What Does It Mean to Trust Our Brothers?

Deciding whether or not to trust someone is a major issue in our lives. Most of us build up a sense of trust with someone over a long period of time, after countless observations, yet even then our trust is often betrayed. Lesson 181 in the Workbook says that we should trust our brothers and overlook those mistakes of theirs that inspire lack of trust. What does this mean? Is this simply a recipe for being taken advantage of?

Paragraph 1: We won’t trust ourselves until we trust others

Trusting your brothers is essential to establishing and holding up your faith in your ability to transcend doubt and lack of sure conviction in yourself. When you attack a brother, you proclaim that he is limited by what you have perceived in him. You do not look beyond his errors. Rather, they are magnified, becoming blocks to your awareness of the Self That lies beyond your own mistakes, and past his seeming sins as well as yours.

This paragraph tells us two important things. First, we don’t just trust others because we’re being good. Until we trust our brother, we will not be able to trust ourselves. That’s what the first line says. Of course, it usually seems the other way around. We think we need to choose whether we trust him or trust ourselves. Whatever trust we place in one seems to directly undermine the trust we place in the other. But this paragraph is saying the opposite: Unless you learn to trust others, you will not be able to “transcend doubt and lack of sure conviction in yourself.”

The second thing this tells us is that trusting another is a matter of seeing past his errors, past the limits we have perceived in him. It is about catching a vision of the true Self which lies past that outer personality.

Now this seems to me to be different from what we normally mean by trust. What do we normally mean? My sense is that trust usually is an expectation that someone will do the right or appropriate or honorable thing, an expectation based on that person’s track record. If she has generally done the right thing in the past, we can rely on her to do the right thing in the future. Isn’t that what we normally mean by trust? It is an interpretation of someone’s track record, and a projection of that into the future.

Paragraph 2: Theory of perception

Perception has a focus. It is this that gives consistency to what you see. Change but this focus, and what you behold will change accordingly. Your vision now will shift, to give support to the intent which has replaced the one you held before. Remove your focus on your brother’s sins, and you experience the peace that comes from faith in sinlessness. This faith receives its only sure support from what you see in others past their sins. For their mistakes, if focused on, are witnesses to sins in you. And you will not transcend their sight and see the sinlessness that lies beyond.

This paragraph is much more complex than it appears to be. It actually contains a whole theory of perception. Let me see if I can tease that theory out.

  1. Faith: Perception, in this theory, begins with faith. Right now our perception begins with an unconscious faith in sin; particularly, our own sinfulness.
  2. Intent: This faith the gives rise to an intent, an intent to see something that reflects our faith.
  3. Focus: Out of this faith comes a focus—we focus on what we intend (or want) to see. Specifically, we focus on our brother’s mistakes, and by focusing on them, we magnify them. They grow larger in our eyes and appear to be actual sins.
  4. Perception: Our focus determines the reality we see. If we focus on our brother’s mistakes, we end up seeing him as a sinner. Indeed, wherever we look, all we see is sin. Ultimately, we see a sinful world, not because it’s there, but because we intended to see it and focused on it.
  5. Witness: Our perception then turns around and supports our original faith. The sinful world we see is a constant witness to the sinfulness in us. If we see sin out there, that’s like a witness we put on the stand to make the case we want, and, to our surprise, that witness testifies to our guilt.
  6. Self-perception: What our perception of the world witnesses to in us then becomes our self-perception. We see our own guilt. We see our own sinfulness. We don’t trust ourselves.

The paragraph points out, however, that all of this can go the other direction. We can start out with faith in our sinlessness. We will then have the intent to look on a different reality, a sinless reality. We will look past our brother’s errors and focus on the holiness that lies beyond them. This will call down true vision, which will open our eyes and show us the sinless reality beyond our brother’s errors. This will then witness to our own sinlessness. And so we will finally trust ourselves.

Here again trust is tied to seeing sinlessness in someone, a sinless that exists beyond their errors, rather than instead of their errors. Is “trust” really the right word for this? Let’s look at the definition of trust. Here is the first definition in my dictionary: “reliance on the integrity, strength, ability, surety, etc., of a person or thing” (Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary). This isn’t from the Course; it’s from the dictionary. And even here we find that trust is not primarily about what someone will do in a particular instance. It’s really about our assessment of the person. If we boil that definition down to its simplest terms, trust is reliance on a basic goodness of character. When we really trust someone, isn’t it the case that we have come to rely on that person’s basic goodness of character?

The Course is saying the same thing, only it is deepening the notion of character. What the Course is calling trust is reliance on the basic goodness of someone’s nature. In its view, underneath what we call character, there is someone’s true nature, their real character. That’s what we need to trust. And this basic goodness of nature exists regardless of how many mistakes they make in this world, regardless of their track record.

