The idea that morally wrong actions are sometimes necessary to achieve morally right outcomes is alive and well in our world today. Many people now only consider the morality of an action by the virtue of its outcome. Where did this idea originally come from? The exact quote is often attributed to Ovid, a Greek poet who wrote Heroides a volume of fifteen poems. All were written around 10 BC from a female point of view. They were presented as love letters, sent from women who had been mistreated, neglected, or abandoned by their lovers. More contemporary attribution goes to Niccolò Machiavelli, an Italian diplomat, author, philosopher, and historian who lived during the Renaissance Period. He is best known for his political treatise The Prince (Il Principe)1“Machiavelli: The end justifies the means”, in publicbookshelf.com, 2002, published in 1532. Machiavelli is called the father of modern political philosophy and political science. Ovid is quoted as saying “The result justifies the deed (Exitus acta probat).” Machiavelli’s The Prince reflects this philosophy but does not use the phrase in this wording.
The Dictionary defines a Machiavellian as someone sneaky, cunning, and lacking a moral code. A Machiavellian believes in “who has the power or money has the say.” Do whatever is necessary to get and keep it. Hence, they believe in “The ends justify the means.” To a free people, Machiavellian ideas are met with disdain. Its principles often mirror deceitful behavior. Win first and then you can do whatever with your power. Machiavelli believed:
- Do good things to gain reputation and support.
- For the bad things, get someone else to do the necessary evils so that if it fails, you can blame them and look good. (i.e. always cover your backside)
- Ruling with fear is better than ruling with love. People should fear you rather than respect you. With fear, people must do it or else. With love or respect, obedience is optional and hence less effective.
- His teaching believed in using the laws (laws designed to favor the emperor) to rule the people with fear to achieve both immediate and long-term success.
Such principles work in the short run for quick success. However, in the longer term, Machiavelli knew that people would discover them and revolt.
Today, the phrase “means to an end” is used to describe things that a person considers to be necessary to suffer through to accomplish their real goals. The activity itself may not be enjoyable or even considered important. We see this in our economic and environmental discussions. The price of fuel is but a means to end our reliance on fossil fuels. Monetary policies that adjust interest rates adjust consumption downward, open border policies change demographics to establish power, and even health policies such as mandatory vaccinations and masks all reflect the idea that the benefit of the desired result justifies any actions to achieve them, no matter the pain inflicted.
The question, however, that should be asked is what’s God’s opinion about this philosophy? Does God care about what we accomplish for Him and how we accomplish it? The Bible is very clear that the ends never justify sinful means in God’s eyes. Yes, God is a “results-oriented” God. While humanity focuses on results, God cares about how we accomplish these results. God’s will, God’s Truth is never to be preempted for human advancement.
(2 Chronicles 14:2-6)2NIV New International Version Translations – “Asa did what was good and right in the eyes of the Lord his God. He removed the foreign altars and the high places, smashed the sacred stones, and cut down the Asherah poles. He commanded Judah to seek the Lord, the God of their ancestors, and to obey his laws and commands. He removed the high places and incense altars in every town in Judah, and the kingdom was at peace under him. He built up the fortified cities of Judah since the land was at peace. No one was at war with him during those years, for the Lord gave him rest.”
King Asa was the third king of Judah, and the first king characterized in the Bible as a man of integrity. His 41-year reign was marked by a revival in the worship of the LORD and the removal of paganism and its associated evils. For his people’s safety, he reduced crime. Asa brought peace through military strength. There were only two brief incidents in his reign that interrupted his exemplary leadership. Remember, the Jewish people were divided into two kingdoms. As a measure of the stability that existed in Judah during Asa’s time, his reign spanned the reigns of seven kings of Israel! Sounds like a fairytale story, right? Unfortunately, late in Asa’s life, his faith wavered, and at two points of crisis, he ignored God and turned to secular sources for help. Why not, didn’t the end justify the means?
(2 Chronicles 16:1-3) – “In the thirty-sixth year of Asa’s reign, Baasha king of Israel went up against Judah and fortified Ramah to prevent anyone from leaving or entering the territory of Asa king of Judah.
