Reflections on Workbook Lesson 317
[Please note: ACIM passages quoted in this article reference the Foundation for Inner Peace (FIP) Edition.]
Workbook Lesson 317, “I follow in the way appointed me,” is a powerful and beautiful lesson. It is one of the Course’s most direct statements of the idea that each of us has a specific part to play in God’s plan for salvation, and completing that part is essential for the world’s salvation and our own. I have been practicing this lesson frequently lately, so I thought I would share my personal reflections on it and invite you to explore its implications for your life as well. In particular, I want to focus on the first paragraph of this two-paragraph lesson, the commentary paragraph. Robert has already written an excellent article on the second-paragraph prayer (“All My Sorrows End in Your Embrace,” available on the Circle’s website), so I will touch on the prayer only briefly. I hope these reflections will help you get in touch with your own God-given calling to save the world and the priceless rewards of following in the way appointed you.
The commentary paragraph
This paragraph has always been one of my favorites. It both calls us to take on our function as saviors of the world and gives us powerful incentives for doing so. Let’s go through it line by line.
I have a special place to fill; a role for me alone.
This is what the Text calls our special function: “To each [the Holy Spirit] gives a special function in salvation he alone can fill; a part for only him” (T-25.VI.4:2). The Holy Spirit, “seeing your strengths exactly as they are, and equally aware of where they can be best applied, for what, to whom and when” (W-pI.154.2:2), gives each of us a part in God’s plan for salvation that is uniquely suited to us, something that we can do as no one else could. Even our limitations stemming from our current level of development are turned into assets to the plan; as the Psychotherapy supplement says about therapists, “Whatever stage he is in, there are patients who need him just that way” (P-2.I.4:5).
The special function idea has always been immensely comforting to me. When I was growing up, I really had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I chose a college major just because it sounded interesting, and after I graduated I drifted from one job to another without any real sense of purpose. Gradually, though, my life’s purpose of walking the Course’s path and helping others do the same fell into place, and life has never been the same since. A meaningful function is what makes life worth living. And I’m also tremendously reassured by the idea that there are people who need me just the way I am right now. I’m all too aware of my shortcomings and limitations; it’s easy for me to fall into the trap of “I’m such a screw up, how can He possibly use me?” What a relief to find out that He’s got a particular job for me that literally no one else could possibly do better.
This is true of all of us, so think about your own life. Think about your strengths, your unique life situation, and the promptings of your heart. What might be your special place to fill in God’s plan for salvation? What might be the role intended for you alone?
Salvation waits until I take this part as what I choose to do.
This line too echoes the special function material from the Text. Immediately after telling us that each person has a “special function in salvation,” Jesus says, “Nor is the plan complete until he finds his special function, and fulfills the part assigned to him” (T-25.VI.4:3). Think of that: Salvation waits until each and every one of us gets up off the couch, rolls up her sleeves, and sees the unique salvation project she has been given through to completion. None of us is expendable; the Holy Spirit truly needs all hands on deck.
This sentence is a major incentive for me to get off my duff. I can be incredibly lazy, and there’s a part of me that says (especially because I’m such a screw up—see previous point) that the Holy Spirit can handle things just fine without me. But if my laziness is keeping others in bondage, it’s time to get busy. I’ve always been deeply moved by a passage from Lesson 191: “Do not withhold salvation longer. Look about the world, and see the suffering there. Is not your heart willing to bring your weary brothers rest?” (W-pI.191.10:6-8). When I look about the world, I see not only the suffering we all read about in the papers—the earthquake in China, the cyclone in Myanmar—but the daily pains and sorrows all beings experience just by virtue of (apparently) being frail bodies at the mercy of a cruel world. Of course I want to bring my weary brothers rest.
I also see an answer here to a dilemma that is sometimes called “disaster fatigue.” When we look about the world and see how much suffering there really is, we may feel compassion, but we often feel overwhelmed as well. “The problems are so huge and endless and complicated. It all seems so much bigger than me. What can I do?” This sentence, however, is the perfect antidote for this. What can I do? My own part. I needn’t do more than that; indeed, I shouldn’t try to do more than that. I need to trust that others will (eventually) do their parts in the larger plan; my own job is to make sure I do mine, which the Holy Spirit assures me is not overwhelming at all. I will probably find it challenging at times, but it’s something that I’m perfectly capable of doing. After all, it was designed just for me.
