My fiancée, Patricia, who has a Mexican Catholic background, recently asked me what the Course says about the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments were an important part of her faith growing up, and she wanted a Course perspective on them.
The more I thought about the idea, the more I liked it. The Ten Commandments, after all, are one of the cornerstones of Western morality and ethics. Their meaning and the role they play in society continues to be debated to this very day, as we’ve seen for instance in the controversies over displaying the Ten Commandments in US courthouses. Since they are so influential, and we at the Circle have never written about them, I thought it would be an excellent topic to explore.
In the Bible, there are two versions of the Ten Commandments: Exodus 20:2-17 and Deuteronomy 5:6-21. I’ll use the classic King James version of the Exodus passage. Different Christian denominations subdivide the commandments in different ways; I’ll use the divisions favored by most Christians. As for the Course, there are references to some of the commandments, but not very many references overall. Therefore, I will do a lot of speculating on what the Course might say about these commandments, in the spirit of its own reinterpretation of biblical verses. After all, if it can give a positive interpretation to “Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord” (see T-3.I.3:1), I’m sure it can shed new light on all of these commandments.
Let’s now begin our tour of the Ten Commandments.
1. Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
Originally (at least according to many biblical scholars), this commandment was given in a polytheistic world where each nation had its own god. Thus, originally this commandment was saying that, while other nations might appropriately worship their own gods, the Israelites should worship only the God of Israel. Later on, when Israel developed a true monotheism, this commandment came to mean worshiping the God of Israel as the only true God, the only God who actually exists. In conservative Christian contexts today, it often means to worship the Christian God who (in their view) is the only real God, rather than the “gods” of other religions. That being said, modern Jews and Christians alike can also read it in a more metaphorical way, saying for instance that we should worship God rather than the “god” of alcohol, money, etc.
I think the Course would agree with the more literal interpretation of this commandment in a genuine sense: Our devotion should be to God alone, the only true God, rather than other “gods,” which are false. Of course, the true God the Course has in mind is not the God of any particular religion, but the God who in its view is the true spirit behind all religions and paths of awakening: the God it calls our loving Father, the God of Love. There are many ways to be devoted to this true God, including ways that make no reference to “God”; as the Course says, teachers of God “come from all religions and from no religion” (T-4.III.6:6). What all teachers of God have in common, as the Psychotherapy supplement says, is simply that they teach forgiveness rather than condemnation (see P-2.II.1).
What, then, are the rival “gods” the Course doesn’t want us to have before the true God? I don’t think it is too concerned with the pagan gods of old. Rather, I think it goes much more in the direction of those Jews and Christians who warn against the “gods” of alcohol and money. Indeed, the Course speaks often of various “gods” that we believe have power over us, gods that we both fear because of what they might do to us and pray to because of what we hope they’ll give us. This includes both apparently terrifying gods like the god of sickness and the god of death, and apparently appealing gods like the god of specialness and the god of physical pleasure.
All of these, the Course says, are gods we fear and worship in place of the true God. But the ultimate god the Course wants us to turn away from is the false god that is the root of all apparent evil: the ultimate god of the separation, the ego. Indeed, “Allegiance to the denial of God is the ego’s religion” (T-10.V.3:1), and the other gods are simply subordinate gods in the pantheon of the ego’s religion. The Course tells us that “the ego’s fundamental wish is to replace God” (W-pI.72.1:1), and all of the other gods in its service have the purpose of carrying out this wish. This wish, the wish to place the ego before God, is the ultimate wish to be undone.
This is by far the Course’s favorite commandment to quote. Here are some passages that give the flavor of the Course’s take on it:
You could accept peace now for everyone, and offer them perfect freedom from all illusions because you heard His Voice. But have no other gods before Him or you will not hear. (T-10.III.8:2-3)
If God has but one Son, there is but one God. You share reality with Him, because reality is not divided. To accept other gods before Him is to place other images before yourself. (T-10.III.10:1-3)
Only at the altar of God will you find peace. And this altar is in you because God put it there. His Voice still calls you to return, and He will be heard when you place no other gods before Him. (T-10.III.11:1-3)
If God created you perfect, you are perfect. If you believe you can be sick, you have placed other gods before Him. (T-10.IV.1:4-5)
See in the special relationship nothing more than a meaningless attempt to raise other gods before Him, and by worshipping them to obscure their tininess and His greatness. (T-16.V.13:1)
Yet God’s way is sure. The images I have made cannot prevail against Him because it is not my will that they do so. My will is His, and I will place no other gods before Him. (W-pI.53.5:5-7)
In prayer you overlook your specific needs as you see them, and let them go into God’s Hands. There they become your gifts to Him, for they tell Him that you would have no gods before Him; no Love but His. (S-1.I.4:3-4)
What we see again and again in these passages is the idea that our decision to worship these false gods – like the god of sickness, the god of specialness, and all myriad gods we have made out of the things of the world — blocks the real God from our awareness. The real God alone will give us the peace, the freedom, the joining, the perfection, the completion, the love we all seek. We are called, then, to place no other gods before Him, so that we may recognize Him and all of His true gifts to us once again.