Judah was being cut off from world trade. Asa took silver and gold out of the treasuries of the Lord’s temple and of his own palace and sent it to Ben-Hadad king of Aram, who was ruling in Damascus. “‘Let there be a treaty between me and you,’ he said, ‘as there was between my father and your father. See, I am sending you silver and gold. Now break your treaty with Baasha king of Israel so he will withdraw from me.’”
The king of Israel, the other Jewish kingdom, was building a city that was going to make it difficult to travel into Judah (2 Chronicles 16:1). Asa strikes a deal with the king of Syria who used to be allied with the king of Israel. Asa accomplishes this bargain by buying the king of Syria’s favor. Asa also manipulates the king of Syria’s emotions by reminding him that their fathers used to be friends as well (2 Chronicles 16:2-3).
After what most would consider a masterful tactic, the Syrian king goes out and fights against the king of Israel. The king of Israel is forced to abandon his building project to go and defend against Syria. Asa then steals the expensive building supplies left behind and builds two new cities with them. In the end, Asa has defeated his enemy, made a new ally, and expanded his kingdom with his enemy’s money (2 Chronicles 16:4-6). In today’s world, Asa would be on the cover of our business magazines. Cable news anchors would be clamoring for interviews.
Asa was by all worldly standards a good leader at a time when good leaders were hard to find (2 Chronicles 14:2). But despite all his accomplishments, his religious reforms, and his passion to teach the people the ways of God, Asa lost sight of how to truly please God. His means were not justified by his good ends. And a man named Hanani, a seer (similar to a prophet), came to Asa.
(2 Chronicles 16:7-9) – “At that time Hanani, the seer came to Asa king of Judah and said to him: “Because you relied on the king of Aram and not on the Lord your God, the army of the king of Aram has escaped from your hand. Were not the Cushites and Libyans a mighty army with great numbers of chariots and horsemen? Yet when you relied on the Lord, he delivered them into your hand. For the eyes of the Lord range throughout the earth to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to him. You have done a foolish thing, and from now on you will be at war.”
To bring this into a more contemporary perspective, our world has found it convenient to no longer tell the truth because the means are justified by the end! How many untruths do you hear in a day? Too many to count no doubt. We have entire industries that are built upon the delivery of untruths. Social media, opinion news, government, our bureaucracies, educational systems, marketing claims, and on and on goes the list. Each special interest group justifies its position because of a perceived benefit yet to come. Is it ever OK to lie to assure benefits to mankind?
We are accountable for every word we speak
(Matthew 12:36-37) – “But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.”
We are accountable for how we live our lives
(Romans 14:12) – “So then, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God.”
Leaders are accountable for those who serve under them
(Hebrews 13:17) – “Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you.”
Teachers are accountable for their students
(James 3:1) – “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.”
Unbelievers are accountable for rejecting God’s Truth
(1 Peter 4:5) – “But they will have to give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead.”
So, what is the right way to achieve the “end?” The right way is to be accountable to God for the means we choose. Use His Truth, never Satan’s deceptions. Uphold the body of Christ in all we do!
(Jeremiah 17:9) – “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?”
Only through God can we make a lasting difference!
- Where do you personally see the “any means to an end,” being used in society?
- Ideas to Explore: Government, schools, businesses, countries, churches, etc.
- In the areas you have witnessed, will any “of the ENDS,” end in peace?
- Ideas to Explore: There are many examples of how what seems or sounds good negatively impacts our families and society. You should spend time recognizing where this happens.
- Why is accountability often missing in leadership?
- Ideas to Explore: greed, laziness, lust for power, ignorance, etc.
- Why does humanity fall for the “untruths?”
- Ideas to Explore: Distracted, want the same power for themselves, self-absorbed, etc.
- What can a follower of Jesus Christ do to minimize the occurrence of this problem in our society?
- Ideas to Explore: Learning God’s means to His ends, servanthood, holding others accountable.
- 1“Machiavelli: The end justifies the means”, in publicbookshelf.com, 2002
- 2NIV New International Version Translations