Right intention vs. simple intention

November 29, 2010 | 30 comments

The other day I was re-skimming one of my favorite books, The New Wine of Dominican Spirituality by Paul Murray, OP. I’d marked tons of passages throughout the book with stars and brackets, but as I went through it again, one in particular caught my attention. Murray writes:

[C]onsidering God not so much as an ‘object’ outside of ourselves, for whose greater glory we undertake all our different works, but rather as a ‘subject’ alive within and around us, a divine Presence, ‘in whom we live and move and have our being, ‘ is a notion explored in No Man is an Island by the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton. Inspired — Merton tells us — by something he read in the work of Johannes Tauler, the medieval Dominican mystic and preacher, he makes a distinction between two kinds of intention, a right intention and a simple intention. When we have a right intention, Merton says, ‘we seek to do God’s will’ but ‘we consider the work and ourselves apart from God and outside of Him.’ But ‘when we have a simple intention, we…do all that we do not only for God but, so to speak, in Him. We are more aware of Him who works in us than of ourselves or of our work.’

Interesting. Now, such a seemingly esoteric distinction is further into the deep end of the theological swimming pool than I normally dare to wade. But this idea of right intention vs. simple intention really jumped out at me as something I should think more about.

Here’s an example to highlight how I’ve come to understand the difference between these two concepts:

Let’s say I’m sitting here at my desk, and I glance out the window to see my neighbor leaning on crutches to get from her car to her house. That reminds me that she just had surgery on her ankle, and I heard she’ll have to be off her feet for a few weeks.

In the mindset of RIGHT INTENTION…I might think, “I see that my neighbor is in need! I’ll go over there and tell her I’ll bring her dinner tomorrow night, as well as twice a week for the next couple of weeks.” Because I have analyzed the situation, and determined that this is the right thing to do.

In the mindset of SIMPLE INTENTION…it would be less calculated. I would think, “I see that my neighbor is in need!” Then I’d simply rise from my seat, walk out the front door, consciously inviting God to be in this moment with me. I’d be carried along by love rather than by any specific goal. I wouldn’t have a plan for what I’d say when I encountered her, which would leave me open to let the Spirit move me in the moment.

Who knows, maybe she really doesn’t need or want meals, but is desperate for someone to walk her dog, or vacuum her living room. And if I went over with the more rigid, right intention mentality, I could miss all of that because I was so focused on executing on this plan I have for doing the right thing.

This is definitely my default; I live mostly in this right intention frame of mind. As Fr. Murray points out, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s not that the right intention mindset is all bad and the simple intention one is all good; both can be paths to holiness. But understanding that these two different approaches exist — and having their distinctions so clearly articulated — has been helpful to me.

I tend to be overly analytical, so I’ve been trying to relax into a more simple intention mindset. I think that this is the perfect thing to work on during Advent, a season when it’s tempting to get completely overwhelmed by right-intentioned activities that we’re trying to do for God. Because, as Thomas Merton and Fr. Murray point out, to adopt a mindset of only simple intentions is to shift from focusing on the work we’re doing for God, to focusing simply on God himself.


  1. Elisa | blissfulE

    This is exactly what I needed to hear! I have been mired in a mindset of “I’m doing the service of taking care of small children by wiping bottoms, making meals, etc FOR God.” And I have been frustrated because not only do I not do it perfectly, I also don’t do it terribly thankfully or willingly at times.

    Doing all of this IN God and THROUGH His Spirit – well, clearly that’s the only way I CAN do it, day in and day out. Thank you for noting the distinction. Already I feel my burden is lighter.

  2. Leila

    Oh my goodness. You have done a good thing here. I needed this. I’m sure I will ponder it for a hundred years before implementing, but nonetheless, it’s a brilliant distinction that I needed to hear! Thank you!!

  3. Leslie McCaddon

    So cool to read this…this is almost exactly what I’ve been thinking about lately. When I live more in the present, more open to the Holy Spirit, it seems like the opportunities to live love present themselves abundantly *along* with the grace to meet the needs presented…When I’m too busy planning and working on what I think is important, it seems I miss the opportunity to help others in my life AND I’m exhausted from all my “hard” and “important” work I’ve been doing. Thank you for sharing this and writing about it!

