The Ends Do Not Justify The Means

Through the course of your life I’m sure you have heard the phrase, “the ends do not justify the means.” In the phrase, the “ends” represents a good outcome and the “means” represents the method or actions used to get that result. The most basic definition of this phrase surrounds the idea that one should not act immorally or unethically in the process of doing good. The simplest example is you shouldn’t steal money so you can give it to charity.

Through the course of your life I’m sure you have heard the phrase, “the ends do not justify the means.” In the phrase, the “ends” represents a good outcome and the “means” represents the method or actions used to get that result. The most basic definition of this phrase surrounds the idea that one should not act immorally or unethically in the process of doing good. The simplest example is you shouldn’t steal money so you can give it to charity.

Most people may say it is simply a phrase about morality and ethics, which is true enough. I tend to feel it is more than what is simply right or wrong. I believe it falls into the category of a spiritual truth. It’s similar to a third phrase, you reap what you sow. This is a quote from Galatians 6:7 however, the phrase and its principle transcends Bible-believing Christians. Everyone knows what you do in the process of something affects the outcome. This is simply called cause and effect. There is, however, another idea when it comes to the means to an end. It’s not just about what you do, but how you do it. Eastern religions call it “karma,” which I believe is an exaggerated interpretation of this spiritual truth. The truth is this: How you conduct yourself in the process of doing something has an impact on the outcome or future outcomes. This is the simple definition of the ends do not justify the means.

Cheating to win is an example of this concept. For centuries, athletes have been caught cheating trying to best their competition whether it be the use of bribery in the ancient Olympics, spitballs in baseball in the 1920s, or in the modern day where stories about performance-enhancing drugs circulate in the news cycle. In every case, each cheater would say they were trying to win no matter the cost. They think the end does justify the means. But as I said, there is a spiritual truth in play. If a cheater is caught in the act, immediate ramifications take effect. They will be disqualified and stripped of their accolades and the means by which they conducted themselves has an immediate effect on their outcome. But what if they don’t get caught? This is where the spiritual aspect of this truth takes effect. What happens mentally and emotionally to the cheating athlete who got away with it? They might feel guilt. They might live in worry and fear of getting caught. Maybe they rely on their cheating advantage instead of improving their actual skill. They may also be emboldened to cheat again which increases the risk of getting caught. All of these ideas are very likely to affect future outcomes for the athlete. This is why the phrase the ends do not justify the means is more than just a cause-and-effect concept.

This idea is not isolated to sports. You’ve probably encountered people in your life who will argue that you should do anything and everything in your power to get ahead in life, even if it means cutting corners, cheating, lying, or stealing. People think that to get on top, you first have to knock someone else down. Some say as long as you end up on top, it shouldn’t matter who got hurt or cheated in the process, right? Now if you are a good and moral person, you probably cringe and despise that mentality. That is good. It’s not my intent to give example after example that confirms what you already feel to be right or wrong. What I instead want to do is point out some examples in Scripture of this idea that are not as obvious as cheating in sports.

Sometimes the most dangerous mistake is the one you do not know you are making. I believe we all too often try to justify our actions by our accomplishments. When we do this, we fail to understand how we are offending a spiritual truth established by God. Just because we achieve an end does not mean we took the correct road to get there. Let us examine these ideas that come from Scripture.

Justice Does Not Justify the Means

Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue, that you may live and possess the land which the LORD your God is giving you. Deuteronomy 16:20

The verse is known for having some creative English translations for the first phrase of the verse. The King James Version begins this verse with “You shall follow what is altogether just.” In Hebrew, Deuteronomy 16:20 begins with Tsedeq Tsedeq Tir’doph, which literally translates as Justice, Justice, you shall pursue. Many, if not all, scholars and Bible teachers will teach that this is not a redundant use of the word justice. The interpretation is that you shall pursue justice but do it in a just way. This idea goes far beyond any theological discussion.

