A French news report told the story of a young field dog that jumped on its deer-hunting master in a playful show of affection. When the pup’s paw caught the trigger of the hunter’s firearm, the gun accidentally discharged, resulting in the loss of the owner’s hand.
The victim later blamed himself for not having the trigger safety on, and made it clear that he still loved his dog.
But what if a dog does harm with some degree of intent? A British news source tells the story of a woman who died of an infection after being bitten on the hand by Brannigan, her beloved Rottweiler. According to friends, the dog had bitten her in the past as well. But she refused to get treatment because she was afraid authorities would insist on euthanizing the dog.
In both cases, the affections of a dog owner for a pet ended up costing a lot. One lost his hand, the other her life. In both cases, whether the dog had enough “intent” to be considered dangerous in the future was considered. The accidental nature of the hunting accident was obvious. However, after his loving owner died, Brannigan was put down so that he wouldn’t bite anyone else.
As I read these stories, I thought about the way the Bible handles the issue of intentional and unintentional wrongs. In the law of Moses, as in our own courts, the issue of motive was a factor. Moses had special instructions for the kind of ritual sacrifice made for wrongs done in ignorance (Leviticus 4:27-31) and for harms done with intent (Leviticus 6:1-7).
Even in the New Testament, God’s mercy seems to take into consideration whether a person has sinned intentionally or not. The apostle Paul, for instance, recalls in his first letter to Timothy all of the mayhem and grief that he caused followers of Christ before his own conversion (Acts 8:3; 9:1,13). But then Paul adds that God made allowances for him because his blasphemy, persecution, and abuse were done “ignorantly in unbelief” (1 Timothy 1:12-16 NKJV).
What was Paul saying? Was he implying that he deserved lenience because he persecuted Christians, thinking he was doing God a favor? Or was he trying to avoid responsibility by claiming ignorance?
These are important questions for any of us who know that we have willfully broken the laws of God. While it would be nice to think that all of our wrongs have been done without conscious forethought and intent, we know better.
So let’s take a closer look. Before assuming that Paul considered himself a special case, it’s important to see that he didn’t just claim ignorance and unbelief for himself. In his first letter to the Corinthians, he went so far as to say that, if those who crucified Jesus had realized who he was, they never would have done it (1 Corinthians 2:8). The apostle Peter agreed. He too believed that those who called for Jesus’ death would not have done so if they knew who He really was (Acts 3:17). Then there is the example of Christ Himself. According to Luke, as Jesus hung on the cross, He asked His Father to forgive those who were crucifying Him, because they didn’t know what they were doing (Luke 23:34).
In addition, it’s important to note that when Paul claims ignorance for himself, he still accepts responsibility for his wrongs and for the harm he has done. Paul shows that he is not giving himself special consideration when he goes on to write, “This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief” (1 Timothy 1:15 NKJV).
When Paul calls himself the “chief” of sinners, he uses a word that indicates that he sees himself as the “foremost” of undeserving and unworthy rebels.
Likening himself to the worst of sinners, Paul then goes on to show the real reason God showed him mercy: “For this reason I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might show all longsuffering, as a pattern to those who are going to believe on Him for everlasting life” (1 Timothy 1:16 NKJV).
In other words, when Paul said what he did about acting ignorantly in unbelief, he wasn’t distinguishing himself from the worst of sinners. He was identifying with them. He saw himself as an example of how patient, compassionate, and merciful God is toward all who believe in Jesus.
Father in heaven, thank You for reminding us that You see the full picture of what we do with and without willful conscious intent. We will be forever grateful that You have found a way to offer sinful, ignorant, self-deceived rebels like us mercy at the foot of a blood-stained cross. —Mart DeHaan