Can a person’s good motives make acceptable an action which would normally be bad?
Does a person’s motive justify his or her actions? ie. Is it possible to justify a good reason for doing something bad? I want to know that the Bible says about this.
This is a good question. I am afraid that there is no solid, clear-cut, definite answer in the Bible to this question. I know of no scripture which directly answers the question of whether our motives, if good, can justify an action which might otherwise be bad. I know of biblical examples that support this idea and examples that disprove this idea, so I believe that the answer will be somewhat ambiguous.
First, let me give you an example of a person who did not follow God’s commands to the letter, although he came close. When he tried to justify this based on good motives, his explanation was totally rejected. The story is from 1 Samuel 15:1-23. Here God gave Saul very specific instructions. Saul followed the instructions to destroy the Amelekites almost to the letter, but, contrary to God’s command he saved the king and some of the livestock from destruction so that he could offer a sacrifice to God. God’s response through Samuel was to utterly reject Saul’s excuse based on the claim that he had good motives. Saul was rejected as king based on this which is a very strong consequence. Famously, God said to Saul through Samuel, “To obey is better than to sacrifice and to heed is better than the fat of rams, for rebellion is like the sin of divination, and arrogance like the evil of idolatry. In this case, God made it clear that substituting a good motive for strict obedience is not accepted. Saul’s sacrifice was rejected and Saul was rejected as king.
But, I can provide a counter-example from a time frame close to that of 1 Samuel 15. It is from the life of David. It is from 1 Samuel 21:1-9. In this case, David took the bread which was to be committed at the temple. Because he and his men were hungry, the took the bread dedicated to God and ate it. In this case, not only did God not reject David, he actually supported the idea that what he did was justified. Jesus mentions this in Matthew 12:4, confirming that the motive was sufficient in this case to violate what would normally been a commandment.
My conclusion is that God is just and he is loving. God judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart (Hebrews 4:12). God looks, not at the outward appearance, but at the heart (1 Samuel 16:7). God is able to take into account our intentions. However, good intentions, in general, are rarely acceptable in lieu of obedience. I would say that as a general rule we should not assume that “right” motives can easily justify us doing something which God has expressly told us not to do or to not do something God has expressly told us to do. God may have mercy on these sorts of things, but it is not our place to presumptuous and decide for ourselves what is sufficiently good motives to convince God that it is OK for us to disobey him. I say, let us lean strongly toward obeying God no matter what, but understand that there are rare cases where “the ends justify the means.”
Let me give a possible exception that even the world recognizes. Let us say that you are a guy with a pregnant wife who is heavily in labor. In the Bible we are commanded to respect and obey the governing authority. Will God make an exception for the husband of a wife who is in labor, making it okay to speed to the hospital? My opinion is that in this case the ends justify the means. However, I believe that we should be VERY cautious about presuming such a thing and we ought to err on the side of obedience, rather than excusing otherwise sinful acts in the name of having a good motive.