For educators, fall is one of the most wonderful times of the year. Meetings are complete, training has invigorated, and we’ve turned with your students toward a year full of potential. Only weeks ago, students arrived into fresh, crisp classrooms with whiteboards aching to be used. Our best-laid plans are set in motion as we spring into another semester.
Even if you are an educator who does not follow the academic calendar, you will recognize this giddy anticipation from other seasons–a new rush of energy imbibes your efforts, and your vision for teaching is reinvigorated. These times of newness or renewal naturally lend themselves to goal-setting and self-examination. We want to know how we have done in the past, and we want to know how we will act in the future. We want to be good students of history with a wise glance toward the future.
This is good. No, this is great. It is a praiseworthy mercy that we are given clean slates, and the chance to try again. Even if we have failed, we are given the opportunity to try, try again. We can let go of the past without forgetting what we’ve learned, and imagine new ways to best serve those whom we are learning to love. And yet, this glorious good news bears a sharp truth that we must call to memory while we steel ourselves for the year.
The truth is that even in these times of renewal, as our intentions are set toward the good of those whom we serve, the human heart remains impossibly difficult to understand. When we think we’ve finally cultivated the best way forward, when we’ve had our “aha!” moment, reality rears its head. It sometimes turns out that what we thought to be humility was self-aggrandizement. Seeming courage turns out to have been fear. Love of neighbor was a thin façade for self-love. Or, for a less extreme example than these virtue-vice flip-flops, it is possible that our best intentions cause harm simply because we do not yet fully know what we are doing. We do the best we can with the knowledge that we have, with the best intentions we can possibly muster, and harm still happens. Our understanding, though well intended, is nearsighted.
Jesus is clear, though: the standard to which we aspire is nothing short of perfection. We do have to try to love perfectly, as God Himself loves perfectly. We have got to get on with the business of becoming holy. And as educators, our vocation requires that we learn always to intend good for those set under us. As we cultivate virtue ourselves, we also try to inspire students to do the same. God has tasked us with the high and noble calling of helping human beings discover and become themselves, through God’s grace. And to achieve this standard, set by Christ, we must set our intentions firmly on the good of our students.
The dilemma is clear: how do we intend good for our students while our own intentions, even for ourselves, remain unclear? How do we faithfully fulfill our calling when failure lurks?
Thanks be to God that He who charges and requires us to become holy is the very same One who has stooped down and given Himself to us as counselor and comrade. We are urged to become holier in our vocation with purer and purer intentions, but when these intentions are not good enough, God knows, and He who is just is merciful. What’s more, God has given us His Spirit, and really can help us form better intentions with the grace to see those intentions become concrete.
It might be easy to end here, with a sense of relief that God knows our faults and failures, and that His property is to always have mercy. But there is another bit of good news: God knows our intentions more fully and more truly than we ourselves know them. There is more to us and more to our intentions than is perceptible (see David’s prayer at the end of Psalm 19). Our very best attempts to judge our own intentions fail, so God himself can help us to more fully know what we intend and can strengthen us where we are weak.
The heart is hard to know, and it can easily condemn us when we confront these weaknesses. But it is also true that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows all things. So when our hearts condemn us, when we discover the ways in which our intentions were not what we thought they were, or were not good enough, God has mercy and will help us in our time of need.