Why, then, have no other gods before God? As you can see, it isn’t because He’s “jealous” and wants to rule us with an iron fist. It isn’t because we have to give up all the fun our other gods can provide in order to appease the stern Taskmaster. No, in the Course’s view, we should give up these other gods because they do not make us happy. The true God, the God of Love, wills only the happiness of everyone; the false gods we worship in His place, especially the ego from which they all spring, have given us nothing but sickness, suffering, and death. Having no other gods before God, then, is simply the way to be happy.
Why not, then, be devoted to God alone, especially since, because all the other gods are illusions, we can’t really worship them anyway? As the Course says, “Thou shalt not have any gods before Him because there are none” (T-4.III.6:6). Why waste our time worshiping illusions that make us miserable when we could give ourselves completely to our loving Father Who brings us pure joy?
2. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.
This, of course, is very similar to the first commandment – so similar, in fact, that in some versions of the commandments it is part of the first commandment. Originally it meant not to make an image of the God of Israel (or, of course, any other god). So many of the other nations in that time had made images (idols) of their gods to worship. But Israel was not to do this. Today, of course, just as with the first commandment, many Jews and Christians warn in a more metaphorical way against the “idols” we worship in place of the true God, Who cannot truly be pictured or captured in any finite thing.
The Course’s take on this, commandment, I think, is pretty much the same as with the previous one. Of course, it wouldn’t want us to literally worship stone idols (not even the beautiful Red Rocks of Sedona), but I don’t think it’s too concerned about that. Instead, as we’ve already seen, it wants us to stop worshipping the ego and all of its subordinate gods. Indeed, those gods are sometimes depicted in the Course as graven images; speaking of the god of cruelty, the Course says, “though his lips are smeared with blood, and fire seems to flame from him, he is but made of stone” (W-pI.170.7:2). The ego itself is a false self-image, a stone idol of sorts, and the Course calls upon us to worship it no more.
The Course, in fact, speaks often of our worship of “idols.” In Course terminology, an “idol” is anything we turn to other than God to fulfill our perceived needs. As I’ve said, the ego itself is an idol, and so are the things we gather around us to serve the ego, things like those in this list from the Course: “pills, money, ‘protective’ clothing, influence, prestige, being liked, knowing the ‘right’ people, and an endless list of forms of nothingness that you endow with magical powers” (W-pI.50.1:3). We have even made our brothers into idols, especially in our special relationships with them; “[Your brother] has become to you a graven image and a sign of death” (T-30.VI.10:4). We worship these things, put them on our inner altars, thinking that they, not God, will bring us the happiness we seek. “All these things are your replacements for the Love of God” (W-pI.50.2:1).
And precisely because they are replacements for the Love of God, they don’t really bring us the happiness we seek. Oh, we tell ourselves that they do, and so we hold onto them with grim determination to keep the true God away: “God is not jealous of the gods you made, but you are” (T-10.III.8:4). But the fact is, all they really do is make us miserable. This misery takes many forms, but it is rooted in the fact that our attempts to collect idols for ourselves are attacks on God and all our brothers, and thus all they really bring us is guilt: “There never was a time an idol brought you anything except the ‘gift’ of guilt. Not one was bought except at cost of pain, nor was it ever paid by you alone” (T-30.V.10:3-4).
This, of course, is why we should give them up. It is why the Course says to us in its practice instructions for Lesson 110, “Let graven images you made to be the Son of God instead of what he is be worshipped not today” (W-pI.110.9:3). Again, giving up idols isn’t a sacrifice to the demands of a jealous God. Instead, exchanging idols for the Love of God is for our happiness – it is in fact the only thing that will bring happiness to us and everyone else. We cannot really have idols anyway, for they are completely unreal: “What is an idol? Nothing!” (T-29.VIII.5:1). Why not exchange these bits of nothingness that bring us pain for the loving Father Who alone can bring us joy?
3. Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain.
In popular understanding, this commandment has come to mean that you shouldn’t swear, especially in a way that includes a reference to God, like “God damn it!” This is almost certainly not what it originally meant, but what it did originally mean is a topic of intense debate. Some say it prohibited making false oaths in God’s name; it meant, in essence, “do not swear falsely by the name of God.” Others say that it prohibited using God’s name in any frivolous manner, or in magical or occult practices. Whatever the truth of the matter is, what all of these ideas have in common (even the popular understanding) is the idea that this commandment prohibits using God’s name in way that disrespects or dishonors God.
The historical Jesus appears to be referring to this commandment in the Sermon on the Mount and, as is typical of him, he offers a stricter version of it:
Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, “Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.” But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all.…All you need to say is simply “Yes” or “No”; anything beyond this comes from the evil one. (Matt. 5:33-34, 37)
This has been interpreted a number of ways, but the essence seems clear: Rather than swearing an oath that you’re telling the truth (which implies that when you don’t swear an oath, you might not be telling the truth), just tell the truth. Period.
