There is an unspoken assumption in many approaches to morality and ethics. “The end justifies the means.” As long as the eventual outcome is good, it doesn’t matter what we do to get there. The ultimate good of the results cancels out any incidental evil we may commit as the means to the end.
So people say: It is good to save a mother’s life, or enhance her life, even if the means is the death of her unborn child.
People say: It is good to protect lives and property, even if the means is the death of enemies in a war.
People say: It is good to bring war to an end quickly, even if the means is the destruction of a Hiroshima or a Nagasaki.
People say: It is good to save a marriage, even if the means is adultery with a surrogate partner in sex therapy.
Ethicists wrap this up in what they call “the doctrine of double effect.” It is permissible to perform an act in order to achieve a good result even though we know that act may have bad side effects. The examples are endless. They are all complex and emotive issues but underlying them is the simple assumption, “the end justifies the means”.
I hope you will realise that I don’t agree with that principle. I don’t accept the idea that it is ever permissible to achieve good ends by evil means. But we should be aware that even Christians can fall into that kind of practice.
So many people say the end justifies the means. Do WE ever make that mistake?
Which brings us to Genesis chapter 12. Here some would say is an example of the end appearing to justify the means. The end is worthy – Abram wants to save his own life and protect his household. And he achieves that end. He even gains property and livestock from it. All the way through it appears that God is blessing Abram. All through Abram telling little white lies – what some would call “heavenly deception”. Some read this story as a demonstration that the end does justify the means. They are profoundly wrong. Here we do not find an example to follow, but a catalogue of sins to avoid. Abram is a hero of faith – but he is also a miserable sinner. Here is a story of God’s grace at work not through Abram, but despite Abram!
Genesis 12 is a story of DISBELIEF
12:10 Now there was a famine in the land, and Abram went down to Egypt to live there for a while because the famine was severe.
Here was an extreme situation. It was the first test of Abram’s faith in Canaan – and Abram failed miserably. Remember God’s promise to Abram just a few verses above
12:7 The LORD appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built an altar there to the LORD, who had appeared to him.
Yet Abram didn’t even trust God to provide him with food. “He deserted faith in favour of logic”. It wasn’t God who guided Abram to take refuge in Egypt. Abram took a human way out of the situation. He turned to Egypt – so often in the Bible a symbol of alliance with the world and reliance on human strength rather than God’s power.
Isaiah 31: 1 ¶ Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help, who rely on horses, who trust in the multitude of their chariots and in the great strength of their horsemen, but do not look to the Holy One of Israel, or seek help from the LORD.
Sometimes we can be tempted to find human solutions to our problems, human ways out of difficult situations, because we don’t really believe God can help us or that God wants to help us. Somebody has said, “We mustn’t look at God through our difficulties – we must look at our difficulties through God.”
Abram’s faith fell at the first hurdle. As a result of disbelief, Abram resorted to DECEPTION
12:11 As he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, “I know what a beautiful woman you are. 12 When the Egyptians see you, they will say, `This is his wife.’ Then they will kill me but will let you live. 13 Say you are my sister, so that I will be treated well for your sake and my life will be spared because of you.”
The deception came from FEAR. It was a realistic fear for Abram, moving to live as an immigrant, an alien in a foreign land. Surely Abram could have trusted God to protect him. But instead he shows a complete lapse of faith, and a brutal disregard for Sarai too. It was an act of pure SELFISHNESS.
13 Say you are my sister, so that I will be treated well for your sake and my life will be spared because of you.”
Abram was only concerned for himself and not for his wife – indefensible cowardice!
This story very clearly shows us sins to avoid. It is a solemn warning against disbelief and deception. It certainly does NOT prove the principle that the end justifies the means.
And yet in all of this GOD BLESSED ABRAM. Those blessings were totally undeserved! That’s grace. Mercy is not getting the punishment we do deserve. Grace is God’s blessing poured out which we could never earn or deserve.
In Egypt God blessed Abram with material possessions: 12:15 And when Pharaoh’s officials saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh, and she was taken into his palace. 16 He treated Abram well for her sake, and Abram acquired sheep and cattle, male and female donkeys, menservants and maidservants, and camels.
In reality this was the “bride-price”, the dowry! Since Sarai wasn’t free to be married, this was really all a fraud! Pure and simple theft!
Yet despite this God blessed Abram with protection. When he was found out, Abram escaped punishment.
12:17 But the LORD inflicted serious diseases on Pharaoh and his household because of Abram’s wife Sarai. 18 So Pharaoh summoned Abram. “What have you done to me?” he said. “Why didn’t you tell me she was your wife? 19 Why did you say, `She is my sister,’ so that I took her to be my wife? Now then, here is your wife. Take her and go!”
And God even allows Abram to keep all his ill-gotten gains.
12:20 Then Pharaoh gave orders about Abram to his men, and they sent him on his way, with his wife and everything he had.
