Should we regard hurtful and deceitful acts as good because good can come out of them?

Question: Should we regard hurtful and deceitful acts as good because good can come out of them?

Answer: No—at least, we should not see them as good in themselves. I believe that from the Course's standpoint, the proper stance toward hurtful and deceitful acts is to regard them as mistakes, but at the same time to look for the good that the Holy Spirit can bring out of those mistakes. To adapt a well-known saying, we should see them as lemons, but also look for the lemonade the Holy Spirit has made out of them.

I think it's crucial that we are clear on this, because if we simply say that harmful acts are actually good, we give the ego license to run amok. The ego stays in business by telling us that its dark intentions and vicious attacks are actually noble and good. Once we decide to accept its deceptive relabeling of things, all bets are off. At that point, anything and everything can be "justified" as the necessary means to a "good" end.

This is not just a theoretical situation; it is an all-too-real phenomenon, especially in the spiritual arena. You see it, for instance, in so-called "crazy wisdom," where abusive spiritual masters justify their abuse by claiming that they are actually doing their disciples a service by shattering their stubborn egos. You see it in those cases where spiritual teachers do unethical things like lying or embezzling funds or sleeping with their followers, but their supporters exonerate them because of all the "good" they are doing. Even Sai Baba's sexual abuse of young boys has been justified by some of his followers as "part of His Divine Plan." The odd result of this is that spiritual leaders, whom one would think would be the best and most ethical people among us, can often be far less ethical than ordinary people.

This is entirely foreign to the Course. As we see especially in the Manual section on the characteristics of God's teachers (M-4), the Course depicts the advanced teacher of God as a paragon of virtue, a person who has embodied character traits like honesty, generosity, and gentleness to a truly amazing degree — someone who is far more ethical than usual, not less. It tells us, "No teacher of God but must learn, — and fairly early in his training, — that harmfulness completely obliterates his function from his awareness" (M-4.IV.1:8).

Hurtful and deceitful acts are never depicted as good in the Course, but instead are always regarded as mistakes. Of course, such mistakes are errors to be forgiven rather than sins to be condemned, but they are mistakes, not expressions of goodness. In the Course's view, we make many mistakes that bring much pain and suffering to ourselves and others, and it is crucial to recognize them as such rather than pretend they are really wonderful: "What is important is only the recognition of a mistake as a mistake" (M-7.5:8).

As a specific example of how the Course material regards hurtful acts, consider Hitler and the Holocaust. Some Course students have told me that Hitler was just doing his part in God's plan, because look at all the lessons in love and forgiveness that people learned from what happened. But when Jesus refers to the Holocaust in the Urtext, we see a very different picture. He bluntly calls it an "appalling error," one he "shed many tears over," an event that called forth from him the words he said at his crucifixion: "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do." Clearly, Jesus didn't think Hitler was carrying out God's plan.

Now, the Course does at times present ideas that could be interpreted as supporting the "Hitler was just doing his part in God's plan" view — for instance, there is this line from the Manual:

The past as well held no mistakes; nothing that did not serve to benefit the world, as well as him to whom it seemed to happen. (M-4.VIII.1:6)

This line could be interpreted to mean that all actions should be regarded as good without qualification; there are ultimately no mistakes, because everything that happens benefits the world and the person to whom it seems to happen. It's all good, right?

Not so fast. The very paragraph from which this line is taken qualifies it a couple of sentences later: "Even so, the teacher of God is willing to reconsider all his past decisions, if they are causing pain to anyone." This is a very telling line, I think. It seems specifically designed to counter our temptation to use the "it's all good" rationalization for our hurtful actions. We read that line about the past holding no mistakes and say to ourselves, "Yeah, Sue didn't like it when I told her off, but it was really for her own good." Jesus responds, "Hold on a minute. If you're doing things that hurt people, don't use this idea to rationalize them. Stop doing them."

Of course, there is another big reason why we shouldn't be too quick to use this line to justify hurtful and deceitful actions: the fact that the Course so clearly and frequently calls them mistakes elsewhere. If we believe that the Course is consistent, we can't simply use this "no mistakes" line to overrule all those places where the Course says we do make all sorts of mistakes that cause grievous harm within the illusion. We have to find an interpretation that reconciles the apparent contradiction, one that harmonizes everything the Course says about this issue.

I think this reconciliation can be found in a basic idea that is fundamental to the Course: We make mistakes, but the Holy Spirit then uses them to serve His plan for salvation, a plan that undoes mistakes. He takes what we have given Him and uses it in a way that ensures that in the end, only good can come out of it. We're all familiar with the Course idea that the Holy Spirit can "employ the means you made for exile to restore your mind to where it truly is at home" (W-pII.7:3:2). Lesson 193 tells us that in everything that happens to us, the Holy Spirit has planted the lesson of forgiveness, which will undo all the painful effects that seem to come from what happens to us. In short, for every mistake we make, the Holy Spirit installs a doorway out of the mistake. This doorway is what transforms the mistake from something hurtful into something that can "benefit the world, as well as him to whom it seemed to happen."

The crucial point here, I think, is that when people make the mistake of doing hurtful things, the good that may come out of them doesn't mean that the things are somehow good and proper in themselves. No, they're still mistakes that hurt people, and God's plan would have been better served if those mistakes had never been made. The good that can come of them is the result not of the mistakes themselves, but of the Holy Spirit's miraculous ability to build a doorway out of even the most insane error.

I think this is a truly beautiful way to look at hurtful and deceitful and unethical acts of all kinds, because it avoids two unappealing extremes. In one extreme, we call such things good and even say they come from God. But this leaves us with a God Who does and condones awful things, and as I said above, it allows the ego to run amok. In the other extreme, we call such things irredeemably bad — senseless tragedies that no good can come out of. But this leaves us with hopelessness. If there is no silver lining to these dark clouds, nothing that undoes their horrible effects and brings about a happy ending, then what can we feel but despair?

Both extremes leave us with some very unpleasant consequences. But if the hurtful things we do are mistakes and those mistakes can be used by the Holy Spirit for good, then we have the best of both worlds. We can call hurtful acts what they are and assure ourselves that our loving Father had nothing to do with bringing them about, and we can find the good that the Holy Spirit has lovingly injected into them. With Hitler, for instance, we can simultaneously acknowledge that killing six million Jews is not a good thing and not in any way God's Will, and celebrate those amazing people (Corrie ten Boom, for example), who did indeed find the goodness of God even in the horrors of the concentration camps.

How, then, should we regard hurtful and deceitful acts? First, we need to see them as the mistakes they are. Second, we need to look for the good the Holy Spirit has placed in them. And we shouldn't use the second step here to deny the mistakes identified in the first step. Rather than saying they weren't mistakes, we want to use the Holy Spirit's good to undo the effects of those mistakes.

What does this look like in everyday life? I think it will vary from case to case; of course we should apply our Course practice to the situation and ask the Holy Spirit for guidance about what to do. But I think it will often take the form of honestly addressing both our own unsavory acts and those of others in a way that is loving, forgiving, and attentive to whatever good the Holy Spirit is trying to bring out of the situation. We need to both acknowledge how sour those lemons are, and look earnestly for the Holy Spirit's lemonade. If we do this, even the most egregious acts can be transformed into opportunities to taste the cool, refreshing drink of salvation.

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