The Course doesn’t have any specific reference to this commandment. I don’t think the author of the Course cares too much about whether we use naughty words, like those seven words in the famous George Carlin comedy routine. But I think he would have us turn away from angry swearing, not so much because of the exact words used, but precisely because it is angry. Think about it: If you are calling upon God to “damn” someone, is that not an attack? And of course, given the Course’s insistence on honesty on all levels (see M-4.II; I’ll discuss this in more detail in my commentary on the ninth commandment), it would not want us to swear false oaths by God or anything else.
On a deeper level, I see a Course parallel with this commandment in its teachings about the Name of God. In the Course’s view, the Name of God is the Name all of us share, the one true Name of everything (for discussions of this, see especially Workbook Lessons 183 and 184). When we separated from God, though, we made an illusory separated world and gave that world apparent reality by naming everything in it: “The nameless things were given names, and thus [apparent] reality was given them as well” (W-pI.184.1:4). The Name of God we all share was replaced by thousands of names for nothingness which seem to give reality to this world that “was made as an attack on God” (W-pII.3.2:1).
If you think about it, this was in a sense a violation of this commandment against taking God’s name in vain. It was an act of dishonoring His Name (though of course He isn’t angry about it), even an act of idolatry, since by naming the things of the world we make them “gods” in their own right. So, from the Course’s standpoint, it could be said that we can obey this commandment by seeing past the false names we have given everything to the true Name of God shared by everything. We can choose to see past separation to Oneness. This is the goal of the practice of repeating the Name of God in Lessons 183 and 184: “Repeat His Name, and see how easily you will forget the names of all the gods you valued. They have lost the name of god you gave them” (W-pI.183.4:3-4).
Why not do this, since the Name of God represents everything that makes us truly happy, and giving worldly things the name of god is truly “in vain” anyway, since they don’t even exist?
4. Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.
Originally this was a prohibition against working on the seventh day of the week, the Sabbath day, which was Saturday (strictly speaking, from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday). Because Genesis says that God rested on the seventh day after creating the world, His followers should do likewise. Orthodox Jews still follow this injunction. Christians retained the custom of resting one day a week, but changed it to their holy day, Sunday. They even called this day the “Sabbath,” even though the original Sabbath was clearly Saturday (which Christian denominations like the Seventh Day Adventists still adhere to).
I don’t think the author of the Course has anything against us working on Saturday or Sunday or any other day. This commandment, too, has no real reference in the Course that I can find. But I do find a parallel idea in the Course, an idea that is both a move from a behavioral to a mental injunction and a great expansion of the injunction. The idea is this: Rather than setting aside one day a week to devote to God instead of working, the Course would have us devote every day to God, even while we’re working.
I see this theme, for instance, in the “I Need Do Nothing” section of the Text (T-18.VII). In that section, we are asked to set aside the activities of the body and enter into a holy instant, an instant in which we step out of time and space and “do nothing.” This is reminiscent of this commandment, since it is a holy instant (a time spent with God), and one in which we do nothing. But then, the section speaks of what is to happen afterwards: “This quiet center, in which you do nothing, will remain with you, giving you rest in the midst of every busy doing on which you are sent” (T-18.VII.8:3). So here, the quiet holy time with God is meant to continue beyond the time we had set aside, to remain with us even while we are engaged in busy doings.
I also see a parallel to this commandment in the Workbook’s emphasis on having an ideal day, which in its view is a day spent entirely with God, regardless of what you are doing on the outside. Part of that ideal day is setting aside quiet times in which we “rest in God” (W-pI.109.Heading), but it also involves bringing that quiet time into the business of the day. This is exemplified in lessons like Lesson 232, “Be in my mind, my Father, through the day.” Indeed, the goal is to eventually spend every instant with God: “In time, with practice, you will never cease to think of Him, and hear His loving Voice guiding your footsteps into quiet ways, where you will walk in true defenselessness” (W-pI.153.18:1).
Again, the Course’s goal is not for us to merely stop working one day a week and devote it to God, but for us to devote every instant to God, even while we’re working. And we do this not to imitate His “resting” at the end of the world’s first week, but because it makes us happy and in truth we are already with God, whether we realize it or not. “This is as every day should be” (W-pII.232.2:1), because this is as every day actually is: Every day is holy, for we have never left God’s loving embrace.
5. Honor thy father and thy mother
This commandment is relatively straightforward. In ancient societies especially, the bonds of family were important; people depended on their family for support, protection, and their position in life. Honoring, respecting, and obeying the parents (especially the father; the inclusion of the mother here is unusual in patriarchal cultures) was a crucial way of keeping society together. Today, of course, honoring your father and mother is still regarded as highly positive. “Family values,” however defined, are still important to us.
This is another commandment the Course doesn’t specifically reference. But needless to say, given the Course’s emphasis on loving everyone, I’m sure its author would be quite happy for us to honor our fathers and mothers. Moreover, in the early dictation to Helen Schucman of material that didn’t make it into the published Course, there is actually a smattering of what could be called “pro-family” quotes. We are told both that “Miracles are a blessing from parents to children” and that “Children are miracles in their own right.” In the material about sex, the Course speaks two people joining together as parents committed to the “joint establishment of a creative home….to enable Souls [their children] to embark on new chapters in their experience, and thus improve their record” (Urtext). Jesus really seems to be a “family values” guy in the best sense of that term. (Though of course, as much as he praises the role of the literal parent, he has an equally worthy role for those who have no children, like Helen and Bill: “Many children who are already here need spiritual parents.”)
