“The road to hell is paved with good intentions” is a saying that has been attributed to Bernard of Clairvaux (1091—1153), but that cannot be verified. When we say, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions,” we may mean that someone meant well, but the end result of his actions was disastrous. Good intentions do not guarantee good results. Or we may mean that one’s good intentions, by themselves, are worthless; to accomplish anything, one must follow through on one’s goals and objectives. Laziness and other enemies of success will drag one down.
The proverb “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” can also be seen as reflecting Jesus’ warning in Matthew 7:13–14: “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” The way to hell is easy.
The New Testament gives several examples of people who expressed their intent to follow Jesus but, as far as we know, never did. In Luke 9:57–62, Jesus encounters three men who said they would follow Him, but other priorities came first. Jesus did not commend them for simply having good intentions; He called them to sacrificial, immediate action: “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God” (verse 62). The men must follow through on their words; otherwise, their “good intentions” would not result in following Jesus and would pave their way to hell, as it were.
At another time, a serious young man approaches Jesus to ask what he must do to inherit eternal life (Mark 10:17–27). He seemed to have every intention of doing whatever Jesus told him, but when the Lord answered, “Sell all your possessions and give to the poor and then come follow me,” the man went away sad. The cost was too high. He may have had good intentions at first, but the rich young man failed to love Christ more than money and was paving his own way to hell.
Many find the cost too high when they express interest in following Jesus. They have every “intention” of surrendering to Him and living according to His will for their lives. But they soon find that intent is not enough. Good intentions are not strong enough to overcome the magnetic pull of our sinful flesh (Mark 14:38). Many people hear the gospel and believe it to be true, but they don’t want it badly enough to surrender control of their lives. They “intend” to do so one day—when they’ve finished having fun. Sadly, most never reach that day. They assumed that repentance and faith would come naturally upon command, but they find that it does not. In cases such as these, the proverb “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” holds true.
Good intentions must be accompanied by acts of our will in order to accomplish what we planned. Laziness, procrastination, and fear can all play a part in keeping our intentions only that. People-pleasers are especially prone to finding that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. By nature, people-pleasers want to say whatever will grant them favor with whomever they wish to please. They may have every intention of calling next week, going to lunch, or babysitting for a friend, but after the moment has passed, they forget all about what was promised. They find that their road to untrustworthiness, disappointment, and misunderstanding is paved with their good intentions.
God takes seriously the words that come from our lips. In fact, Jesus said that we will give an account for every idle word spoken (Matthew 12:36–37). We should not be quick to express our intentions if we don’t have a plan to follow through and the ability to do so. Instead, we should determine in our hearts what God wants us to do and then commit ourselves to it (Psalm 37:5; 119:11).
One way we can be sure that our lives are not cluttered with useless intentions is to consider ourselves “crucified with Christ,” as Paul did (Galatians 2:20). When we recognize every morning that our day is not ours to squander as we please, but belongs to the Lord, we will be more prone to follow through on the direction He gives us. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, but the road to heaven is paved with obedient faith. Good intentions make us feel like we’re on the right track, but they lack any power to get us where we want to go. However, a willful commitment to follow the Lord takes us where He wants us to go.