When was the last time you set out to do something with bad intent? It has probably been quite some time, if ever. Very few of us actually set out consciously to do wrong. My greatest sins – both in terms of magnitude and volume – have been committed without the intent to do any ill. The saying “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” is attributed most frequently to St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who wrote, “Hell is full of good wishes or desires.” This became an adage precisely because it is so true for so many of us. Our brains are excellent at coming up with seemingly acceptable rationales for our behavior.
We also know good intentions sometimes have unfortunate results. We have all had the experience of having bad outcomes from doing what we genuinely believe is the right thing. I couldn’t estimate the number of times I have sent an email that sounded just fine in my head and read it over after hitting ‘send’ to realize it was snarky or sarcastic and would likely be read very differently than intended. Parenting is also rife with unintended consequences – almost anything which follows the phrase “or else…” is dangerous indeed.
So we know the existence of ‘good’ intentions is somewhat questionable if bad intentions rarely exist. And we know good intentions can have negative outcomes. Intentions have a further and very insidious risk. Intentions can become a salve to keep us from an action.
Intent to Avoid
I intend one day to learn how to make a proper pie crust. I intend to learn Spanish. I fully intend to learn to knit something resembling a piece of clothing. Having these intents is a great way to feel self-satisfied. I have goals! I have objectives! But in themselves, they accomplish nothing. Intentions are by definition future-looking. Because they give us a sense of accomplishment without actual accomplishment, they can act as an ongoing avoidance technique.
This is as true of our spiritual lives as it is for language learning. Galatians 6:7 tells us “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked. A man reaps what he sows.” We do not and cannot reap what we intend. Intending to reach out to a loved one does not offer them solace – only picking up the phone, sending an email or writing a note does this. Intending a kind word is a far cry from saying a kind word.
Intentions can act as a salve, allowing one to feel a sense of satisfaction without doing anything. I pray every morning and frequently throughout the day – it is an essential part of my spiritual life and quite helpful for sanity as well. Sometimes, however, the peace and satisfaction I get from prayer lulls me into a sense of complacency. James warns us (James 1: 22-24):
“But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like.”
Prayers are incredibly necessary, but not always sufficient in themselves. As James reminds us, actions count, not intentions. We are called to listen and to act on our callings. John says it beautifully in John 3:18,“Little children, let us, love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”
The Importance of Discernment
Of course, this sounds much easier than it is to practice, and no one should be a fan of action solely for action’s sake. Discernment of the guidance we are receiving in prayer is the key. Unfortunately, God rarely draws up a tidy to-do list for me with goals and objectives neatly delineated, no matter how often I ask. I do find, however, that my calling and direction are revealed through a combination of prayer and action. God doesn’t deliver us fully formed solutions, but He does frequently provide a clear path for us to work through. It is up to us to take steps down that path and revisit what we are drawn to prayerfully as often as possible.
Intentions themselves can be helpful, but only insofar as we take concrete steps towards achieving them. Thankfully, these steps don’t have to be huge – in fact, small steps are incredibly powerful. Books are written one page at a time. The writing of each page, although not a seemingly large step, is absolutely essential to the achievement of a finished work. A bountiful garden can start with a single tiny seed, provided it is planted and tended. All great things are achieved one small step at a time.
Talking about doing, making lists about doing, intending to do – none of these are doing and can help us avoid doing. Small steps, taken today, allow us to create reality from our intentions. And what a beautiful reality it can be if we do love in truth and in action.