As for the Course itself, while it doesn’t speak specifically about honoring your father and mother, it does speaking a lot about honoring. And in typical Course fashion, it expands the concept far beyond just our father and mother. It speaks, rather, of the importance of honoring every member of what it calls the “family of God” (T-1.V.3:8). It speaks occasionally of us honoring God, but far more often it speaks of us honoring each other as members of the Sonship, and even speaks of God, the Holy Spirit, and Jesus honoring us in this way. In the Course’s words, “honor is the natural greeting of the truly loved to others who are like them” (T-3.I.6:3).
What, specifically, does the Course mean by “honoring”? In short, it means to regard each other with great love and respect, because in truth we are all eminently worthy of that love and respect. One way we give this honor, according to the Course, is through giving miracles:
Ultimately, every member of the family of God must return. The miracle calls him to return because it blesses and honors him, even though he may be absent in spirit. (T-1.V.4:1-2)
As you can see, this honoring of everyone (including, of course, your earthly father and mother!) is no small matter. It is the way we return to God: “Today let me give honor to Your Son, for thus alone I find the way to You” (W-pII.280.2:1). It is not a grudging duty we must perform to please God and keep society going. It is nothing less than the way the family of God comes together in joyful reunion. It is the way we return to the Home we never left.
6. Thou shalt not kill.
Like the last one, this commandment seems straightforward at first: Don’t kill anyone for any reason. But of course, there were types of killing that the laws of ancient Israel found quite acceptable, such as killing enemies in war and carrying out the death penalty for many violations of the law. So, its original meaning likely has to do with the crime of one Israelite murdering another; it probably means something like “Do not murder a fellow Israelite.” (Indeed, modern English versions of the Bible often translate it as something like “You shall not murder.”). Nowadays, of course, it is expanded to mean that you shouldn’t murder anyone, not just people of your own country.
This is a commandment that the historical Jesus addressed. He made it more stringent by applying it not only to behavior but to the thought behind the behavior:
You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, “You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.” But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. (Matt. 5:21-22, NIV)
Of course the author of the Course would agree that we shouldn’t kill each other. The Course has nothing good to say about murder or war or the death penalty. Killing in all its forms is a universally negative thing in the Course.
But the Course goes much further. Not surprisingly, if the Course was indeed written by Jesus, it goes the same direction the historical Jesus went, calling for us to let go of not only murderous acts but the murderous thoughts behind them – thoughts that it calls attack thoughts. And from the Course’s standpoint, attack thoughts are not just the obvious angry thoughts that surface occasionally; they include any thought that is not compatible with the God of Love, like “slight irritation, perhaps too mild to even be clearly recognized” (M-17.4:4), or “even a little sigh of weariness, a slight discomfort or the merest frown” (W-pI.167.2:6). These attack thoughts, even the ones that seem mild and fairly benign, are regarded by the Course as thoughts of murder: “Attack in any form is equally destructive….Its sole intent is murder” (T-21.III.1:3, 5).
Not surprisingly, then, in the Course’s view, giving up all attack thoughts is essential to awakening. This relinquishment of attack is “the only way out of fear that will ever succeed” (W-pI.23.Heading-1:1). Indeed, the Course tells us that “Safety is the complete relinquishment of attack. No compromise is possible in this” (T-6.III.3:7-8). It tells us that the only choice we ever have to make is “the choice between miracles and murder” (T-23.IV.9:8).
And, as you can see, we are to do this not simply because it is the right thing to do, but because this is the only thing that will make us happy. Our attack thoughts have brought us nothing but suffering. They are the fuel that keeps the ego’s slaughter house running. Only by replacing attack thoughts with thoughts of love will we find the fearlessness, safety, and happiness our Father intends for us.
Ultimately, our murderous impulses have the goal of killing the Son of God within us, just as the Romans and their collaborators crucified Jesus two thousand years ago. But just as Jesus showed through his resurrection that he could not be killed, so the Course assures us that the Son of God in us is equally invulnerable: “The Son of Life cannot be killed. He is immortal as His Father” (T-29.VI.2:2-3). “Thou shalt not kill” is really “Thou canst not kill.” So, since our murderous thoughts make us miserable and cannot kill what is real in us anyway, why not give them up?
7. Thou shalt not commit adultery.
Strictly speaking, this commandment originally had a very narrow meaning: It meant simply that a man was forbidden to have sexual relations with a woman who was married to someone else. It did not forbid sex between single people or sex between a married man and a single woman (though of course a proper single woman was still expected to be a virgin until marriage). Nowadays, while interpretations vary, this commandment is generally thought to prohibit any sexual activity outside of marriage. (Patricia tells me that the Spanish Catholic version she learned is “No fornicarás,” “Thou shalt not fornicate,” which does forbid all sexual activity outside of marriage.)