We all have a bit of laziness in us, and it’s all too easy to lock the world’s suffering out of our minds. It always feels a bit suspect to me when people tell me with obvious pride that they never watch the news, as if that’s the “spiritual” thing to do. So, you may want to ask yourself: Are my eyes open to the suffering all around me? Is not my heart willing to bring my weary brothers rest? Do I want their salvation to wait? For it does wait until I take my part in God’s plan for salvation as what I choose to do. Am I willing to take this part?
Until I make this choice, I am the slave of time and human destiny.
This line has a deep effect on me, especially that part about being “the slave of time and human destiny.” It echoes other statements in the Course about the wearying effects of time. “Time, with its illusions of change and death, wears out the world and all things in it” (M-1.4:7). The world is “old and tired and ready to return to dust even as you made it” (T-13.VII.3:5). Everywhere around us is relentless decay, dissolution, and death, and we seem powerless to stop it. We really do seem to be the slaves of time and human destiny.
As I look on my own life, it is not difficult to see that. Even at age 44, I am feeling the “crumbling assault of time” (T-13.VII.3:3). (I’m sure older people are chuckling at this—“You think it’s bad now…”) My temples are graying, my aches and pains are growing, and as I observe the hospice patients I work with, I know exactly where I’m going. No matter how much money I make, how many friends I have, how successful my career is, or how many worldly things I accumulate, I truly can’t take it with me. As long as I pursue worldly goals, I will have a meaningless life that ends in death.
This gives me another powerful incentive to take that part God has assigned me. Do I really want my life to be nothing more than an inexorable and futile march to the grave? I can really see that this is all it would be without a function that makes it truly meaningful. Until I do what God calls me to do in this world, until I am “a savior to the holy ones especially entrusted to [my] care” (T-31.VII.8:3), my life will feel empty and hopeless. “Futility of function not fulfilled will haunt you while your brother lies asleep, till what has been assigned to you is done” (T-24.VI.9:3). Fulfilling my function is my only way out of hopelessness, my only chance at real peace and happiness.
You may want to look at your own life from this perspective. As you reflect on where your life is going, can you get in touch with the futility of the pursuit of worldly goals, the meaninglessness of it all, the inevitability of suffering and death? Might taking your part in God’s plan for salvation (or committing to it more fully if you feel you already have taken it) lead to a more meaningful life, to a life that offers a real chance at peace and happiness?
But when I willingly and gladly go the way my Father’s plan appointed me to go,
The key words here are “willingly and gladly.” Even if we do get in touch with how rotten “time and human destiny” are, we still resist God’s plan, because we assume that it would be even worse. It’s such a sacrifice, we tell our-selves; why should we give up our worldly consolations for the grim life of the saint? The Course, however, is adamant that doing God’s Will is not a sacrifice, but in fact the only way to “perfect happiness” (W-pI.101.Heading). The pleasures we cherish in this world are really painful; the stuff we endlessly try to accumulate is really nothing; our worldly “consolations” are really barriers to true consolation. True happiness will only come when we “willingly and gladly give over every plan but His” (T-15.IV.4:2). It will come only when we do our part in that plan.
I love the idea that doing my part in salvation isn’t a sacrifice but the way to happiness, and I’ve found it to be true in my experience. Yet the belief that following God’s Will is a sacrifice of my best interests still persists in a big way. Lately, Robert and I have been marveling at an odd phenomenon: Every time we truly give to other people (which is the means to salvation), we experience a deep happiness that cannot be found any other way. Yet in spite of all this evidence that giving is happiness, we so easily revert to the bedrock assumption of our world that giving is a drain, a loss. What this tells me is that we need to do a lot of giving to overcome our obstinate belief that giving as God would have us do equals sacrifice. One technique I’ve found useful is to make a real effort to remember just how unsatisfying my worldly pursuits have actually been, and how wonderful I’ve felt every time I’ve followed God’s plan for me and truly given to other people. This helps me willingly and gladly do more of the latter.
