Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others.
-Paul (Philippians 2:4)
I’ve been paying homeowner’s insurance for two houses during the last few months.
No, I do not have a secret getaway in the Hamptons. I have an insurance agent who made a mistake.
We moved across town in February. I had thought we completed all of our transition details, but recently I got a piece of mail from my insurance company, forwarded from our old address. That seemed odd, since the company that insures our new house should probably have our new address on record!
So during a quick phone call to change the address, my agent informed me that he had accidentally forgotten to cancel our old policy. It was an honest mistake, but they’d been charging us for several months. He immediately apologized and told me that they’d refund the money right away.
I have a good relationship with him, and I understood it wasn’t malicious or intentional.
But they still needed to return the money. It wasn’t the intent that was the issue. It was the impact.
I’ve been in many conversations lately about intention and impact. And I’m not convinced that Christians are always good at realizing how much both of those things matter.
I appreciate that my insurance agent’s intention was not to overcharge me. But that didn’t make it ok. The impact was real. The impact was that they took about $200 from our bank account that wasn’t theirs to take. And they needed to make that right.
Life is complicated right now. People are tired and frustrated. Tensions are everywhere we look. Sometimes, it can feel like every conversation is full of landmines. We’re going to make mistakes as we navigate them, even if we are trying our best.
But as we live out the values of God’s kingdom, we need to be aware that shrugging something off as an "honest mistake" has the potential to really minimize the hurt we caused.
One of the intention vs. impact discussions that I was a part of recently pertained to issues of race. In our discussion about honest mistakes, someone said, “while our intentions may be good, that does not change the negative impact we may unknowingly have.”
Our intentions might be good, but we might not have the knowledge, insight, or experience to realize how we hurt others from our words or actions.
If we’re humble enough, learning of our blind spots is an incredible opportunity for growth toward love, rather than growing more defensive. We should be glad when someone is honest enough with us to share their pain and help us grow. Community and understanding can flourish in that environment.
As a white person who is a Jesus follower, I can honestly say that I don’t intend to perpetuate prejudice by my words, my actions, or my assumptions. Yet I cannot deny that there are times when the way I present an idea or make an assumption about another person (regardless of intent) excludes, minimizes, or wounds someone. I wish that wasn’t the case, but I know it is. It’s universally true. When those moments come to light, I want to understand my impact, not just defend my intention. The temptation is to dwell only on my heart, which can actually minimize the fact that another is in pain. But that isn’t putting another’s needs before my own.
This is where Jesus leads me toward wholeness. Jesus teaches that it’s our job to make things right, to apologize, and to initiate restoration if at all possible. Jesus even tells his followers that they need to stop everything (even worship!) if someone has hurt someone else and hasn’t made it right yet. Paul pleads with the church in Rome to work extra hard to keep relationships healthy when he says, “do all that you can to live in peace with everyone.” The foundational concept of biblical peace is not the absence of conflict, but the presence of wholeness. Working for peace means moving beyond, “well you know what I meant” and into, “I’m sorry. I didn’t intend that. I’m going to work to be more sensitive. How can I do better?”
This goes beyond any particular subject matter. It's applicable to how siblings treat each other. It’s bears on how we talk about the impossible task that schools and parents have right now. It’s relevant to our conversations about politics, about racism, and about the pandemic. It’s easy to lack sensitivity. It’s easy to not have all the facts. Let’s be people with a reputation for humble growth over self-defense.
There’s grace in this place. God does not condemn us for our mistakes or our ignorance. But there’s there’s also a responsibility to listen, learn, and make things right. Just like Dan, my insurance agent. Thanks for the refund. We’re good now.
Jesus, keep me gentle, humble, and teachable today.
*Thanks to my friend Jonathan for inspiring this.