JULY 24, 2018
Learn to Purify Your Intentions to Please God Alone
“Whatever you do, work at it from the heart, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward.”
The purity of intention that St. Paul here recommends to us, which determines the value and merit of our actions and the extent of our reward, can be described very simply as having one aim, one intention, and one motive in everything we do: to please God. Purity of intention is the manifestation of the virtue of simplicity.
But there are degrees of purity of intention. Our intention is purer the less there is of self and self-will in our reason or motive for doing things. The purer our intention is, the more meritorious our actions are and the more glory do they give to God.
A Christian lives, or should live, for that very purpose. That is the primary reason for which all creation was made: to give glory to God. God made us for Himself, that we might glorify Him and, consequently, that we might participate in His happiness. St. Paul tells us, “Whether you eat or drink, or do anything else, do all for the glory of God.” If we do that, we merit the peace that surpasses understanding, the peace that God decrees and gives as a result of living as we were meant to live and fulfilling the purpose of our existence, that peace which is the tranquility of proper order.
Peace, then, is the result of striving to please God and not other people or ourselves. By working with purity of intention, we give glory to God and bring happiness to the angels and the saints and our divine Lord in Heaven.
Learn how to tell whether your intention is pure
We might ask whether there are any ways by which we can know whether we have purity of intention. After all, it is very easy to deceive ourselves in this matter. We can say we are doing what we do for God, but are we really? Is there any way we can tell for sure? Are there any signs by which we can confidently know that we’re doing what we do to please God?
Actually, there are, and very infallible signs, too. We can tell whether we are working to please God alone by our attitude toward what we do, toward the results that we achieve, toward the success of others, and toward the rewards or approval that we might get or not get from what we do.
Our attitude toward what we do
First, our purity of intention can be gauged by our attitude toward what we do or what we are given to do. If we have purity of intention, if we are doing what we do to please God and not ourselves, then, obviously, we are indifferent to, and, in the final analysis, will have no preference for this work or that work or the other work that Almighty God gives us to do. We are content whether He gives us this duty or that duty or the other duty. Knowing that our task is God’s will, we are deeply glad to do it with all our heart and strength. If we ask, “Why must I do that?” we are far from simplicity and purity of intention.
Again, if our intention is pure, we put the very same effort into a fatiguing duty as we would into an easy duty; we put the same effort and enthusiasm and attention into an obscure, hidden, unglamorous duty as we would into an honorable duty, or one that would bring us praise and put us in the spotlight and cause admiration on the part of others. If we had purity of intention, our enthusiasm for any work would not be measured by personal pleasure or personal satisfaction or reward.
The only important information we need is this: Is what we are about to do God’s will? If it is, and we are doing it to please Him, it does not make any difference whether it is sweeping a floor, or giving a speech, or teaching a class. If we have purity of intention, we shall put the same effort and enthusiasm into each of them and glorify God as the angels do who veil their faces with their wings and sing, “Holy, holy, holy!”
If we go about the obscure, or the hard, or the unromantic, or unwanted tasks with reluctance, like a slave beaten to the burden, we can be sure we are not working to please God; we are working to please ourselves. We can know this from the fact that, since we do not happen to be pleased in this instance, we are not working particularly hard or with much enthusiasm. We are trying to get it done as quickly as we can, or leave as much of it undone as we can.
So, there we have a test: How can we tell whether we are working to please ourselves or to please God? By our attitude toward what we don’t like to do.
Our attitude toward results
Another test of purity of intention is our attitude toward the results we achieve in what we do. If we are working to please God, we are not upset if what we are doing does not turn out well. That is true whether we are sewing something, or polishing a floor, or sweeping, or teaching a class. If we have purity of intention, we are willing to accept God’s will, even in failure.
If we get all upset when what we do does not turn out well, recall that God is not upset. If we are working to please Him, why are we upset?
Thank God that He does not judge us by results. He looks only at the effort we make with the knowledge we have, that is, the intention and motive we have in our mind and will. Are we so foolish as to think that God is dependent on our puny efforts to achieve any success? All He wants is our loving service, the efforts of our heart and soul to please Him. If we give Him that, there is no failure possible, as long as we are doing His will, no matter what the material results of our work may be.
That is what we must be assured of. All God wants is our effort and our pure intention. “If thy eye be evil, thy whole body will be full of darkness.” If our intention is wrong, then no matter what success we achieve, it is nothing in the eyes of God. On the other hand, no matter how a work may appear to fail, if we have done it with the right intention, to please God, then it is a success.