You may want to examine your own life to see how true this is for you. Think of some of the worldly goals you’ve pursued, and think as well of some of the times that you’ve really felt in touch with your part in God’s plan, the times you’ve selflessly given to others. Which of these things has really made you happy? When you look at the real outcomes here, do you have a greater incentive to willingly and gladly go the way your Father’s plan appointed you to go?
then will I recognize salvation is already here, already given all my brothers and already mine as well.
Here is the big payoff, and it is big indeed. The previous sentences already imply that by doing our part, we’ll save the world and ourselves from slavery to time and human destiny. Our normal assumption is that this means salvation will happen far in the future; we shall overcome someday. But here, we discover that the reward is even better than that: When we accept our God-given part in salvation, we will recognize that salvation for both our brothers and ourselves is already here. True, the plan will still unfold in time, and we won’t see it fully realized in time until everyone does his or her part. But paradoxically, in some real sense it has already been accomplished, and the endpoint can be experienced now. In fact, that endpoint is in some inexplicable way guiding us to its full realization: “In the dream of time [the ending] seems to be far off. And yet, in truth, it is already here; already serving us as gracious guidance in the way to go” (W-Fl.In.2:3-4).
What good news, and what a relief! The fact that the plan is already accomplished means that I can’t really screw it up in a way that will prevent salvation from happening. How can I prevent something that has already happened? Yet though the end result is guaranteed, how quickly the plan unfolds in time (and therefore how much suffering is averted) depends on how soon each of us takes our part, so the paragraph as a whole doesn’t counsel complacency at all. There is a crucial balance between a sense of urgency that we take our part as soon as possible, and a sense of assurance that the attainment of the goal is certain no matter what.
I think we need both aspects: Neither an attitude of “Everyone must do their function perfectly now or we’re doomed” nor “What function? We’re already saved anyway” will do. This final sentence captures that balance perfectly: We must willingly and gladly do our part in God’s plan for salvation in order to truly recognize that salvation is already here. Is this not a recognition you want? What could be more desirable? Doesn’t this make you want to let go of complacency and really do your part?
The beautiful prayer that follows the commentary paragraph is a declaration to God that we have made the decision that paragraph has encouraged us to make. The decision is right there in the prayer’s opening line: “Father, your way is what I choose today.” Indeed, the goal of the entire lesson is to get us to make this crucial choice to follow in the way appointed us.
Throughout the rest of the prayer, we see echoes of themes from the first paragraph. Each of us has a unique assignment, so we need to follow God’s guidance very specifically: “Where [Your way] would lead me do I choose to go; what it would have me do I choose to do.” When we follow this way, salvation will come with certainty to everyone who has suffered through the seemingly endless sorrows of time and human destiny: “Your way is certain, and the end secure. The memory of You awaits me there. And all my sorrows end in Your embrace.” That way must be certain, for salvation is already here; we have never actually left God’s embrace. The Son of God only “thought mistakenly that he had wandered from the sure protection of Your loving Arms.” If we realized all this, how could we not follow His way willingly and gladly?
The prayers in the Course are meant to be actually prayed. So now, with all that we have explored in mind, I invite you to pray this prayer with all the sincerity you can muster. Declare to God that you have chosen the unique role that He has given you in His plan for salvation, today and every day. Don’t worry if you feel your declaration isn’t wholly sincere; just make the decision now, and trust that the very act of affirming it will strengthen your commitment to it. As for God’s help in keeping that commitment. Perhaps today you will discover the priceless joy of realizing you have never really left His loving Arms. At the very least you may find, as I have, that this prayer helps you follow in the way appointed you with more willingness and gladness than you ever thought possible:
Father, Your way is what I choose today. Where it would lead me do I choose to go; what it would have me do I choose to do. Your way is certain, and the end secure. The memory of You awaits me there. And all my sorrows end in Your embrace, which You have promised to Your Son, who thought mistakenly that he had wandered from the sure protection of Your loving Arms. (W-pII.317.2:1-5)