This is another commandment the historical Jesus addressed. As he did with “Thou shalt not kill,” he made it more stringent by applying it not only to behavior but to the thought behind the behavior:
You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Matt. 5:27-28, NIV)
And here again, in Course material that was largely edited out of the published Course, the author of the Course goes in the same direction as the historical Jesus. The Course’s author encourages “self-control” regarding sexual behavior, but goes much further, saying that ultimately “the underlying mechanism must be uprooted.” We must ultimately undo the sexual impulse itself – or, to express the point more accurately, we must allow it to be transformed back into the miracle impulse it really is in truth.
To clarify this point, let me draw more from this unpublished Course material on sex, preserved in the Urtext. In its view, “All real pleasure comes from doing God’s Will.” More specifically, all interpersonal pleasure comes from acting upon the miracle impulses deep within our minds – from extending miracles to one another. While this extension of miracles often takes the form of loving behavior, it is at its heart a joining of nonphysical minds. This, and only this, is true interpersonal joining.
But the ego, in its effort to keep true joining from happening, has transformed these miracle impulses to sexual impulses, “misdirected miracle-impulses.” Now, instead of joining minds through miracles, we are trying to join bodies through sex. Now, instead of two people seeing each other as holy Sons of God, “Both people are perceived essentially as ‘objects’ fulfilling their own pleasure drives.” The ego has succeeded in averting real joining of minds by replacing it with a pseudo-joining of bodies.
The answer, as I said, is that we must allow our sexual impulses to be transformed back into miracle impulses. We can do this through our ongoing Course practice, including the practice Jesus himself gives us in this material about sex: “Invite Me to enter anywhere temptation arises. I will change the situation from one of inappropriate sexual attraction to one of impersonal miracle-working.”
And perhaps with this topic more than any other, it is important to stress that following this injunction, or at least moving in its direction as well as we can, is not an act of giving up our fun for the sake of appeasing a stern God or earning some future reward. Throughout its pages, the Course tells us that physical pleasure is not even truly pleasurable, so letting go of our quest for it is really letting go of nothing: “The Holy Spirit does not demand you sacrifice the hope of the body’s pleasure; it has no hope of pleasure” (T-19.IV.B.3:5). In the Course’s view, then, transforming our sexual impulses into miracle impulses is for our happiness right now. Again, all real pleasure comes from doing God’s Will, which means miracle working.
Our true yearning is to genuinely join with one another and, we are told emphatically, “Physical closeness cannot achieve this.” I think we all realize this in our hearts; as much as we may enjoy sex, have we not found that without true, body-transcending love for each other, it is an empty, superficial “pleasure” that leaves us lonelier than ever? Why not let go of an attempt at joining that is doomed to failure, and reclaim the miracle impulses that alone give us the true and joyful joining we really want?
8. Thou shalt not steal.
Interestingly, some scholars believe that this commandment originally prohibited stealing slaves or kidnapping people to enslave them – offenses that, like murder and adultery and unlike ordinary theft, were capital offenses in ancient Israel. That being said, in our modern understanding it has clearly broadened to include any theft of property from one another.
Certainly the Course would agree that stealing from one another is a mistake. It is an attack, and hardly something you would do to someone you loved and regarded as one with you. The ego, though, has made a world in which it seems that stealing of one sort or another is inevitable and necessary for survival. In the ego’s view (to use Robert’s memorable expressions of the ego’s essence), “I am me and you are not” and therefore “I am end and you are means.” In order to meet my needs, I must take from you. Your loss is my gain.
The Course says that even our “loving” relationships, the ones in which there appears to be so much giving, are shot through with this “I am end and you are means” dynamic. They are bargains in which each partner tries to get the best “deal” from the other, to take as much as possible from the other while giving as little as possible in return. In an unforgettable passage, the Course speaks of our conventional “love” relationships as merely “pleasant” covers for unbridled thievery:
An unholy relationship is based on differences, where each one thinks the other has what he has not. They come together, each to complete himself and rob the other. They stay until they think that there is nothing left to steal, and then move on. (T-22.In.2:5-6)
And this stealing is not just (or even primarily) the stealing of physical things: It is the stealing of worth, of innocence, of specialness. It is the attempt to set ourselves apart from and above others, so that we can feel more worthy, more innocent, more special. Indeed, the Course says chillingly, we are trying to steal Heaven itself from each other: “You must be fearful if you believe that your brother is attacking you to tear the Kingdom of Heaven from you” (T-7.VII.8:4). We do believe it, and spend our lives trying to make sure we tear Heaven from him first.
It’s not surprising, then, that the Course doesn’t want us to steal. But what may be surprising is its rationale for not stealing. It doesn’t want us to stop stealing simply because it is wrong to steal from others, though that is certainly true. It wants us to stop stealing because stealing from others is really stealing from ourselves, a guarantee that we will feel deprived. For in the Course’s view, we truly receive for ourselves not what we take from others, but what we give to them. “Giving is receiving” (W-pI.126.7:5). This is an immutable law of the universe, which the Course calls the “law of love”: “that what I give my brother is my gift to me” (W-pII.344.Heading).
