Human beings have a complex inner life of motives and intentions. If we ignore them, we won’t understand people. But sometimes—we just don’t care about people’s motives.

But I didn’t mean to…

In a relational conflict, a claim of good intentions is a self-righteous way to have immunity from all blame or responsibility. For me, that means I could go a good six months in my marriage without asking forgiveness because I was only blatantly malicious once or twice a year, maybe less. “But I didn’t mean to hurt you” was my unassailable defense, and it was the end of the conversation. Meanwhile, though I was satisfied with my acceptable motives, I had missed what was important. My wife was hurt and my response to her was indifference—a convenient though treacherous sin. Under the guise of good intentions lurked “Who cares if you are hurt.” I simply did not love her.

Courtrooms are savvy to this. “But your honor, I didn’t mean to…” If defendants don’t come to their senses at that moment, judges will make sure they do or they will let defendants talk themselves into a harsher penalty. If you claim good intentions, the judge simply does not care, and the judge is right.

Meanwhile, we act as though “I didn’t mean it” closes the case in our favor. But it doesn’t. The person who was hurt is hurt even more, an opportunity to unify a relationship is missed, and there is now a stalemate in which both feel completely misunderstood.

How can we do this better?

I didn’t mean to and I am so sorry.

Recently, I was putting my grand-daughter in her car seat and unintentionally pinched her with the buckle. She didn’t even wince, but I felt horrible. I asked if I had pinched her, she said “yes.” I asked if it hurt, she said “yes.” I apologized, then apologized again, then asked her to forgive me, which she did. Here is my point: I did not intentionally pinch her with the buckle. But whether I intended to or not, she was hurt by what I did. Since I love her, my natural reaction was to ask her forgiveness. Love and compassion could do no less.

Biblical counseling is certainly interested in motives but sometimes they just don’t matter. What matters is how you react when someone says: “You hurt me.” Do you defend yourself or respond with love and compassion?