One of the things I learned from 15 years of campus ministry is that “how” matters. How we carry out good intentions to reach good ends makes a difference. Why and what we do matters, yes, but how we do it also matters to God.
I have heard from many young Christians that they wish their churches would be more open to exploring their tough questions rather than shutting them down. A former Christian once told me, “If my youth pastor was as patient as you are (with my questions), maybe I wouldn’t be so quick to leave the church.” “How” matters in discipleship and faith formation.
I have also heard from unbelievers who complain about the evangelism methods of Christians on campus. Some Christians were too aggressive. Many unbelievers felt like objects or targets of Christian evangelism. Some Christians came across as “know-it-all jerks” because they lacked intellectual humility, refusing to ever admit ignorance or mistakes. These young unbelievers were turned off less by Christianity’s message but more by its messengers. “How” matters in evangelism.
I believe “how” matters to God in all areas of our lives, even in dealing with conflict and war. In the Old Testament, God included rules to guide the Israelites in conducting warfare (Deuteronomy 20). Although they seem barbaric to our modern moral sentiments, these rules attempted to mitigate the worst excesses of typical ancient warfare and inject some compassion into how the Israelites waged war in contrast to their pagan neighbors. There was some compassion in conscription of soldiers by giving exemptions (Deut. 20:5-9). There was compassion in mandating diplomacy as a first step (Deut. 20:10-12). There was some compassion in the treatment of captured women (Deut. 21:10-14). There was even compassion shown to the environment by restricting which types of trees could be felled for building siege works (Deut. 20:19-20). My point is that even in waging war, “how” matters to God.
The old Christian just war tradition advocated by most Reformed Christians echoes this point. Contrary to popular opinion, just war theory is not limited to only finding just causes (why) for war but also requires just means (how) in conducting war. These rules include that the response must be proportional to the offense and that innocent bystanders must not be intentionally harmed (“Just-War Theory,” New Dictionary of Christian Ethics and Pastoral Theology, p. 521). If any of the rules are violated, it is no longer a just war. Even in war, when the stakes are life and death, Christians have had a long tradition of insisting that “how” matters as much as “why.” It is never “anything goes.” “All’s fair in love and war” is not a Christian saying.
If how people engage in brutal physical conflicts matters to God, do we think it matters less to God how we engage in our theological conflicts? Or in America’s so-called “culture wars”?
I have observed Christians wrongly stereotyping their opponents’ viewpoints in order to disparage them. I have read Christians citing false or misleading information in defense of their positions. Some even resort to name-calling and mockery when they run out of good, solid arguments. These are not God-honoring, neighbor-loving, or truth-seeking ways of engaging conflict. Even if we believe our cause is just and true and our goals noble and godly, we cannot justify that any method will do as long as it brings “success.” The end does not justify the means. “How” still matters to God. We can do better, trusting in God to honor our faithfulness in the how.