This works in both negative and positive forms. In the negative form: If I try to take something away from my brother, I myself will feel deprived. In the Course’s words: “If you choose to take a thing from someone else, you will [feel like you] have nothing left” (W-pI.133.7:1). If you take from another, when you look upon your supposed “treasure” you will find only “an empty place where nothing ever was or is or will be” (W-pII.344.1:3).
In the positive form: If I give true gifts of love to my brothers, I will be filled with the abundance of the spirit: “Yet he whom I forgive will give me gifts beyond the worth of anything on earth. Let my forgiven brothers fill my store with Heaven’s treasures, which alone are real” (W-pII.344.1:6-7). And while this is talking about spiritual gifts, this teaching applies to material things as well, for “things but represent the thoughts that make them” (W-pI.187.2:4). Thus, when we give material things with the thought of true love behind them, we are giving spiritual gifts, and those spiritual gifts will return to us in whatever form (including material forms) we need to serve our own journey to God: “The miracles I give are given back in just the form I need to help me with the problems I perceive” (W-pII.345.1:4).
Therefore, the reason “thou shalt not steal” isn’t just to be good and kind to others no matter how much you end up losing in the process. Instead, it is the way to keep from losing. Everyone gains; no one loses. It is thus for your own happiness, as well as the happiness of everyone else. After all, as the Course tells us, “God has given you everything” (T-4.III.9:2), and what God has given can never be taken away, not from anyone. Why try to steal from others when you already have everything and stealing is actually impossible?
9. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.
Originally, this probably referred to giving false testimony against a fellow Israelite in a legal setting. Bearing false witness was such a grave offense in ancient Israel that the false witness would be forced to submit to whatever punishment the falsely accused would have suffered, including the death penalty. But this commandment’s application has been expanded over time, to the point where now it is often taken to be a blanket prohibition against lying, especially lying about other people. Taken in this way, it is about honesty in general.
Not only would the Course agree that we should be honest with our words, but once again, it goes much further. We see this in the subsection on “Honesty” in the Manual section on the characteristics of God’s teachers (M-4.II). In the Course’s view, our ultimate goal is an honesty so complete that there is absolute consistency between all of our thoughts, words, and deeds:
Honesty does not apply only to what you say. The term actually means consistency. There is nothing you say that contradicts what you think or do; no thought opposes any other thought; no act belies your word; and no word lacks agreement with another. Such are the truly honest. At no level are they in conflict with themselves. Therefore it is impossible for them to be in conflict with anyone or anything. (M-4.II.1:4-9)
Turning to the more specific idea of bearing false witness against your neighbor, the Course actually has several specific references to this commandment. One is a reference to the case we make against ourselves in “God’s Own Higher Court” (T-5.VI.10:4), the case for our sinfulness based on all the awful things we have done in this world. The Course tells us: “There can be no case against a child of God, and every witness to guilt in God’s creations is bearing false witness to God Himself” (T-5.VI.10:3).
Another reference says that we see each brother as a witness for Christ or for the ego (i.e, we see him as Christ or as an ego), depending on what we want to believe about him, and thus what we want to believe about ourselves:
Everything you perceive is a witness to the thought system you want to be true.…You cannot accept false witness of [your brother] unless you have evoked false witnesses against him. If he speaks not of Christ to you [i.e., if he does not look like a witness for Christ to you], you spoke not of Christ to him [i.e., you have chosen not to see him as a witness for Christ]. (T-18.V.18:3, 5-6)
Yet another reference speaks of how we judge against our brothers on the basis of what their bodies do. This passage encourages us to listen to the Holy Spirit’s judgment instead, which looks completely beyond the body:
Let the Voice for God alone be Judge of what is worthy of your own belief. He will not tell you that your brother should be judged by what your eyes behold in him, nor what his body’s mouth says to your ears, nor what your fingers’ touch reports of him. He passes by such idle witnesses, which merely bear false witness to God’s Son. (W-pI.151.7:1-3)
We can see a common theme here, Our judgments of our brothers and ourselves, rooted in the belief that we are “bodies misbehaving,” as Robert likes to put it, are completely false, because the body and the ego that misuses it are completely unreal. When we judge based on what bodies and egos do, then, we bear false witness against our brothers and ourselves, for what we are seeing and claiming to be real is not the truth – and somewhere deep inside, we know it. In truth, we are all really the Christ, the holy Son of God Himself, limitless spiritual beings who are not really bodies at all. To witness truly is to see and affirm only this.
This ties in directly with the more general dishonesty theme we saw above, for this judgment of bodies misbehaving is fundamentally dishonest. “To judge is to be dishonest, for to judge is to assume a position you do not have. Judgment without self-deception is impossible” (M-4.III.2-3). Moreover, it makes us miserable, for if giving is receiving (as we saw above), our condemning judgments against our brothers are condemnations of ourselves, and bring us all the suffering and pain the condemned “deserve.”
