, and they did help Linda to feel better. But that experience also made me want to learn more accurately what was the right thing for me to do if I wanted to love my wife well.

So it is in my relationship with the Lord. I want to do what God commands and avoid what he forbids. Thus, one reason I study Scripture carefully is to learn God's ways so that I might walk in them. I want my actions to be sacrifices of love for the Lord.

QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER REFLECTION: Do you ever hear excuses like "I didn't mean to" or "I didn't know that was wrong"? When? Do you ever use them? When? How does the idea of right and wrong having an objective status impress you? Do you study Scripture in order to learn how to act in a way that honors the Lord?

PRAYER: Gracious God, I know you look upon the heart. And I know the character of my heart matters to you. If I do what's right with a selfish, sinful heart, then I will not impress you. Oh, may my heart be pure in its desire to honor you!

At the same time, I realize that actions have an objective quality. Even if I mean well, if I do what is sinful, I have in fact wronged you. If I do what is right, you are pleased. Thus, I ask you to teach me through your Word and Spirit, so that I might know what is right and what is wrong. May my intention to please you line up with my actions, so that you may be glorified both in my heart and in my behavior. Indeed, may I offer my body to you each day as a living sacrifice.

I pray in the name of Jesus. Amen.

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