But I’m just a soul whose intentions are good
Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood
- Eric Burdon and the Animals
I’ve sung this song out loud with Eric Burdon many times, sincerely believing the words, and making them my own. I do believe I approach my life and my experiences with others with the best of intentions, at least most of the time, I think I do. I know I want to believe I do. Yet, Burdon’s self-delusional “prayer” is one that all of us sinners pray to some extent: But I’m just a soul whose intentions are good, Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood. It’s as if he’s trying to convince himself that what he’s singing is true. St. Paul’s lament puts it in a related, but slightly different way: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15).
We all long for others to truly understand us. We want others to recognize that even when we “do the very thing [we] hate,” we weren’t intending to hurt them, or make them angry, or cause them problems, or at least we think we weren’t. We all suffer from misunderstood motives, hurt feelings, and eroded trust in our relationships that come from just trying to be understood, and even trying to understand ourselves and our own confused actions at times. St. Paul’s shockingly self-revealing statement about himself reveals the truth about ourselves as well. It’s a verifiable truth for all humanity.
For over 100 years in western culture, we’ve sought to understand human identity and why we do the things we do, some of which are acts of great compassion and courage, while other acts reveal what our Ash Wednesday liturgy refers to as simply the “pride, hypocrisy, and impatience of our lives.” Jonathan Haidt and other moral psychologists have helped us understand all this better, but at the end of the day we’re left with much of our human identity as a mystery to ourselves (“Why indeed did I do the very thing that I hate? Maybe this particular soul’s intentions weren’t all that good after all?”).
And that’s where the saving act of Jesus meets us on his cross. Thanks be to God that our intentions, good and otherwise, aren’t determinative to God. The Gospel of Jesus isn’t about our good intentions or lack thereof. It’s actually about our recurring failure to have good intentions. It’s about how everything about us, even when our intentions (we hope) are truly good, can become just another opportunity for sin.
And that’s where the Church of Jesus Christ meets us on Good Friday with a witness; for we witness that the Church isn’t a community who has been called together for good intentions. Rather, we’re a community who has been called together by God to proclaim God’s amazing grace in the cross of Jesus. In spite of all we are and aren’t and all we do and don’t do, God loves us on the cross. Now that bears repeating, because many need to be deprogrammed from a worldview that sees God as out to “get” us. Jesus didn’t come into the world to “get” us. He came into the world so long ago to love us (see John 3:16). His cross assures us of that truth for eternity. That’s why this Friday is so Good.