I think we all know what it’s like to trust a basic goodness in someone, regardless of their mistakes and screw-ups. If we really trust someone, there’s room for lots of mistakes without our trust being shattered. We simply have faith that, in the end, their basic goodness will show through and carry the day. That is exactly what we are doing when we trust people in the way this lesson is talking about. Only we are trusting something in them that is currently so deep and hidden, that right now it may not show through at all.

The analogy that comes to mind is the roots of a huge tree running under asphalt. In the end, which are you going to rely on, the strength of the asphalt or the strength of the tree root? So it is with other people. Their ego is the asphalt, their true Self is the tree root.

Another analogy comes to mind. In the original dictation of the Course, Jesus said this to Helen and Bill:

After you have passed the course, you will accept it and keep it and use it. That is the final exam, which you will have no trouble in passing. Midterm marks are not entered on the permanent record.

Imagine that you are a teacher and you have a student that is doing poorly. His midterm marks are terrible. Yet you see something in him, you see a potential. Based on what you see, you as the teacher would trust the child to eventually do well in your class. You’d be relying on his basic strength as a student. And yet, this trust would have nothing to do with his track record. It would be based on something that has not yet shown up in his track record. That is the trust that the Course is talking about, and that kind of trust heals.

I remember a story about a government-sponsored educational program for inner city boys. It was supposed to help them rise above their poverty once they became adults. A study was done, many years later, on how successful it had been. They didn’t find a great deal of success. However, they found a whole collection of men from the program who had risen far beyond the rest. They were successful lawyers and businessmen. The researchers puzzled over this and then found that all of these were taught by the same teacher. This teacher, it turned out, was still alive, so they went and asked her what her secret was. She said, “That’s easy. I loved those boys.” She saw something in them the rest didn’t see, something not visible in their midterm marks, and that is what she relied on, that is what she trusted.

Exercise: Think of someone you don’t trust. Why don’t you trust this person?

Now think of someone you do trust, despite their mistakes. Isn’t it because you see a basic goodness in this person?

Now try to imagine that the same underlying goodness that makes the second person reliable in your eyes is there in the first person, only more buried, or at least more hidden to your eyes. Imagine the goodness in this person as the tree root, and the ego as the asphalt. Imagine the tree root eventually breaking through the asphalt. Imagine that, in the process, it reveals that the asphalt was only an illusion.

Consider the possibility that your image of the first person is not that person at all, but an image that you’ve conjured up with your focus on his or her mistakes.

Paragraph 3

Therefore, in practicing today, we first let all such little focuses give way to our great need to let our sinlessness become apparent. We instruct our minds that it is this we seek, and only this, for just a little while. We do not care about our future goals. And what we saw an instant previous has no concern for us within this interval of time wherein we practice changing our intent. We seek for innocence and nothing else. We seek for it with no concern but now.

We carry all of the teaching we have just had into our practicing of this lesson. In this practice, we lay aside our focus on our brothers’ mistakes, realizing that this will carry us straight into self-loathing. We instead focus on our need and desire to see our own sinlessness. The practice appears to be a meditation aimed at looking within upon our sinlessness.

Paragraphs 4 and 5

A major hazard to success has been involvement with your past and future goals. You have been quite preoccupied with how extremely different the goals this course is advocating are from those you held before. And you have also been dismayed by the depressing and restricting thought that, even if you should succeed, you will inevitably lose your way again.

How could this matter? For the past is gone; the future but imagined. These concerns are but defenses against present change of focus in perception. Nothing more. We lay these pointless limitations by a little while. We do not look to past beliefs, and what we will believe will not intrude upon us now. We enter in the time of practicing with one intent; to look upon the sinlessness within.

What he’s talking about here is resistance to change. By trying to look within upon our sinlessness, we are challenging the current system. We are going for regime change. And, as the Text points out, when you do this, you are “threatening the ego’s whole defensive system too seriously for it to bother to pretend it is your friend” (T-21.IV.3:3). Something in you is going to cleverly reason you out of this change, and you won’t realize it is the ego’s voice luring you back into its arms.

What will it say? Two things. First, it will say that this idea of you as sinless is just too much of a change from the past. You’re an old dog; you can’t learn new tricks. Further, making your sinlessness your goal will mean that you have to be all meek and mild and non-attacking, which will mean that you basically get run over. Isn’t it better to go for the good life and rack up a little guilt along the way?

Second, it will say that, even if for this moment you happen to reach up into the stratosphere, how long will you stay there? Let’s face it: sooner or later you will fall back down to earth. You won’t be able to hang onto this moment of grace. So why even have it?

Discussion: Have you had a voice in your head like this giving you reasonable excuses to not choose something new in the present?

Concerns about the past and future, though, are concerns about what is not there. “The past is gone; the future but imagined.” Concerns about them divide and weaken our intent to experience something new right now. We can only enter into this moment with single intent if we forget these concerns about past and future.

