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Do the ends justify the means?

by Alyssa Robinson

This question is full of ethical dilemmas. We ask, “Do the ends justify the means,” when we see someone with good intentions, trying to get to a righteous place, but  the way they do it causes harm. Maybe it causes so much harm, it’s not even worth the positive results. I’ve heard people pose this question about standardized testing, corporate profits, and political rhetoric.

The ends/means dilemma is a popular scenario in ethics discussions. Usually, the question goes something like this: “If you could save the world by killing someone, would you do it?” If the answer is “yes,” then a morally right outcome justifies the use of immoral means to achieve it. But there are three different things to consider: the morality of the action, the morality of the outcome, and the morality of the person performing the action. In this situation, the action (murder) is clearly immoral and so is the murderer. But saving the world is a good and moral outcome. Or is it? What kind of world is being saved if murderers are allowed to decide when and if murder is justified and then go free? Or does the murderer face punishment for his crime in the world that he has saved? And would the world that was saved be justified in taking the life of the one who had just saved them?

Has your head started spinning yet? 

These are the kinds of questions that come up for me when I read some of the stranger stories of the Bible. One of them is the story of Abram (later Abraham) and Sarai in Genesis 12:10-17, and another is actually about Abraham’s nephew Lot and his daughters in Genesis 19:30-38. Rev. Karen Chraska and Rev. Daniel Humbert sat down with me for a Life + God Podcast episode about Lot. You can listen here or wherever you get your podcasts.

So today, I'll focus on Abram and Sarai. Genesis 12:10-17 is the story of Abram and his wife Sarai in Egypt. At the beginning of chapter 12, Abram, later named Abraham, is called by God to leave his home and go out into the world. God promises Abram, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” - Genesis 12:2-3

That sounds pretty good, right?

So, of course, Abram went. Abram and Sarai travel to a few different places and God blesses them, but then comes the time to go to Egypt. This is where the story gets weird. Actually…it gets straight up cringeworthy.  

Genesis 12:11-20

When he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, “I know well that you are a woman beautiful in appearance, and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife’; then they will kill me, but they will let you live. Say you are my sister, so that it may go well with me because of you and that my life may be spared on your account.” When Abram entered Egypt the Egyptians saw that the woman was very beautiful. When the officials of Pharaoh saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh. And the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house. And for her sake he dealt well with Abram, and he had sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male and female slaves, female donkeys, and camels.

But the Lord afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife. So Pharaoh called Abram and said, “What is this you have done to me? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife? Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her for my wife? Now then, here is your wife, take her, and be gone.” And Pharaoh gave his men orders concerning him, and they set him on the way with his wife and all that he had.

So now I ask again, do the ends justify the means? This scripture brings up so many conflicting feelings for me. Here are a few of the things that bother me:

  1. Abram doesn’t ask Sarai if she’s willing to do this; he just commands it.
  2. It’s all to save himself. He openly says that they wouldn’t hurt Sarai, only him.
  3. Pharaoh was punished by God when he didn’t even know Sarai was Abram’s wife! He had been lied to. At least give him the chance to make the right choice before you hit him with a plague.

I understand that God had a mission for Abram, but why did Sarai have to be sexually trafficked to continue Abram’s journey? All I want to do is sit down and have a conversation with Sarai and ask her, "Are you okay? Do you need help?"

If I were in the position of Sarai, I would feel betrayed, devalued, and I’d be reeling at the realization that I’m married to a selfish coward. I would ask her, “Was it worth it?” Maybe she would have said yes, maybe not. When I read these unflattering stories, it makes me wonder what God is trying to teach me. And I often come back to this; we each have an awesome capacity for good and for evil.

That might not be the fairytale fable we want to get from our Bible stories, but it’s the truth. Abram was not a superhero who was blessed by God and, therefore, never made a mistake again. Humanity is messy, ugly, and twisted. Sometimes we make selfish choices out of fear and self-preservation. We lie and we cheat to get what we want. We don’t care who we hurt because we’re on a mission from God. Our actions hurt the Pharoah's of the world, and they don't get a say in their future. We see the Sarai’s of the world as expendable. We are broken, and, as the saying goes, hurt people hurt people. 

But God also does beautiful things with us. When we back up from these individual weird stories, we can see the grand arch of scripture. We see the journey from Abraham to Jesus. In Matthew 1 we’re given  a huge list of sinful, broken people who lead us to Christ. My takeaway from this story is I need to stop seeing people as all good or all evil. We all have good and evil inside us, and God uses us anyway.

So do the ends justify the means? I don’t know. I can’t find a way, and don't want to find a way, to justify the greed, lies, violence, or any of the ugliness I see in this world. I just hope that when the end does come, God scoops me up in my brokenness and restores me.

Posted by Alyssa Robinson at 7:00 AM
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