Should we follow the "Old Testament" letter or the "New Testament" spirit of the Course’s practice instructions?

Question: As a former fundamentalist Christian, I was required to put out lots of effort to be "accepted," but never quite attaining "good enough." Sometimes I get a flash of this old legalism when I read the Course, especially material about literally following the practice instructions. It seems to me that following those instructions literally is like trying to follow the Old Testament law—the Course's literal dictates are impossible to actually "keep." A more grace-based "New Testament" approach would be to get to the point where the spirit of the Course will ever be on one's mind, so one doesn't need to be following the letter of those instructions all the time. What is your view?

Answer: My short answer is that Jesus fully expects us to follow the Course's practice instructions literally, and that while none of us does that perfectly, it is quite possible to do so—there are no objective barriers in our way.

There is nothing whatsoever in the words of the Course itself that suggests we aren't supposed to follow the practice instructions literally. The only way to draw that conclusion would be to look at those instructions through a mental frame that leads us to minimize or discount what's actually on the page. Unfortunately, "Old Testament law/New Testament grace" is just such a frame, and I think if we want to hear what Jesus is really telling us, we need to set that frame aside entirely. When we view Course practice through that frame, it becomes all about obeying the "law" to please Jesus or God, and not practicing becomes the way of "grace." All of this, I think, just muddies the waters.

Instead, I think we need to view Course practice through the frame the Course itself puts it in: the frame of training—more specifically, mind training. "This is a course in mind training" (T-1.VII.4:1). This frame changes everything. I like to use the analogy of athletic training. I'm a marathon runner, and if I'm doing a marathon training program and the coach says, "Do a five mile run," there's no question of "Do I obey the letter or the spirit of that instruction?" Nor do I do the run to obey the coach's "law" in order to be "accepted" by him (at least I shouldn't do it for that reason). I follow the literal instruction for a simple, practical, reward-based reason: because only by doing so will I get the training I need to achieve the goal I desire. If I want to complete the marathon, I need to do the training runs. It's as simple as that.

I think it's exactly the same with the Course's practice instructions. When Jesus says, "Repeat this line on the hour every hour," he means it just as literally as the marathon coach who wants me to do a five mile run. But the reason for following that instruction is not to obey Jesus' "law" so we can be "accepted" by him or God. Instead, the reason for doing so is that it gives our minds the training they need to achieve the goal of the Course: "It is doing the exercises that will make the goal of the course possible. An untrained mind can accomplish nothing" (W-In.1:2-3). If we want the goal of the Course, we have to do the exercises. "And great indeed will be your reward" (W-pI.20.2:8). There's no legalism in that—it's not obeying a command for the sake of being "good enough." Our true nature is already perfect; God loves us unconditionally. We follow the practice instructions simply because doing so will train our minds to remove the blocks to accepting the grace that has always been there.

Of course we'll miss practice periods —lots of them. The Course's own practice instructions tell us how to deal with that: Don't get distressed about it; instead, just get right back to practicing (see, for instance, W-pI.27.4:4-5). But while we do have an unfortunate tendency to miss practice periods, I don't think that following the instructions to the letter is impossible at all. The time commitment required by them is actually quite small. The instructions themselves have provisions for handling situations where we truly can't do a practice period at the appointed time: We are told that not doing a practice period when the circumstances truly don't permit it is perfectly okay, and it won't hamper our training (see W-pI.rIII.In.2:1-2).

In short, there's no real, objective obstacle to us doing the practices exactly as instructed. The reason that none of us (including me) does this is not that it's impossible—the reason is our unwillingness. We "forget" to practice because other goals are more important to us: "You are unwilling to cooperate in practicing salvation only if it interferes with goals you hold more dear" (W-pI.rIII.In.4:2). We tell ourselves "I can't," but the truth is "I won't." This is nothing to be ashamed of; we simply need to be honest about it, so we can bolster our willingness to do the practice that the Course tells us will bring us the treasure of salvation.

I do think we'll eventually get to a point where "the spirit of the Course will ever be on one's mind." The first paragraph of Section 16 of the Manual describes a person who has reached this point: an advanced teacher of God. But we get there through the training. Indeed, that's how we'll know that our training is complete. A marathoner knows her training has been successful when she finishes the marathon; we'll know that our mind training is complete when we can effortlessly be in constant contact with the Holy Spirit without any structured practice. But until we reach that point, the structured training is needed.

So, let's set aside the whole "Old Testament/New Testament" frame that bogs us down in questions of "letter versus spirit" and "law versus grace." A master coach has given us a mind-training program that we are fully capable of doing, a program that promises the priceless reward of awakening to God. But we'll only experience that reward if we do the training as instructed. Let's get going with those mental workouts.

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