Ever watch a bunch of cows jammed into a pen before an auction, branding, or health check? Too many bovines packed into too little real estate; the crowding makes it easier to direct them all out the one-cow gate and down the chute. It’d be fine if they didn’t all weigh 2,000 pounds and didn’t go around manuring all over the place while having large pointed weapons on their heads. Invariably, one steer will back into another. Somebody gets poked in an unpleasant place and before you know it, a large four-legged steak is lying on his rump roast wondering what in blue blazes just happened.
It’s fairly easy to sit in the stands and watch the cows. ”Look,” we say. ”That one tripped and slammed into the red one. The red one poked the black one in his you-know-where. Total accident. The black one was angrier than Dad on report card day. He bulled through everyone just to knock down the red cow. Poor little red cow, he didn’t even intend for all that to happen.” That’s of no consolation to Mr. Black Cow. All he knows is that he hurts, he knows who did it, and it doesn’t matter why. He just hurts. For him, intent is irrelevant. His own pain is all that matters.
Ever watch a bunch of people jammed into a relationship? Too many personalities packed into too little emotional real estate. This crowding makes it easier to require them to relate to one another. It’d be fine if they didn’t all have 2,000 pounds of emotional issues and didn’t go around manuring their opinions all over the place while having large pointed chips on their shoulders. Invariably, someone steps on another’s toes. Somebody gets poked in an unpleasant place and before you know it, a two-legged lump of protoplasm is lying on his fanny wondering what in blue blazes just happened.
Which is more important? Intent or impact? If we accidentally step on someone, is it our fault? Or does our rather impotent “I didn’t mean to. I didn’t know” good enough?
Paul talked about rights and intent. Roughly speaking, Paul said we have considerable freedom in how we move through this world, freedom in relation to things that lack a clear Biblical guideline. Eat these things, drink those things. Celebrate this special day or choose not to celebrate it. Just don’t make the mistake of saying “I can do this. Nothing wrong with it” to the point of kicking and stomping on those around you. Use those words, have these opinions, prefer this to that. Nothing wrong with these things provided there is no clear Biblical guide. While pursuing that freedom, though, stop when your pursuit hurts the next guy; pain from his perspective, not yours. That would seem to indicate that the impact of our actions outweighs the intent behind them. No matter what we were trying to do, the perception others have wins out, right?
Not so fast. Paul also talks about lawsuits among Christians, the inability to work things out. In response to this Paul encourages unity (getting along), forgiveness, and setting aside internal strife. However, the operative concept here is that the key to knowing, forgiving, uniting and setting aside strife is loving each other. Know each other’s hearts and minds, but love each other’s hearts and minds as well. Talk to one another, but love one another, too. Express yourself and listen to the other guy express himself, but use love in your expressions and watch for his love in his expressions. Don’t be so quick to take offense if you know the other person well enough to ask about intent. And in the end, realize the other person probably does not mean to hurt you any more than you meant to be hurt.
Which is more vital, intent or impact? I’d say the answer is “Yep.”
When I speak to my friend David, the most important thing in my mind should be the impact my words will have on him. If comprehension is my desired impact, then his perception of the information is more important than my presentation. So when I am talking to ol’ Dave, the impact of my words should be paramount for me. David, as the listener, has a different priority. His goal should be to figure out my intent. Going back to the example of sharing information, we can see that David should strive to comprehend what information I am trying to share with him and why. David’s goal should be to grasp the intent in my words and actions. In Christian relationships, driven as they are by love and concern for our fellow human, this sort of viewing things from the other side should be second nature.
This is all fairly straightforward stuff. Why then is it so difficult? We do well most of the time, but eventually we come up against a topic, situation, or person that drives all out love for the other guy. We only see what we want to see. We say what we want without caring about the other person’s perception. We vent, we gripe, we moan. And we ask that others look to our intent without caring about our own impact. What’s more, we compound the mistake by not caring about the other guy’s intent when he replies. All we see is his impact on us.
I think the word we’re looking for here is “hypocrisy.”