  4. Margo

    I think you’ve made some excellent points. This post gives me reason to stop and think about circumstances and situations in my own life where right vs. simple intention is present. Thanks for opening my eyes and for pointing out some truths that are so easily overlooked by all of us!

  5. Andie

    This is just what I needed to read today as well. I have been struggling in a certain situation, wanting to do the ‘right thing’ but because of your post, I will do the simple thing. Thank you!

  6. Tiffani


    Excellent post. Since he was mentioned, I must say that a few Advents ago I purchased a cheap paperback copy of *No Man Is An Island*, and it clarifies the living of my Catholic faith even more each time I read it. Great stuff.


  7. Charlotte (Matilda)

    OK, I’m not trying to justify my “right intentions” or anything because I totally get what you’re saying here, but the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive. You can have the “right intention” of bringing your friend a meal and still be open to the “simple intention” of asking if there is anything else she needs. I’m just thinking here but what about the situation where the neighbor is someone who doesn’t like having things done for them just because she worries about burdening you. Or maybe someone who wouldn’t tell you what she really needed because she can’t admit that she needs help at all. If you walk over there and ask her what she needs done, she is not going to let you do anything because she doesn’t want to be a bother. But if you just showed up with a meal, she might be more willing to accept it because it’s already made. She doesn’t have to feel responsible for your extra work. Does that make sense?

    I think it’s something that has to be considered on a case by case basis with special consideration for the person and their situation. There are no blanket right answers.

    BTW… I thought about you when we were driving through Austin on our way home from Thanksgiving with my family! Maybe someday…

  8. julie

    hi, I agree with our whole heartedly. It’s less about what we “think” we should do, and more about letting God work through us. I also wanted to tell you about an awesome devotional..life changing book that gives me tons of “a-ha” moments. It’s called The Better Part by John Bartunek. Check it out and let me know what you think. Keep writing..you inspire me!

  9. Eva K. Delgado

    I often wish that my walk with Godde were more emotional than it is cerebral. While I was raised Christian, I came to Godde as a young adult. The journey was more philosophical and intellectual than it was emotional and I think it has remained that way.

    I don’t get the gushyness. This is not to say that I am not moved by experiences and people (I am a crier) but I don’t think I would describe my experience with Godde in terms of ‘feelings’.

  10. ~Ana Paula~A Católica

    Hi, Jennifer!!

    As you have probably heard by the press and by the TV, we over here in BRASIL are quite happy with the solution that the State, the Army and the Police, together, have given last Sunday to the drugtraffic and violence in the Most Beautiful City in the world:


    In Rio there is the biggest image of Jesus Christ in the earth, the “CRISTO REDENTOR”, with His open arms to the beauty of the city and also to the whole world!…

    I am not from Rio de Janeiro: I am from a city called “Belo Horizonte”, whose name means in English: “Gorgeous Horizon”. You see: we over here are quite sensible for beauty!

    Indeed, I am certain you already knew that: BRASIL is the biggest catholic country in the world. That means we have religious thing marked in our blood, hearts, mind and we leave this mark in every single thing we do!!

    Sorry for writing these words, BUT I get too EXCITED when the Good triumphs over the evil! Our police’s forces have struggled and have succeeded to win the battle against the thiefs and drugs’ sellers in Rio de Janeiro yesterday and I feel so wiling to share Our Hapiness with you!!

    Stay in the Peace of God!!
    You, your family and friends and course your Readers!!

  11. ~Ana Paula~A Católica

    Hi, Jen!!
    Once again a Big HELLO from BRASIL!!

    I just finished my reading of your Post and it made me THINK A LOT in my movings towards my brothers. I am too selfish! In fact, most part of my selfishness comes from my shyness of going to the people and beginning a relation with them. I always have a terrible feeling that in doing that they will demand me more and more!…

    Anyway, I simply loved your reflection:
    ” I’d be carried along by love rather than by any specific goal. I wouldn’t have a plan for what I’d say when I encountered her, which would leave me open to let the Spirit move me in the moment”.