The laws of justice that we have the United States and in other developed countries in the world include the right to a fair trial and due process. In the pursuit of justice, there are laws that stipulate proper conduct be followed in the process of gathering witness testimonies and evidence and making accusations and arrests. Trials must follow due process in the weighing of evidence, the giving of testimonies, jury deliberation, and sentencing. If unjust measures and tactics are used in the process of any of those actions, then proper judgment cannot be rendered. One of my all-time favorite TV shows is Law & Order (the original one). It followed a basic premise where each episode revolved around a particular crime (usually murder). The first half of the episode focused on the investigation and arrest while the second half dealt with the trial and prosecution of the accused. The show was unique because the police and attorneys that represented the state did not always win. Many times they arrested the right guy but couldn’t prove it until a ‘smoking gun’ was found in the last five minutes of the episode. Sometimes however, they arrested the wrong guy altogether. Other times they had the right guy but could not build a strong enough case to convict and the bad guys won. The parts of Law & Order that stuck out to me the most was when the police would be so passionate to find the killer, they would ‘cut corners’ to gather evidence, such as conducting a search without a warrant. They might sometimes be too aggressive with a suspect before they confessed to the crime. Invariably, later in the episode, that confession or a crucial piece of evidence would be dismissed from the trial because of the reckless conduct of the officers conducting an unlawful search. Through many episodes, the show dealt with every kind of issue the police or district attorneys might encounter in the process of convicting a criminal. Things like confidentiality agreements, jury tampering, and witness intimidation were central topics of certain episodes. These were some of the most compelling episodes because they involved this concept – you shall pursue justice, but you must do it in a just way. This is perhaps the most understandable example of “the ends do not justify the means.” Even if you have found the true perpetrator of the crime, how you go about investigating and prosecuting the offender is just as important as getting the conviction.

The laws of due process are in place to protect the innocent. If you really wanted to make sure that you captured the perpetrator of a crime, just arrest everyone. I guarantee you would get your man. Of course we know that is not a feasible course of action. Having no law at all lets the guilty walk free among the innocent.  A proper system of law presumes innocence until proven guilty. One could interpret the two justices that appear in Deuteronomy 16:20 in this way. One justice represents the proper judgment made against a guilty party, while the other justice represents protection due to any innocent party who may be involved.

You may also know that Tsedeq in the Hebrew is also often translated to righteousness in the English. You can interpret the previous Bible verse to mean that you shall pursue righteousness (doing the right thing) in the right way. According to the EAT (Ephraim’s Amplified Translation), I like to read Deuteronomy 16:20 as Righteous Justice you shall pursue.

Circumcision Does Not Justify the Means

After these things the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision, saying, “Do not fear, Abram, I am a shield to you; your reward shall be very great.” Abram said, “O Lord GOD, what will You give me, since I am childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “Since You have given no offspring to me, one born in my house is my heir.” Then behold, the word of the LORD came to him, saying, “This man will not be your heir; but one who will come forth from your own body, he shall be your heir.” And He took him outside and said, “Now look toward the heavens, and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” And He said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” Then he believed in the LORD; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness. Genesis 15:1-6

Abraham (known as Abram at this time) looked to the stars, believing the words of Almighty God that his descendants would be a myriad that no man could number. This belief was counted to Abraham as righteousness even though he had yet to take any action based on the words God had just spoken. How can someone be considered that they did the right thing (performed righteousness) if they hadn’t done anything yet? Yes, Abraham had already packed up His wife, his nephew Lot, and all his servants and traveled to a strange land surrounded by cursed and wicked people. He did so at the prompting of a voice from an unseen God in Genesis 12. He was already 75 years old at the time (talk about a mid-life crisis!). However, in Genesis 15, something else had just happened. Verse one begins with after these things. That should beg the question: after what things?

Then after his [Abram’s] return from the defeat of Chedorlaomer and the kings who were with him, the king of Sodom went out to meet him at the valley of Shaveh (that is, the King’s Valley).  And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; now he was a priest of God Most High. He blessed him and said, “Blessed be Abram of God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth; And blessed be God Most High, Who has delivered your enemies into your hand.” He gave him a tenth of all. The king of Sodom said to Abram, “Give the people to me and take the goods for yourself.” Abram said to the king of Sodom, “I have sworn to the Lord God Most High, possessor of heaven and earth, that I will not take a thread or a sandal thong or anything that is yours, for fear you would say, ‘I have made Abram rich.’ I will take nothing except what the young men have eaten, and the share of the men who went with me, Aner, Eshcol, and Mamre; let them take their share.” Genesis 14:17-24

Abraham had just won a battle and took possession of a great deal of goods that belonged to the king of Sodom. This was a mess he was involved in because of his nephew Lot. He was then blessed by the king of Salem who was a priest to God Most High, Melchizedek – A man whose name means “king of righteousness.” Abraham was then offered by the King of Sodom to keep all the goods he had captured. Abraham refused knowing it was not right that he gain wealth as a result of the actions of wicked men. This interaction proved that Abraham was a doer of righteousness. One witness is the blessing that comes from another doer of righteousness, Melchizedek. The other is Abraham refusing a temptation when presented with material gain. Abraham did all this still with very little return on any of the promises God had spoken to Abraham. In truth, Abraham hadn’t done much to prove he believed God up to this point either. However, the rapport between himself and God was being established. God had chosen the right man.      

