Misunderstood Passages: Trust Not Your Good Intentions

by Allen Watson

There is a passage in the Text which says, "Trust not your good intentions. They are not enough" (T-18.IV.2:1-2). Most of the times I have heard this quoted by Course students, it is quoted without any context, and the sense that seems to be given to it is that "good intentions" are a bad thing—which is certainly paradoxical and contradictory, for how could something "good" be "bad"?

And nearly all the time, the words are applied to whatever situation is at hand. For instance, suppose I am heading into an encounter with my boss or a co-worker with whom I am having a conflict. Or, I am trying to resolve some family problem. To the best of my ability, I have only good intentions. I want peace for all concerned. And these words, "Trust not your good intentions. They are not enough," seem to be telling me that wanting the best for all concerned somehow isn't enough. Something more is required. It isn't clear what the "something more" might be, but the apparent implication is that going into a situation just relying on wanting good for everyone, to the best of my ability, is somehow deficient and doomed to failure. It leaves one feeling vaguely and indefinably guilty, in a way that is impossible to shake off. I'm guilty for wanting good things, apparently. What can I do about that?

To me, what the words, understood in this way, seem to be saying is that there is something irretrievably rotten at the core of my being. No matter how pure my intentions, the corruption of the ego will spoil it all and besmirch my best efforts. When someone warns me, cheerfully, as I head into some situation, "Remember, 'Trust not your good intentions,'" it seems to me they are telling me to give up hope that things can work out well. They are telling me that I cannot trust my own mind.

Is that what the Course is teaching? Can that possibly be what the Course is teaching, when elsewhere it tells us:

Never accord the ego the power to interfere with the journey. It has none, because the journey is the way to what is true. Leave all illusions behind, and reach beyond all attempts of the ego to hold you back (T-8.V.6:4-6)?

Place the ideas within your mind, and let it use them as it chooses. Give it faith that it will use them wisely, being helped in its decisions by the One Who gave the thoughts to you. What can you trust but what is in your mind (W-pI.rIII.in.6:1-3)?

Somehow, I cannot believe that this is the message that the Course intends us to receive from these lines. In fact, I think this is another one of those places where we have taken our own thoughts and have projected them onto the words of the Course. It is not the Holy Spirit, nor Jesus in the Course, that mistrusts our minds; it is ourselves:

You prefer to believe that your thoughts cannot exert real influence because you are actually afraid of them (T-2.VI.9:10).

You are afraid of me because you looked within and are afraid of what you saw. Yet you could not have seen reality, for the reality of your mind is the loveliest of God's creations. Coming only from God, its power and grandeur could only bring you peace if you really looked upon it. If you are afraid, it is because you saw something that is not there (T-12.VII.10:1-4).

I think, therefore, that we need to look at these two lines in the context in which they occur. That context, I believe, makes their meaning quite clear, and it is not the fearful meaning we have tended to assign to them. To place the two sentences in their context, please read now the first two paragraphs of T-18.IV, "The Little Willingness." I will refer to these two paragraphs in what follows, but will not take the space to quote every word.

The context of these lines has something to do with the holy instant, and with our desire to enter in and experience such an instant. We are told that desire and willingness precede its coming, and that the only preparation we need for the holy instant is to recognize "that you want it above all else" (T-18.IV.1:4). Jesus then begins to discuss our mistaken belief that, somehow, we have to do more than simply want it. Somehow, we think, we need to prepare ourselves in order to receive the holy instant. He tells us:

It is not necessary that you do more; indeed, it is necessary that you realize that you cannot do more. Do not attempt to give the Holy Spirit what He does not ask, or you will add the ego to Him and confuse the two (T-18.IV.1:5-6).

So the admonition here is about not doing more than is asked; not attempting to give the Holy Spirit something He isn't asking for. The general pattern of instruction about the holy instant in the Text follows this same line: our greatest mistake is that we believe that in order to have the holy instant, we have to produce in ourselves some state that only the holy instant can bring to us. In other words, we try to give ourselves what the holy instant is intended to give us. It is stated quite clearly four paragraphs later in this section:

Seek not to answer, but merely to receive the answer as it is given. In preparing for the holy instant, do not attempt to make yourself holy to be ready to receive it (T-18.IV.5:3-4).

When we try to give ourselves what the holy instant is supposed to give to us, what happens? We "add the ego to Him" (T-18.IV.1:6); our ego gets involved in trying to give us what the Holy Spirit is meant to give us. We try to make ourselves holy.

Now, in this context, Jesus tells us, "Trust not your good intentions. They are not enough." So what does this mean now that we understand the context?

Good intentions are a good thing. However, they are just another of the states of mind that are brought to us by the Holy Spirit in the holy instant, and they are not something that is required beforehand in order to receive the holy instant. We should not try to give ourselves good intentions. That is part of what the holy instant will bring to us. Our good intentions, apart from the Holy Spirit, are not enough—enough for what? Enough to bring us into the holy instant. All that is needed, and what we should trust in implicitly, is our willingness. That's all. If we are willing to receive a holy instant, we shall have one. Good intentions generated by us while we are still in a wrong-minded state won't get us there; in fact, good intentions are not even required before we reach the holy instant; the holy instant itself will purify our minds and our intentions.

When we are heading into a controversial situation, perhaps some kind of potential conflict in a relationship, we desire that a holy instant be given to us, to be shared with the other person. We desire a healing, we desire a miracle. Our tendency is to trust in our good intentions. The message here is that they are not enough, but they do not have to be enough. We are told to concentrate only on our willingness, and "be not disturbed that shadows surround it" (T-18.IV.2:5). What does he mean by "shadows"? I think it is clear that "shadows" at least includes, if not directly refers to, questionable intentions.

In other words, when I am in a conflict situation, my ego is going to be involved. And Jesus is saying, "Don't let that bother you. Don't trust in your own good intentions. Don't be concerned that your willingness for the holy instant is surrounded by shadows of questionable intentions." And then he adds:

That is why you came. If you could come without them you would not need the holy instant. Come to it not in arrogance, assuming that you must achieve the state its coming brings with it (T-18.IV.2:5-7).

In other words, "Of course your intentions are suspect! If you could have perfectly pure intentions, you wouldn't need the holy instant. Don't think that you have to purify your intentions before the holy instant can be given to you! Purifying your intentions is what the holy instant is for."

The typical understanding of these words seems to be telling us to watch out, to pay close attention to our motives and to purify our intentions before proceeding. The actual message of these words is the exact opposite! It is telling us that we cannot purify our intentions on our own, and that purifying them is what the holy instant does for us. "Purification is of God alone, and therefore for you" (T-18.IV.5:7). Therefore, we should not delay ourselves in a vain attempt to purify our motives, because that will never happen! Instead, lay the situation in the hands of the Holy Spirit, reaffirm your willingness for the holy instant and the miracle, and move ahead-mixed motives be damned! Purifying those motives is Hisjob, not yours. Your willingness, and your willingness alone, is all you need.

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