“The path to hell is paved with good intentions.” I remember a family member casually using this maxim one day. I, a teenager at the time, was jarringly repelled by the thought. The phrase made me think of a world-trap designed by an evil genius, a life with rules vulnerable to manipulation. After doing your best to play and strategize by the rules, you might still be thrown under the bus by an ill-tempered, overarching divinity in the end. I imagined myself, completely spent after a life of trying to do the right things and love the good, perplexedly staring at the gates of hell.
God Doesn’t Play Mind Games
“God doesn’t play mind games with you.” A priest in Belize spoke these words to me. They were words I anxiously wanted to hear and trust. Something in the jungle of my heart was twisting my mind. I was afraid of consciously desiring, of passionately wanting. I felt as if simply desiring an object or goal was insufficient and yet dangerously potent a force for self-deception. Would it actually make whatever I desired less attainable?
If I could have good desires, good intentions, and my life could still wind up a mess, why spend time expressing those interior desires? Maybe it was best to ignore them so as not to be swept away. It was as if, even though the maxim about good intentions leading to hell had repulsed me, I was living under its influence.
It’s Easy to Choose Good Intentions Over God’s Intentions
My dilemma wasn’t completely irrational. There is some evidence that we are less likely to achieve goals when we speak about them with others. When we discuss and share about a goal we want to achieve, we send a shot of dopamine to a pleasure center of our brain, which makes us feel almost as if we have already achieved that goal. The satisfaction we can get, just from speaking of what we desire to achieve, subtracts from our drive to actually reach our goal. Subconsciously aware of this, I knew that if I really wanted something, there was reason to guard it carefully and talk to almost no one about it. No distractions.
Good Intentions While Working for God
Moreover, I had experienced well-intentioned business meetings and support groups where inspirational talk or friendly social banter boomeranged about the walls but, after the lights had been shut off and individuals parted ways, no authentic positive change occurred. Good intentions seemed so often to idle away time and even veer people away from what needed to happen.
“’All good feelin’, sir—the wery best intentions, as the gen’lm’n said ven he run away from his wife, ‘cos she seemed unhappy with him,’” as a character in Charles Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers put it.
I had even encountered a number of situations where good intentions were abundant. But the non-profit, ministry, or educational institution failed because of a lack of practical knowledge or technical skills. Their missions stated their deception to bring Christ to the world. But these individuals and institutions wound up manipulating others, leaving bitterness and disillusionment in their wakes.
I still hesitated to think that these do-gooders would wind up in hell. But I saw clear instances of good intentions rationalizing or simply ignoring decisions that caused grave harm. Often, what had been needed was a little less well-intentioned conversation, a little more truth-filled action. Evidently, desiring and wanting and meaning good things wasn’t enough, and execution did matter. A whole lot.
Ways We Choose Our Own Intentions First
G. K. Chesterton wrote, “Only Calvinists can really believe that hell is paved with good intentions. That is exactly the one thing it cannot be paved with.” This is, he said, because things were created by God as good, though they can be twisted by the devil. He makes a fair point. And yet, while they may not literally pave the way to hell, good intentions devoid of the proper object can certainly distract from the work God desires most for us.
This happens when we become so absorbed by work or a volunteer position at our job, parish, or school that we begin to neglect the needs of our family. This happens when we become so committed to getting to daily Mass on time that we neglect the homeless person in our path along the way. While our best-intentioned efforts to glorify God can fall short of the Christian life He calls us to, I firmly believe that what the priest told me that day in Belize is true and serves as a necessary counterpoint to the failure of human intentions. God doesn’t play mind games with us. His intentions for us are good, and they are enough.
Discovering God’s Intentions
God’s intentions are never manipulative and do not lead us to hell. On the contrary, they pave the road to Heaven. In the quiet of our heart, He speaks His intentions for us. His plan for us reverberates in our deepest desires, purest longings, and strongest inner tugs.
As St. Augustine of Hippo, a desiring soul if ever there was one, said:
You do not see yet what you long for, but the very act of desiring prepares you, so that when He comes you may see and be utterly satisfied.
God speaks into and through our desires. The more we strive to align our will to His, the more we can trust our desires. We can be confident that we will not look up one day, bewildered, unexpectedly standing at hell’s gates.
We can never be perfectly certain if we are living God’s intentions for us. But, developing a habit of gentle questioning can refine our desires.
Why do I want to call that friend, take that volunteer position, or hire that particular person?
Is my motivation for sending this text message actually about reaching out to the other, or is it about seeking affirmation?
The Holy Spirit’s Guidance
Asking the Holy Spirit to breathe His desire into ours is at the core of discernment in daily life.
The words are comforting and bear repeating: God does not play mind games with us. His intention is not to manipulate or trick. He wants to guide each person according to the needs of his heart, to draw each heart to fulfillment in His love.
The road to heaven is paved with God’s intentions: How can I better listen to Him speaking His desires into my life?
Savanna J. Buckner is an M.B.A. student at the Saint John Institute in Denver, Colorado. Previously, she spent two years as a missionary teacher at a junior college in Belize, followed by a year of teaching preschool and Catechesis of the Good Shepherd in northern Virginia. She loves film, philosophy, and art, and especially enjoys reading Evelyn Waugh, Czeslaw Milosz, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn.