Discerning the Valuable From the Valueless

Lesson 133, “I will not value what is valueless,” is a fascinating and important lesson. It provides a series of four criteria or tests by which we can decide when we are choosing the valuable and when we are choosing the valueless. At first glance these tests seem like a practical tool for identifying what the right decision is. However, I have heard many Course students, myself included, express puzzlement over how to actually apply these tests to concrete situations in our lives. In this article I would like to clarify these tests and how to apply them on a practical level.

My understanding of this lesson is that it is not a guide for what external decisions we should make. It does not tell us whether or not we should do a particular thing on the outside. Rather, when we choose a particular external form, this lesson identifies for us what content we are choosing within the form. For instance, let’s use the example of me wanting to go out to dinner with someone. What would Lesson 133 say about how I should evaluate that choice?

The two laws

To begin with, this lesson tells me that there are two laws that pertain to my choice, two invariable laws that I have to work within. I have no choice about this. The first law says that, within the shell of this outer form (going to dinner), I have chosen one of two contents. I have chosen one of two thought systems, either the Holy Spirit’s or the ego’s. Regardless of how many options seem to confront me, those are the only two choices that are really open to me. The second laws says that choosing the Holy Spirit’s thought system will deliver me everything, while choosing the ego’s will deliver me absolutely nothing. In summary, then, within my choice to go to dinner, I have either chosen everything or nothing.

The question is: Which have I chosen? How do I know? There is no guidebook in which I can look up all possible activities, find the listing for “going out to dinner,” and read that it is always a choice for the ego. It just doesn’t work that way. So, how do I recognize whether, in the guise of choosing to eat out, I have chosen the inner content of nothing or the inner content of everything?

The four criteria

This is where the four criteria come in. Their purpose is to help us identify which of the two alternatives we have actually chosen. It is not a question of what form we have chosen, but why we chose that form. What were our reasons? What was the real prize we were going after?

Let’s go through the four criteria now and apply each one of them to my example. As we do, we will see that they are an integrated whole, with each one leading into the next, and all of them constituting an interrelated system.

1.”If you choose a thing that will not last forever, what you chose is valueless”(6:1).

When I chose to go to dinner, what was I really choosing? What was the prize I was seeking? Chances are that, if I’m a normal person, I want some good food, I want some pleasant conversation, and I want to be treated right by the person I am with.

Do any of these things last forever? Obviously not. The food is gone in a matter of minutes. The conversation is over by the end of the evening. And getting treated right lasts only so long as the treatment is occurring. All of these things are extremely short-lived. All of them, therefore, fall in the category of the valueless. By choosing them I have chosen nothing.

2.”If you choose to take a thing away from someone else, you will have nothing left” (7:1).

This criterion is subtly linked to the first. If the prize we are seeking is something external, then it usually has to be taken from someone else. Let’s look at my dinner example. Perhaps I pressured the person I’m with to give me her time, and she consented even though she had other pressing responsibilities. I have taken not only from her but from those she had to neglect in order to spend time with me. Perhaps I have subtly let her know that if she doesn’t treat me the way I want I will punish her (with anger, recrimination, sullenness, withdrawal, etc.). Again, I have taken from her. Perhaps the money I am spending on dinner would be better spent on a less frivolous need, on something that will benefit another. Perhaps I will take the waiter’s time and effort without adequately tipping him.

In short, if I’m seeking after externals, I will naturally be trying to take them away from their current owners in order to have them for myself. That is how it works when the prize is something my eyes can see.

Trying to take from others is yet another sign that what I have chosen is actually nothing. Why? Because once I take from another, somewhere in my mind I convene my own court of justice. In that court, I convict myself, judging myself unworthy of the gifts of God. They are the only gifts I really want, but now I am convinced that I am too sinful to have them. After all, I stole from my brother. So, even though God’s gifts are within me, I will not see them, for I have denied that a sinner like me can have them. And without them, I have nothing. In summary, when I take from another, I end up feeling like I deserve, and have, nothing.