    Just wonderful!

    You are doing a wonderful job in your Blog.
    And guess what: wonderful to yourself and even more wonderful to us!

    God Bless You and All Your… Fans!!


  12. Jenny

    Thank you for giving me something so beautiful to ponder over while I go about my day.

  13. Emily (a.k.a. Smoochagator)

    Jennifer, I think this insight is one of the ways God is showing you how to better discern his will – something you’ve recently blogged about!

    I have found that I am terrible at carrying out grand intentions of helping people (volunteer work – or lack thereof – being a great example) but I am always “successful” when I respond to small urgings to serve. For instance, I might think to myself, “I wonder how so-and-so is doing this week; she was having so many troubles last time I talked to her,” and just shoot an email or text message off to so-and-so simply saying, “How are you?” I find that this simple question, honestly asked, followed by an intention to really listen to the answer, does so much good for my friend. I don’t need an elaborate plan of how to serve someone – because often my plans aren’t what they need, as you pointed out. A heart open to share another person’s burden is, I think, the key to simple intention.

    Thanks so much for this post. It really encourages me, as I was just telling a friend yesterday how frustrating it can be to me to feel as if I’m not “doing” anything to help anybody, and how I try to remind myself that by loving my coworkers, my neighbors, my extended family, I am doing a great service not just FOR God but IN Him. Thank you, thank you!

  14. priest's wife

    I agree with you- but sometimes one gets in a rut. Thanks for the inspiration to be more…intentional!

  15. Diane

    Seems like what this is about is giving the Holy Spirit room to inspire us to be available for the best good in a sitution. I think it is a posture of open availability, where we say “Your Will, Your Way” and remain open to that small voice.
    I am learning to not shout down that quiet voice so much.
    Instead of coming up with a reason to do something different I am learning to say “Yes, show me how.”

  16. Jackie Gilbert

    I, too, am a convert, of about 43 years, and find that I am still learning about and how to live my faith. I have found faith to be constantly growing and deepening. Your blog has been a blessing!
    The concept of simple vs right intention hit me right between the eyes. How I needed this – thank you for this insight.

  17. descrito

    I recently returned to the Catholic church after an absence of about 12 years. I’m very overwhelmed by it all as it is the first time I’m choosing to be part of the church and not forced.

    I found your blog about two days ago and I absolutely love it. A lot of your post speak directly to me and my experience and I’ve been learning a great deal. Please continue to write. I really do enjoy your posts!

    Greetings from Puerto Rico. 😀

  18. kristina

    I absolutely love this! It seems there is a great deal of freedom in the simple intention for both the intending person and the recipient of the intention. I couldn’t help but pre-judge that this was going to be about prayer intentions…not intentions in the sense it was about…but I think this also works in prayer too. I often sit down to pray for someone else and begin by praying, “Lord, lead this person to Church…help me to change their hearts” to “Lord, thy will be done…may their hearts be open to your will and prompting”

  19. Amanda Rose/A Little One

    I read through this post a couple of times, particularly the last sentence – the idea of intention being not so much what we are doing, but the how and the why. Perhaps with the simple intention we are focusing on Christ and His will, watching and listening, moving forward as He leads us. We are like the glove and He is the hand guiding us. We may take the same action as in a “right intention” but it is a difference in our interior motivation. One of the benefits of focusing only on God Himself is that we let go of the outcome and leave that in His hands. There is a real freedom in that.

  20. Christine

    Beautiful thing this “simple” intention vs “right” intention… thank you for posting. I was going to reply to someone’s nasty email with all the “right” intentions… now I’m going to wait & ponder & let God guide me through this process. He will definitely guide me with a simple (& more loving) reply.

  21. Cheryl

    As a Lutheran, I love this post because it helps us move toward the cross and away from what has been called “works righteousness.” If we are indeed made clean once for all by Jesus’ work on our behalf on the cross, and not by any good works we can accomplish, then there IS immense freedom in our lives IN HIM. Thanks for the encouragement.