It is not how we succeed that matters, but how we try to do what God wants us to do to please Him. It is not how much we do of what we want to do that counts with God, but how well we try to do what He wants us to do. So, then, we know we have purity of intention if we are concerned only with doing as best we can whatever God gives us to do, leaving the results to Him, whether they be success or failure. If we have purity of intention, we accept all with equanimity, with a peaceful mind, knowing that God is glorified not by what we do, but by our intentions and the efforts with which we do what He gives us to do.
On the other hand, if we get all upset when things do not turn out well, when things we do turn out not so glowingly, it is because our motive, our intention, was to achieve personal success. Then, when we do not, we are disappointed and sad. That is a sure indication that our intention was not pure, that we were not working for God.
Thus, we can tell if we are working for God with a pure intention by our attitude toward the results that we achieve in our work, by our attitude toward failure and success. If the thing that we do turns out successfully, we should thank God for it and give the glory to Him. “Do not rejoice in this,” said our Lord when the Apostles came back boasting that they were able to cast out devils. He had given them that power, and they went out and tried it and it worked, and they came back saying excitedly, “We were casting out devils!” He responded, “Do not rejoice in this. . . but rejoice. . . that your names are written in Heaven.” That is the only thing in which to rejoice, not in the puny worldly successes that we might achieve, the tiny, futile, material honors we might amass. Do not rejoice in these, but that your name is written in Heaven.
In the same way, we should rejoice with God if what we do turns out unsuccessful. If we have done it for Him, He has been glorified. It matters not that we are not glorified for our lack of success. “He must increase, but I must decrease.”
Our attitude toward others’ success
Another test of our purity of intention, or manifestation of it, is our ability to rejoice at the success of others without being jealous of them, without being envious of them. If we have in mind only the good pleasure of God, we shall be glad at their success in their studies, in their work, in their apparent success in the practice of virtue and the overcoming of their faults.
On the other hand, if we are uneasy about their success, if we feel envious of it, if we wish they were not so successful, that is a sign that we are not seeking the glory of God; it is a sign that we have in mind, subconsciously at least, to come out on top, and that we are working for our own glory instead of God’s. Because they seem to be threatening our position, we are uneasy about it, or we are jealous of it, or we are envious of their success.
If we have purity of intention, we will react as Moses did to others’ success. Someone came to him complaining that another was prophesying, and Moses said, “Oh, that all the people might prophesy!” In effect he was saying, “Would that God would give it to everyone to glorify Him by prophesying as He has given me to be able to glorify Him.” So, too, if we have purity of intention, if we are working to please God, we shall be glad when He is glorified by anybody, even by those we like the least.
Our attitude toward the reward
It is clear that we can test our purity of intention in these ways: by our attitude toward what we have to do, whether it is to our liking or not; by our attitude toward the results we achieve, whether they are successful or not; and by our attitude toward others’ success. Finally, we can test the purity of our intention by our attitude toward the reward or thanks we receive for what we do.
If we are working to please God and not ourselves, we are indifferent to praise or blame on the part of men. If, after doing a piece of work, we are sad or upset because we do not get others’ notice, because they do not praise us for it, or because they do not tell us how wonderful we are, that is a sign that we were not working for God, but for the reward or for that notice. We can tell this is so, for why else are we sad when we haven’t received it?
If we are working for God, if we truly have purity of intention, we do what God wants us to do in the best way we can, even if nobody sees it, even if nobody says a word about it. After all, why should others thank us for doing our duty when we are not working for them?
We are working for God, and He does not have a habit of stepping down to earth physically every once in a while and patting us on the back and saying, “That’s wonderful work. Keep it up!” But while He does not do that tangibly, we do know that He is grateful. We know this by faith, and that same faith should motivate us to be pure in our intention of working to please God alone.
The same purity of intention makes us indifferent to that diabolical evil, human respect, by which we so often do what we do so that people will think well of us; or we avoid what we should do because people will think ill of us. If we act only to please God, we will destroy this demon of human respect.
We should strive not only to begin with that intention, but also renew it as often as we can during our actions. We should renew it especially as often as we are tempted to rebel in the midst of doing something we don’t like; just as often as we are tempted to resent the results that we achieve, or be upset at our failure; just as often as we are tempted to feel sad because we do not get praise. To thank God when we do not succeed, to thank God for what we don’t like, is the surest sign that we are working to please Him and that we have purity of intention. Having that, we have an added consolation: if we can thank God in the midst of things we don’t like to do, thus showing that we have purity of intention, we can be sure that we shall also have purity of intention and be working to please Him in the things we like to do.
Editor’s note: This article is adapted from a chapter in Fr. Dion’s The Handbook of Spiritual Perfection, which is available from Sophia Institute Press.