Up to this point in Abram’s life, what signs have taken place that confirm the covenant between God and Abram? Basically all that had taken place was that God had spoken to Abram and he then traveled to a strange land. No other signs or ceremonies of covenant had taken place. The first sacrifice/offering of this covenant takes place later in Genesis 15. The change of his name to Abraham and the sign of circumcision doesn’t come until Genesis 17. Truth be told, God had done very little to prove Himself and His covenant to Abraham. Even with so little to go off of, Abraham believed in the LORD; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness. No one would question that there was indeed a covenant between God and Abram at this time.  In his letter to the Romans, Paul the Apostle takes note of Abraham’s faith at exactly this time before any confirming signs had been established.

Is this blessing then on the circumcised, or on the uncircumcised also? For we say, “Faith was credited to Abraham as righteousness.” How then was it credited? While he was circumcised, or uncircumcised? Not while circumcised, but while uncircumcised; and he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while uncircumcised, that he might be the father of all who believe without being circumcised, that righteousness might be credited to them, and the father of circumcision to those who not only are of the circumcision, but who also follow in the steps of the faith of our father Abraham which he had while uncircumcised. For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would be heir of the world was not through the Law, but through the righteousness of faith. Romans 4:9-13

Paul is making the argument that circumcision is not confirmation of one’s faith. Is it right according to the Law to be circumcised? Yes. But can one be in covenant with God and be a doer or righteousness without circumcision? Also yes. Abraham’s faith was not justified by his being circumcised? On the flip-side of that coin, a man can be circumcised yet have no faith in or relationship with the LORD. The act of circumcision is the end-sign of the covenant but the means by which you got to that point are equally, if not more, important than the scar in your flesh.

Let us put Abraham’s life into perspective. He was called out of the blue by God at 75 years old to leave his family. He was asked to cut a sign into his (very sensitive) flesh at 99 years old. He was then able to father the son promised by God at 100 years old. Besides living a blessed life, the birth of Isaac was truly the first sign of God’s promises being fulfilled. Some people compliment the patience of Job, but I would venture to say that Abraham waiting 25 years for the son promised by God to be born to be a more spectacular feat. Then approximately 37 years later, God calls on Abraham to test his faith once more to offer said son as a burnt offering on an altar. Would it have been so bad for Abraham to speak back to God and humbly point out that he had already proven that he had faith, especially when your evidence is the fact that you took a knife to yourself 37 years earlier? Actually it would have been out of turn because Abraham already knew that circumcision was not the justification of his faith. Circumcision was instead what reminded him of God’s promise.

“This is My covenant which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: every male among you shall be circumcised. And you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you… 19 But God said, ‘No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac; I will establish My covenant with him for an everlasting covenant, for his descendants after him. Genesis 17:10-11, 19

The sign of circumcision was directly tied to the promise that Isaac’s descendants would be in covenant with God. That’s why Abraham had no fear raising the knife against Isaac at the command of God. The circumcision alone was a reminder of the covenant, not the justification of the covenant. What justified Abraham’s covenant was the combination of his faith and the actions that he took. The brother of the Messiah said this on the subject.  

14What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself… 21Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected; and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. James 2:14-17, 21-24

Sacrifice Does Not Excuse the Means

 “You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT MURDER’ and ‘Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, ‘You good-for-nothing,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell. Therefore if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering. Make friends quickly with your opponent at law while you are with him on the way, so that your opponent may not hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the officer, and you be thrown into prison. Truly I say to you, you will not come out of there until you have paid up the last cent.” Matthew 5: 21-26

The teaching Yeshua gives here provides an example of someone who has wronged another person by insult or hateful speech. It’s described as if someone is guilty of a capital offense just by being mean. He also speaks to the idea that your offering and service to God does not supersede your need to reconcile with your brother. Since Yeshua came in the authority of His Father, He is saying something very profound. Does this mean our heavenly Father has no regard for offerings brought by individuals who are in conflict with their brethren? I believe we can draw that conclusion. God has a greater desire for us to be reconciled to our brethren than for us to bring offerings to Him. That means our standing and relationship with the LORD does not justify how we treat our brethren. In fact, the Scripture is clear, it is our relationship with our brothers that defines our relationship with God.