3.”Why is the choice you make of value to you?…What purpose does it serve?” (8:2,4).

This means: In making your choice, were you trying to serve the ego’s goals or the Holy Spirit’s? This still sounds a little vague. It becomes much clearer if we look at it in light of the previous two points. When you are seeking an external thing (whether it be time, particular behaviors, or some tangible thing like food), and trying to take that thing away from another person, you are not just serving some generic ego thought system, you are trying to serve your own ego. You are trying to serve your needs at the expense of another’s. This is what we usually call being selfish or self-serving. That, I believe, is what this test is about. Were you trying to serve your ego’s needs, seen as separate from the needs of others? Were your motives truly loving, or were they self-centered?

This is the point about which we are most likely to fool ourselves (8:5). Do we really want to admit how self-serving our motives are? How many people can you count on to be totally honest about exactly why they did what they did? Don’t you routinely assume that most people will try to put a halo of innocence over their attempt to serve their own ego? This is exactly what the lesson says we ourselves try to do (see 8:7).

Let’s return again to the dinner example. Why did I really go? More specifically, whose needs was I trying to serve? Again, the odds are that I was trying to serve my own needs, seen as separate from my companion’s. Let’s be honest, it was really mostly about me—my pleasure, my comfort, and my satisfaction.

But do I want to admit that? No. I will do my best to virtually plaster that ugly fact over with halos, making my act appear loving, generous, considerate, and altruistic. This may fool others, and it may even fool myself, but it won’t really. Deep down, I will know exactly why I did what I did. In that sober and honest place in my mind, I will be staring straight at my real motives, and realizing just how conniving and self-aggrandizing they really were.

Yet even though I have peeled away one deception, I will still be caught in another. For I will assume that I have actually served my ego, and gained from doing so, and so have become just as dirty as it is. I will feel that I have increased the devil’s bank account and been paid handsomely for doing so, and have thus become the devil’s accomplice. What I did will seem like no innocent mistake. It will seem like a genuine sin. These lines express the idea perfectly:

Yet though he tries to keep [his ego’s] halo clear within his vision, still must he perceive its tarnished edges and its rusted core. His ineffectual mistakes appear as sins to him, because he looks upon the tarnish as his own, the rust a sign of deep unworthiness within himself. (10:1-2)

In other words, there are two levels of deception here. On the surface, I am deceived into thinking that my motives were innocent and altruistic. Beneath that, I know better; I know that I was looking out for number one. But even here I am deceived, for I think that, by serving the ego, I served something real, and that, in the process, I became it. Now, as the passage above says, I am deceived into thinking that its tarnish is my own.

If that is how I end up feeling, how could I have possibly gained? By choosing to pursue the ego’s goals, I have really ended up with nothing.

4.”If you feel any guilt about your choice, you have allowed the ego’s goals to come between the real alternatives” (11:2).

Do you see how all the points lead up to this one? If the prize you seek is something that will not last forever, some external thing, situation or event (Criterion #1), you will probably end up having to subtly (or not-so-subtly) take it away from another (Criterion #2). If you do that, no matter how well-intentioned you try to make yourself look, you will know in your heart that your motives were self-serving. You will know that you tried to serve your ego (Criterion #3). And you will feel guilty (Criterion #4). Guilt is the end result of the process. It is the sign that the other three tests have gone in favor of the ego. In essence, it is the evidence that you have tried to satisfy your “self” at the expense of the happiness of others.

Let’s return to my dinner example. If my goal was to satisfy my ego, and I was hoping to do so by taking from others, then I may leave the evening feeling great pleasure, but underneath that pleasure there will be a disquiet. No matter how good the food was, how interesting the conversation, and how well my dinner partner treated me, I won’t feel right with myself. I may not call this feeling guilt, but that is what it is. I will feel an unsettling perturbance eating away inside me, a vague self-loathing. I probably won’t even know where it’s coming from, but when the evening is over and the food and the conversation are gone, that feeling is what I have left. How many of us don’t know this experience?