Too many preachers today assume that this mercy of God will come to them too. They assume that because they gain material wealth God is happy to overlook their immoral lifestyles. When God blesses us that is never a sign of our worthiness but only ever a sign of his generous grace.
At least when Abram left Egypt he turned back to God again.
Gen 13: 1 ¶ So Abram went up from Egypt to the Negev, with his wife and everything he had, and Lot went with him. 2 Abram had become very wealthy in livestock and in silver and gold. 3 From the Negev he went from place to place until he came to Bethel, to the place between Bethel and Ai where his tent had been earlier 4 and where he had first built an altar. There Abram called on the name of the LORD.
But he hadn’t learned his lesson. Because reading on to Genesis 20 we find exactly the same sin. Facing a similar danger, Abram (whose name God had now changed to Abraham) tells just the same lies!
Genesis 20:1 ¶ Now Abraham moved on from there into the region of the Negev and lived between Kadesh and Shur. For a while he stayed in Gerar, 2 and there Abraham said of his wife Sarah, “She is my sister.” Then Abimelech king of Gerar sent for Sarah and took her.
God reveals to Abimelech that Sarah is in fact Abraham’s wife. So the king confronted him, and this is Abraham’s explanation for his actions.
11 Abraham replied, “I said to myself, `There is surely no fear of God in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife.’ 12 Besides, she really is my sister, the daughter of my father though not of my mother; and she became my wife. 13 And when God caused me to wander from my father’s household, I said to her, `This is how you can show your love to me: Everywhere we go, say of me, “He is my brother.”‘”
So Abraham’s defence is that he had told the truth but not the whole truth – just a half-truth. Lies often involve telling only half the truth instead of the whole truth. We deceive by what we conceal – the truths which stay hidden. We have good relationships with neighbours and friends and colleagues – because we never get round to telling them the whole truth that we are Christians and that they need Jesus too. For some Christians that is just another example of the end justifying the means.
Instead of punishing Abraham, God protects his Sovereign purposes.
20:3 ¶ But God came to Abimelech in a dream one night and said to him, “You are as good as dead because of the woman you have taken; she is a married woman.” 4 Now Abimelech had not gone near her, so he said, “Lord, will you destroy an innocent nation? 5 Did he not say to me, `She is my sister,’ and didn’t she also say, `He is my brother’? I have done this with a clear conscience and clean hands.” 6 Then God said to him in the dream, “Yes, I know you did this with a clear conscience, and so I have kept you from sinning against me. That is why I did not let you touch her.
Any child Sarah would have had by Abimelech would not have been Abraham’s descended. So God makes sure that cannot happen. God protects his masterplan of salvation and the future of his chosen people.
7 Now return the man’s wife, for he is a prophet, and he will pray for you and you will live. But if you do not return her, you may be sure that you and all yours will die.” 8 ¶ Early the next morning Abimelech summoned all his officials, and when he told them all that had happened, they were very much afraid. 9 Then Abimelech called Abraham in and said, “What have you done to us? How have I wronged you that you have brought such great guilt upon me and my kingdom? You have done things to me that should not be done.”
So despite Abraham’s deceit, God gets him out of trouble. Don’t you have a sense of déjà vu here? Abram has got himself into exactly the same mess a second time. And for the second time God rescues him. Now THAT is grace! Throughout history the people of God would praise God for keeping His promises to Abraham and to his descendents. And again in Genesis 20 we find Abram showered with material wealth.
Gen 20:14 ¶ Then Abimelech brought sheep and cattle and male and female slaves and gave them to Abraham, and he returned Sarah his wife to him. 15 And Abimelech said, “My land is before you; live wherever you like.” 16 To Sarah he said, “I am giving your brother a thousand shekels of silver. This is to cover the offence against you before all who are with you; you are completely vindicated.”
Abraham’s lie had put Abimelech technically in the wrong. So Abimelech ends up giving Abraham enormous compensation – and God lets him keep it!
What depressing stories. Abram failed to trust God. He openly lied – exactly the same lie twice in similar situations, truly a besetting sin. Abram brought the name of the Lord into disrepute. Abram’s standards of morality were lower than either Pharaoh’s or Abimelech’s. Yet it was Abram who God blessed.
On thing which these stories definitely do NOT teach us is that the end justifies the means. What they DO show us is that God’s grace is sufficient for our weaknesses. God can deal with our disbelief and even with our failures. God wants to bring blessings through us and because of us. But God can bring blessing even despite us. All the heroes of faith fell into disbelief and sin from time to time. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, Peter, James, John – all of them fell. Only Jesus Christ gives us a perfect example we can always follow. Yet God was pleased to bless and to use all of these saints. We must take care not to be caught by the traps they fell into – we are given plenty of warnings to avoid.
And people can’t assume that because God is blessing them, that He is happy with all their actions. The end does not justify the means – it never will! But God does bless us, not because of our failings but despite them. And he blesses us as he blessed Abram out of the riches of His grace. And we, like Abram, should just be very, very grateful!