  22. elizabethe

    I wonder if applying this distinction to your example has a special meaning for an introvert. I’m a fellow introvert and I find my intentions to do good in a neighborly way to actual people are so often blocked (as someone above noted) by simple shyness. The situation you describe, where you actually leave the house to speak to your neighbor might sound like the most natural thing in the world for a normal (extroverted) person, but contemplating doing this fills me with anxiety. Even if I know my neighbor and like her. For me to go out an approach someone is not something natural for me and requires a lot of self-talking and planning. I would almost have to have the whole event planned out in mind just to first get out the door. It’s good to remember that it’s okay to just go over to someone and say “I want to help you, what can I do.”

  23. priest's wife

    I really appreciate that you are analytical- many people just believe because their grandparents did.

    (converts rock!)

  24. Jeannine

    I like this very much. I have been trying to pinpoint a paradigm of sorts for this kind of behavior…when I overthink or over rationalize, I am usually wading out of God’s will, trying to convince Him of mine. Right vs. simple…I like to have names for things! Thank you for sharing. You stretch my brain!

  25. Lauren

    Oh my goodness. I never thought about this like this. It reminds me of Christ commanding His apostles to not worry about what to say when persecuted, because the Spirit will intercede and provide the words. I’ve always been a bit skeptical of this! (Let’s be honest…) I’m really thankful you shared this and will ponder it for- as Leila said- hundreds of years! 🙂

  26. Dorian Speed

    Great post – and because I’m a bad person, I will cop to the fact that I talk myself out of “right intentions” very easily. So the next step after making a mental note to prepare several freezer-ready meals for my injured neighbor would be to stop short: do I really think I’ll follow through with that? When am I going to find time to do that? What if she doesn’t like my cooking, anyway, and gosh, that means I have to go to the grocery AGAIN, and we are totally broke right now…the analysis continues, while my neighbor falls down in the street, yelling for help.

    Whereas the “go with the Spirit” version seems much more likely to result in actual follow-through.

  27. Leah @ Unequally Yoked

    Jen, thanks so much for this great post!

    I always like to plan out my ‘help’ as efficiently as possible, and it’s sometimes gotten in the way of being emotionally supportive to my friends. Funnily enough, the book that crystallized the problem for me was Deborah Tannen’s You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation. She described two conversational styles when offering a help: one that focuses on the problem itself and tries to map out a strategy immediately and one that focuses on how the problem is affecting the person you’re talking to and figuring out how to comfort them.

    I definitely tilt too much to the first strategy, and this post was yet another sorely needed reminder that I should give the kind of help required, not the kind I want to give.

  28. Dorkus Amongus

    I’m pretty introverted myself though people always read us differently, and I’m a pretty simple person so I guess I don’t struggle here with the self-talk/planning of which some have commented on.

    God pretty much deals with me like this: “Hey, your neighbor is injured, you see her on crutches. Do you wanna help her out or not?”

    Simple. Easy. Breezy… Like that slogan for cosmetics.

    Just a simple quick conversation with no pre-laid plans is always easiest.
    If you don’t wanna cook them meals, get em take out food.

    We women like to complicate things too much sometimes.
    Follow guts in this one – just make a gesture at face value. No agenda. Just friendship offered.

  29. readytobewriting

    Thanks for the lovely post about one of my favorite things I’ve read so far in No Man is an Island. I’m linking from my blog because you’ve done such an excellent job of providing an example of what this can look like in our everyday life. As a convert, I also appreciate the awesomeness of your site in general; keep up the great work!:-)

  30. Singapore Logo Design

    This article gives clear idea for the new visitors
    of blogging, that in fact how to do blogging and site-building.

Connect With Me On Social Media or Explore My Site



The "THIS IS JEN" podcast is on Facebook & all podcast apps


- Subscribe on iTunes or Google Play (audio)

- Get weekly bonus episodes on Patreon

- Sign up for my email list to be the first
to know about new tour dates