Paragraph 6

We recognize that we have lost this goal if anger blocks our way in any form. And if a brother’s sins occur to us, our narrowed focus will restrict our sight, and turn our eyes upon our own mistakes, which we will magnify and call our “sins.” So, for a little while, without regard to past or future, should such blocks arise we will transcend them with instructions to our minds to change their focus, as we say:

It is not this that I would look upon.
I trust my brothers, who are one with me.

We are still getting instructions about the practice period. So, in this practice period, while we are looking within, trying to catch a glimpse of our sinlessness, we suddenly start thinking about a brother’s mistakes and feeling angry. This again is the old regime trying to retain power, trying to put down this insurgency.

The problem is that, if we let this focus on our brother’s mistakes remain, we will lose trust in ourselves. How does this happen? It’s what we saw in that theory of perception earlier: By focusing on our brother’s mistakes, we will magnify them and call them sins (1:4). This will then turn our eyes upon our own mistakes, which we will also magnify and call sins (6:2). And, as I expect we all know, a sinner cannot trust himself.

This brings up the issue of trusting ourselves. The same definition of trust holds here as it did with trusting others. Trusting ourselves is less a matter of trusting what we will do than it is a matter of relying upon the basic goodness of our nature. So, we may think that trusting ourselves is about being able to rely on ourselves to carry through with our new diet, or to complete a task on time. But it really goes deeper than that. It’s about trusting ourselves to be truly loving, patient, kind, considerate, generous. This is the kind of trust the Course is talking about, and this is the trust we lack in ourselves.

For example, I remember Ram Dass talking about caring for his ailing father. He was talking about going to see his parents after years of spending years in spiritual disciplines. He said, “For the first thirty seconds, you’re the Buddha.” And then of course, after that, he was 15 years old again, getting angry and impatient, feeling and acting like a kid. And of course, we are the same. After watching ourselves countless times hoping to be the Buddha and then turning into the immature teenager, we have little trust in the Buddha in us.

That is the trust we crave, and that is the trust that is destroyed by focusing on the mistakes of our brothers.


Think of a person in your life that is very important to you, but with whom you have difficulty. Then write down your highest intentions in this relationship, your purest intentions to be loving and selfless and patient and kind. Your intentions to be the Buddha.

Now, ask yourself, on a scale of 1 to 10, how much do you trust yourself to really carry through with these intentions and fully embody them? Pick the first number that jumps into your mind.

Now consider the possibility that this score is how much you trust the essential goodness in yourself. I’m not saying it is; I’m just saying consider the possibility. How does that feel?

Finally, consider that, if your score is lower than you’d like, this low score is really the result of not trusting others because you have focused on their mistakes, on their bad track record.

Paragraphs 8 and 9

This is a chunk of the final three paragraphs of the lesson. I’ve put in brackets the various stages of the theory of perception I outlined earlier:

And as our focus [focus] goes beyond mistakes, we will behold [perception] a wholly sinless world.

When seeing this is all we want [intent] to see, when this is all we seek for [intent] in the name of true perception, are the eyes of Christ inevitably ours [perception].

And the Love He feels for us becomes our own as well.

This will become the only thing we see reflected in the world [perception] and in ourselves [self-perception].

The world which once proclaimed our sins becomes the proof [witness] that we are sinless.

And our love for everyone we look upon [perception] attests [witness] to our remembrance of the holy Self Which knows no sin [self-perception], and never could conceive of anything without Its sinlessness.

This material presents an inspiring vision of what it can be like when we change our focus.

Overall, this is what I get from this material about trust. Trust is really about someone’s basic nature in our eyes. It’s a question of: Can we rely on the basic goodness of their nature? Right now, we equate their nature with their track record, with their midterm marks. Further, we tend to focus on the mistakes in their track record. We focus on their bad midterm marks. This leads to lack of trust in them. It leads to a condemning, suspicious attitude toward them. And this, unbeknownst to us, is actually a plan to turn them into a witness for the prosecution in the case against ourselves. They become a witness to our basic badness of character. And so we lose trust in ourselves.

Instead, we need to equate their nature with their potential. We need to see who they are as their potential, not their track record. Right now, of course, it’s the reverse. In our eyes, their track record is who they are now; their potential is who they might become, but are not yet. We’ve got to reverse that. Their potential needs to become who they are now, but are not yet in touch with. We need to see them in light of our certainty that they will pass that final exam, no matter how their midterm marks look.

And if we can do that, not only will we draw out their hidden nature, but we will learn to trust our own hidden nature. We will learn to trust that, even if we walk into the room and quickly lose touch with the Buddha in us, and turn into the immature teenager, that is just one of those midterm marks. Now we can trust that that Buddha is who we really are beneath the surface, and that that’s what will come out and show itself in the final exam. And we trust that in us because we have trusted that in our brother.


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