Once again, then, we are to refrain from bearing false witness against our brothers not simply because it is the right thing to do, but because it is the way to our own happiness. Besides, we can’t really judge: “In giving up judgment, [the teacher of God] is merely giving up what he did not have” (M-10.2:2). Why not stop bearing false witness, since it makes us miserable and we cannot really judge anyway?
10. Thou shalt not covet…anything that is thy neighbor’s.
The full version of this commandment, which speaks among other things of not coveting your neighbor’s “wife” or “manservant” or “maidservant” (slaves), contains a lot of problems for modern sensibilities. Like all of the Ten Commandments, it was addressed specifically to males, and reflected a society in which women were regarded as property and slavery was regarded as normal. But the spirit of the commandment is something that we can understand in modern times. Don’t covet things that belong to your neighbor, both because it reflects a dissatisfaction with what God has given you, and because coveting often leads to stealing. (Indeed, some interpreters suggest that the Hebrew verb usually translated as “covet” actually means “take.”)
This commandment is very similar to the eighth commandment, the one prohibiting stealing. It is essentially a mental version of that commandment: not only shouldn’t you steal things from your neighbor, you shouldn’t even desire them in your heart. Again, coveting often leads to stealing. Given the similarity of this commandment with the eighth, I think what I said about the eighth applies equally here: Don’t covet anything that is your neighbor’s, because taking from him is only taking from yourself, because any physical thing you want from him is only an illusion with no real value, and because God has already given both of you everything – the infinite gifts of the spirit – anyway. In following these commandments about coveting and taking, “You are being asked for nothing in return for everything” (W-pI.98.3:6). What have we got to lose?
Let me, then, simply end this section with one of the Course’s most beautiful prayers celebrating the fact that giving is receiving, that there is nothing to covet or to take from anyone, because everything is ours eternally:
The end of suffering can not be loss. The gift of everything can be but gain. You [Father] only give. You never take away. And You created me to be like You, so sacrifice becomes impossible for me as well as You. I, too, must give. And so all things are given unto me forever and forever. As I was created I remain. Your Son can make no sacrifice, for he must be complete, having the function of completing You. I am complete because I am Your Son. I cannot lose, for I can only give, and everything is mine eternally. (W-pII.343.1:1-11)
As I look at the commandments as a whole and think about them from the perspective of the Course, I see a rough pattern. The pattern works better with some of the commandments than it does with others, but it seems like a useful way to broadly frame the topic of how the Course views the commandments overall. With each commandment, you have:
- The conventional meaning of the commandment
- The historical Jesus’ more radical interpretation of the commandment (at least with some of the commandments): transforming the commandment from solely a behavioral injunction to a mental injunction
- The Course’s more radical perspective (echoing the historical Jesus): transforming the commandment from solely a behavioral injunction to a mental injunction
- The Course’s incentive for following the commandment: You don’t refrain from doing the prohibited thing as a sacrifice to please a strict God and/or obtain a future reward; rather, you refrain from doing the prohibited thing because this actually brings happiness to you and everyone else right now.
- The Course’s ultimate position: In the ultimate sense, you can’t really do the prohibited thing anyway, so why try?
Let’s look at these in a little more detail. First, you have the conventional meaning of the commandment, which is generally a behavioral injunction. Now in some cases, like not working on the Sabbath, I think the Course is essentially neutral. But with most of these commandments, I think the Course would generally agree with the behavioral injunction. It doesn’t want us to worship idols, to kill, to steal, to lie, or to covet other people’s things. It encourages sexual self-control, and wants us to honor our father and mother.
I think this recognition that the Course agrees in broad terms with these behavioral injunctions is important. Behavior matters to the author of the Course; it is the primary way in which we communicate with our brothers and sisters, and in the Course’s view, all behavior is supposed to communicate love. Most of the behavioral injunctions in the Ten Commandments, setting aside some of the problematic ancient ideas and looking at the essence, are simply ways of expressing love more effectively.
But the Course is concerned with far more than behavior; it is concerned with the mental stance behind the behavior. And so, we see the Jesus of the Course echoing the Jesus of the gospels: The commandment becomes much stricter, being not just about behavior but about our state of mind.
We see this again and again: Don’t just refrain from making stone idols, but see God as the one and only Source of your happiness. Don’t just take a day off from work to honor God, but keep a permanent Sabbath in your heart by devoting every instant to Him even while you work. Don’t just refrain from killing, but give up all attack thoughts. Don’t just refrain from stealing, but realize that any thought of taking from another is a theft from yourself. Don’t just refrain from lying to others, but be entirely honest and completely consistent in thought, word, and deed. Don’t just practice sexual self-control, but transform the sexual impulse entirely, seeing the miracle impulse behind it and truly joining with others through extending miracles. Don’t just honor your father and mother, but honor everyone.
So, the Course actually calls us to adhere to a much stricter version of these commandments than usual. At this point we may be gulping and saying, “That sounds like too tough a hill to climb for me.” If we really try to do this stuff, we tell ourselves, the party’s over. But now we get to the good news: Following these injunctions is for our benefit, as well as everyone else’s. Doing so is what will make us happy. Not worshiping idols or killing or stealing or lying, etc. is not the end of the party, but the end of the prison term. It is the golden road out of our suffering.
