Allah says: “On no soul does Allah place a greater burden than it can bear. It has every good that it acquires, and against it is every ill that it earns. Our Lord! Do not lay on us a burden as You did on those who came before us. Our Lord! Do not impose upon us that which we have not the strength to bear; and pardon us and grant us protection and have mercy on us, You are our Patron, so help us against those who stand against faith.” [Sūrah al-Baqarah: 286]

A student of mine once asked me about the difference between “acquires” and “earns” in this verse. Why is the significance of Allah using these two different words where the repetition of the same word is expected? If the soul “acquires” good, why doesn’t it “acquire” evil as well? If we say the soul “earns” evil, should we not say it “earns” good?

After consulting a number of commentaries of the Qur’an, I have come to the conclusion that the distinction here is that when Allah says “It has every good that it acquires”, He is referring to every good deed written to a person’s credit, even those deeds that the person had intended to do but never actually carried out.

As for evil deeds, Allah refers to them as “every ill that it earns”, since evil deeds are never punished except if they are actually carried through. The stronger, more active word “earned” is used over the more vague, less active word “acquired” to show this distinction.

This accords with what Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) clearly said about how Allah recompenses us for our deeds:
Allah has set forth all that which are good deeds and all that which are evil deeds and He then made it clear (to His servants) which are which. So whoever intends to do a good deed but does not carry it out, Allah will record it as one full good deed recorded to his credit.

If he intends to do it and follows through with it, Allah will record it to his credit as anything from ten to seven-hundred times the value of that deed.

If He intends to do an evil deed but does not go through with it, Allah will record it as one full good deed recorded to his credit. If he intends to do it and follows through with it, Allah will only record a single evil deed against his account. ” [Sahīh al-Bukhārī (6491) and Sahīh Muslim (131)]
This is from Allah’s generosity and mercy. We are rewarded for every good deed that we do many times over. As for the good that we sincerely intend to do, but for some reason are unable to carry out, we are still rewarded for it. And even though Allah rewards a mere good intention, He never punishes a bad intention unless it is actually followed by the sinful deed itself.