The lesson says that we will find this criterion “the hardest to believe” (11:1). And this is true. What if, for instance, you are sure you did the right thing and you still feel guilty? Does that mean you did the wrong thing? Remember, these criteria don’t tell you what you should do on the outside. They tell you what content you have chosen on the inside. Even if your behavior was right and responsible and appropriate, that doesn’t mean that your motives were pure. And your motives are the sign of the real inner content you chose. You were probably still trying to get other people to sacrifice, so that you could have some desired thing of the world, in order to satisfy your separate interests. As long as you feel guilty, that was part of what was going on inside you. It may not have been all of it. But if it were none of it, if you knew that you were desiring only the pure and perfect happiness of everyone involved, would there be room for you to feel any guilt?

Just because you are feeling guilty, however, doesn’t mean that the guilt is deserved. Remember, guilt is self-deception. If you are feeling guilt, it is because you have forgotten that there are only two alternatives: nothing and everything. You have been fooled into thinking that there is a third, in-between alternative: that you can serve the ego’s goals and bite into its delicious but forbidden fruit. Guilt comes from forgetting that you are biting into nothing but air.

We have now covered the wrong choice, but what about the right choice? What would it look like to choose the Holy Spirit’s thought system and thereby choose everything? That takes much less time to explain, though it is also much less familiar.

In this case, I go to dinner not caring about the food or the atmosphere, not caring if I get treated well or if the conversation is just right. What I care about is seeing the eternal in my dinner partner and conveying this beautiful vision to her through my kind words, loving attitudes, and generous actions. Now what I am seeking will last forever (Criterion #1). Imagine that. While in this world I can choose what will last forever; I can choose the eternal in another person. I certainly don’t have to take this away from anyone else (Criterion #2). And since I have stolen from no one, I will believe in my own rights; specifically, in my own right to enjoy the gifts of God. Further, I not only haven’t taken, I have blessed. Seeing the eternal in my companion benefits everyone. It helps awaken everyone to the eternal in them. Thus, everyone gains from my choice and no one loses. This means that I am not trying to serve my separate interests, my ego (Criterion #3). Given all this, what on earth would I feel guilty about (Criterion #4)?

In sum, I have made the perfect choice. I have chosen what lasts forever, what affirms my right to happiness and what leaves me without a trace of guilt. I have chosen what the Course says is the happiest experience I can have in this world:

Can you imagine how beautiful those you forgive will look to you? In no fantasy have you ever seen anything so lovely. Nothing you see here, sleeping or waking, comes near to such loveliness. And nothing will you value like unto this, nor hold so dear. Nothing that you remember that made your heart sing with joy has ever brought you even a little part of the happiness this sight will bring you. For you will see the Son of God. (T-17.II.1:1-7)

By choosing to see the eternal in my brother, I have indeed chosen everything.

I hope this article has provided some understanding of how this lesson’s criteria apply in our lives. The criteria are not there to answer what we should do on the outside, but rather what content we should choose on the inside.

The real question now is: Will we use these criteria? Will we subject our own choices to these tests? In the days I have been working on this article I have found the use of these tests to be a sobering process. Applying them means having to face just how ego-driven my choices are. When I have chosen to do something and find myself looking forward to it, what I look forward to is usually not the experience of the eternal. I can honestly say that that is often a part of it. But most of it? I don’t think so.

And that is the point of these tests. They make us aware. They make us aware that our ordinary choices, day-in and day-out, amount to choosing nothing. These tests also show us what to choose: something eternal, which we don’t need to take from anyone else, which doesn’t serve our ego at the expense of others, and which doesn’t saddle us with guilt. Applying these criteria on a consistent basis doesn’t mean we will be instantly forced to always choose the eternal, while simultaneously giving up any internal investment in good food and pleasant conversation. After all, knowing what excessive smoking or drinking does to your body doesn’t necessarily mean that you will instantly quit and choose health instead. But it does hasten the day when you will make that choice.


[Please note: ACIM passages quoted in this article reference the Foundation for Inner Peace (FIP) Edition.]