I think this is an absolutely critical point. Usually, we follow moral codes like the Ten Commandments with an attitude that goes something like this: “Well, it sure would be fun to do what I want. I have all these urges that are just crying out for expression, and wouldn’t it be great if I could just give them free rein? Ah, but I know better. I want to be a good person, and to do that I just need to rein myself in. I love God and want to please Him, and He is very strict. He might punish me if I don’t obey. So, I need to follow these commandments whether it feels good or not. I need to sacrifice my desires now for the sake of God, and for the sake of my future. If I do so, then hopefully I’ll be happy in the life to come.”
This is, of course, why it feels so hard to follow commandments like these. We are now in a wrestling match between the baser urges and the better angels of our nature. And all too often, the baser urges win, making us feel guilty and convincing us that we’ll never be worthy of that strict Taskmaster, God. Maybe we’ll be happy in the life to come, but the way things are going, we tell ourselves, we may well spend the life to come in a far less happy (and much hotter) place.
The guilt engendered by following the rigid religion of this fearful God can become so acute that it can lead us to give up the enterprise altogether. Many of us, of course, have left this kind of religion behind. Unfortunately, what often happens is that we go to the opposite extreme. In our minds, if the problem is that all these rules make us feel guilty and take away all our fun, then the solution must be to throw away all rules and have as much fun as we can. After all, God wants us to be happy, right? So, no more rules! Enjoy the pleasures of the world. Celebrate the body. Eat, drink, and be merry. Go with the flow. If it feels good, do it. This is an attitude common to much New Age and alternative spirituality, an attitude that transpersonal psychologist Ken Wilber calls “boomeritis” – a religion whose central dictum is, “Don’t tell me what to do!”
Unfortunately from the Course’s standpoint, this is really just a move from one false god to another. We simply exchange the false god of fear and guilt for the false god of superficial worldly pleasure. And on a deeper level, we really haven’t exchanged gods at all, for in the Course’s view, the god of superficial worldly pleasure is just the god of fear and guilt wearing a tempting disguise, a disguise that actually makes him even harder to see for what he really is. Why question a god that is (supposedly) making you feel so good? Thus, since we’re choosing the god of fear and guilt no matter which way we go, in the end we feel miserable, even if we don’t realize it right away.
The Course overcomes the false god of fear and guilt in a completely different way, one which leads us to the real God. In this way, we don’t give up rules. On the contrary, as we’ve seen, in the Course we are asked (though never ordered) to follow rules that are actually far stricter than rules like the Ten Commandments, rules not just for behavior but “rules for decision” (T-30.I), rules that apply not just to outer actions but to inner attitudes.
What’s different is that the Course gives us an entirely different reason for following its rules, a reason completely free of fear and guilt. It says, in essence: “Doing what God wants me to do is what I really want. My will is one with God’s. All real pleasure comes from doing God’s Will. He won’t punish me if I don’t do what He calls me to do; rather, in not doing it, I punish myself. Being truly good is what makes me and all my brothers radiantly happy. The rules I’m asked to voluntarily follow are simply ‘the rules that promise you a happy day’ (T-30.I.7:5). Therefore, I follow God’s injunctions not with trepidation, but with joy. Doing so is not a sacrifice; on the contrary, doing so is how I and all my brothers find happiness right now, happiness that is ever-present in the eternal life that already belongs to all of us.”
Finally, the news gets even better: In truth we can’t even do the things we are called not to do. Oh, we can do them in the ordinary sense of having unloving earthly thoughts and engaging in unloving earthly behavior, as we know all too well. But since the ego and this world are illusions, we can’t really do the things we’re supposed to stop doing. What a relief! We’re not doomed to inevitably fall short of what God calls us to do; on the contrary, “If He asks it, you can do it” (T-14.VII.5:14). We are not sinners by nature; we are holy children of God who are perfectly capable of doing His Will, because His Will and our true will are the same. Doing what God wants us to do is not a bitter fight against our sinful (but oh-so-tempting) nature; it is a step toward living in accord with our true, holy nature. What can be easier – and happier – than living in accord with our true nature?
In following these injunctions, then, we’re sacrificing nothing. As the Course says, “The world has nothing to give. What can the sacrifice of nothing mean? It cannot mean that you have less because of it” (M-13.2:1-3). On the contrary, giving up the things of the world awakens us to the recognition that, as we saw above, “God has given you everything.” Nothing for everything – a pretty easy exchange, is it not?
Thus, what I see in the Course’s take on the Ten Commandments is a move from “Thou shalt not…” (Don’t do this) to “Thou desirest not…” (You don’t really want to do this) to “Thou canst not…” (You can’t really do this). It is a move from rules we have to follow to appease a strict God, to calls to do what will really enable us to find the happiness God wills for us, to profound truths that reveal to us what we actually can and cannot do as creations of an eternally loving Father. Why not, then, follow the commandments in the deepest sense? Why not do what our Father wills with us, and thus do our part to reunite the holy family of God?
[Please note: ACIM passages quoted in this article reference the Foundation for Inner Peace (FIP) Edition.]
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