If someone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from Him, that the one who loves God should love his brother also. 1 John 4: 20-21 

The connection between our relationship with our brethren and our relationship with the LORD is undeniable. Even if we have a good relationship with God, there is no justification for us if we have objectionable behavior toward our fellow citizens of humanity. In Leviticus chapter 6, we have the procedure for bringing a guilt (trespass) offering as a result of a sin against a neighbor.

“When a person sins and acts unfaithfully against the LORD, and deceives his companion in regard to a deposit or a security entrusted to him, or through robbery, or if he has extorted from his companion, or has found what was lost and lied about it and sworn falsely, so that he sins in regard to any one of the things a man may do; then it shall be, when he sins and becomes guilty, that he shall restore what he took by robbery or what he got by extortion, or the deposit which was entrusted to him or the lost thing which he found, or anything about which he swore falsely; he shall make restitution for it in full and add to it one-fifth more. He shall give it to the one to whom it belongs on the day he presents his guilt offering. “Then he shall bring to the priest his guilt offering to the LORD, a ram without defect from the flock, according to your valuation, for a guilt offering, Leviticus 6:2-6

It states that restitution must made to that neighbor in the amount that was extorted plus one-fifth the amount. It says this must be done in the day the guilt offering is brought. Only if these two things are done in concordance with one another is forgiveness given. In the sequence of the commandment it states restitution is to be made to the neighbor, then the offering is to be brought. The actions and means leading up to the offering is a critical part of the final solution. This is similar to the case in which Abraham’s covenant was confirmed by his faith and his works. Someone’s repentance and reconciliation of wrongdoing is confirmed by the forgiveness from his brother and the forgiveness from God through the offering. No one should view the offering made to God as the covering for one’s sin if that person has not made repentant restitution to his neighbor first.

The Means Are Not Justified by Apology

Every time the Messiah performed a miraculous healing, Yeshua said to the effect, “Faith has made you well. Go and sin no more.” The combination of faith and works were necessary to the event. In all cases, forgiveness is a two-step process. We must learn this in our personal lives.

In the modern day, we lack the Temple and an altar service with the ability to offer sin and trespass offerings. We sure could use one because there is plenty of sin and transgression in today’s world. What we need most is people with a heart to settle conflicts between one another the right way. We need repentance and restitution, reconciliation, and forgiveness to be made in all disputes. The Messiah said this to His disciples:  

“Be on your guard! If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. “And if he sins against you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.” Luke 17:3-4

At first, this statement is a little frustrating to read because we often assume that out brother continuing to commit the exact same sin against us seven times a day and we just have to put up with it. In truth, every statement of repentance is for a different sin. By definition, repentance includes acknowledgement, regret, and remorse for wrongdoing with the intent to make restitution. Unfortunately in the modern day, we’ve lost what it truly means to repent and have replaced it with the flimsy alternative known as an apology.

We want offenders to be sorry for doing what they did. Is that ever enough to make up for hurting someone else? Of course not. We expect payment to be made and punishment to be administered depending on how bad the offense was. We often want the apology first and then require the offender to act as a result. We put far too much weight on people saying “sorry” for what they did because it does not carry with it the same understanding of repentance. With repentance, the change of behavior should happen in the heart of the offender before they ever say “I repent.” An apology alone without a change of behavior is the same as having faith without works. Only after you have both is true forgiveness given. Just like the guilt offering in the temple, action should be taken and behavior should change before the apology is made. The apology should not spark the action just like the end does not justify the means. An apology and a change of behavior should be like repentance and reconciliation – a turnkey operation. The means and the ends must be in unison.

 Let us always remember that our accomplishments do not condone our actions. Just because we have made a confession with our mouths, we are not absolved of acting inappropriately before or after said confession. One last phrase comes to mind: actions speak louder than words. Even signs of covenant do not justify our actions. A ring on one’s finger does not prove they are in a marriage covenant. How they live and the actions they perform, such as forsaking all others for the sake of their spouse are proof they are married. Just because someone has blue threaded tassels on their belt loops does not prove that they follow the commandments of God and His Torah. How they live is the evidence of who they believe in and what commandments they keep. When someone brought an offering into the temple and offered it up in accordance to the commandments, such was insufficient for forgiveness. Restitution must coincide with the sacrifice for their sin. May we cease from looking for ways to justify our actions. Instead, may our means be just and righteous until the end.