Intentions and Actions

Over seventy years ago J. G. Bennett observed that we tend to see ourselves primarily in the light of our intentions, which are invisible to others, while we see others mainly in the light of their actions, which are visible to us. And so, he suggests, we often find ourselves in a situation where misunderstanding and injustice are the order of the day.

I think all of us naturally see ourselves in light of our motives. We assume that our actions are extensions of our motives and are puzzled when those around us do not see the connection. Why we should be so puzzled is itself a mystery because others are doing the same thing we are doing. They are evaluating themselves in light of their motives which are plain as day to them while they must evaluate us in light of what we do and say. Each person, so sure of his or her motives, must guess the motives of every other person. Human nature being as it is, we, of course, give the benefit of the doubt to ourselves. We are right because we know what is in our hearts. We understand what is behind our words and actions. Since we are not privy to the motives of others, we must judge them by their actions. And that’s one reason why we see ourselves as so everlastingly right!

Almost every human relationship is involved in this dilemma—marriages, relationships between parents and children, friendships, politics, churches, international relations, and religious faiths. We assume the best about ourselves or our side while assuming the worst about the other. Let me suggest three steps we could follow which could liberate us from this vicious cycle of recrimination.

  1. We can make sure that our actions and words truly are extensions of our motives and that our motives are pure. Sometimes the easiest person to fool is ourselves. We can justify a host of evil in our minds by insisting that our goals are noble. Only if we are pure in heart will we be pure in word and deed. (This is a major assumption of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount.) And maintaining that integrity requires a rigorous discipline from which no one is exempt.
  2. We can practice over and over again the quality of empathy. Empathy means to put ourselves in the place of another human being—to see, hear, and feel what the other person is experiencing. Empathy does not just automatically happen. It too requires a rigorous discipline and a courageous imagination. We can’t feel exactly what another feels, so we must use our imaginations. And the more we practice this projection of our consciousness into others, the better we become in being compassionate and understanding. We still may not agree with the other’s conclusion or action, but we understand why they feel and act a certain way. Of course, such empathy requires that we empty ourselves at least long enough to consider the other. Empathy requires sacrifice. Compassion comes at a price. It’s easier to be so everlastingly right than it is to be empathetic. But being so everlastingly right is ultimately a lonely, shallow, and brittle way to live.
  3. We can remind ourselves that only God knows all the motives of all of us. We have already said that it’s easy to fool ourselves regarding our own motives. Part of the reason is because we have such competing motives warring within us. And so who are we? The good, kind, sharing, loving, joyful person some of our motives would indicate, or the evil, cruel, selfish, apathetic, and grasping person other of our motives would point to? We are all strange mixtures, and it takes Someone for greater and wiser than we are to sort all of this out into a meaningful whole. And that is why final judgment belongs only to God. Only God knows what is in all of our hearts. And only God is good and wise enough to make us whole. Such a realization should make us truly humble. And humility is a good place to start in our dealings with others.
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