“It’s the thought that counts” is a common English expression. Perhaps we give someone a present that we think they will love, and either they already have it, or they just don’t like it. The person is (hopefully) pleased anyway because they know that we meant well.
Abdu’l-Baha says that purity of motive is extremely important:
Your hearts must be pure and your intentions sincere in order that you may become recipients of the divine bestowals… This is the day when pure hearts have a portion of the everlasting bounties and sanctified souls are being illumined by the eternal manifestations.1
So, in regards to the “failed” present, it doesn’t matter so much that the present was not loved or needed by the recipient. It is that we gave it out of the goodness of our heart.
When Abdu’l-Baha says, “Your hearts must be pure and your intentions sincere in order that you may become recipients of the divine bestowals”, does this mean that we do “good” things so that we receive blessings and rewards? Should that be our primary motivation?
Perhaps not. While I think it is completely true that acts done with a pure intention are rewarded, I do not think this should be the motivation of the person doing them. In fact, if a person does something in order to receive a spiritual reward, to me, the intention has been tainted, and the act is no longer pure.
Let’s think about worshipping God. For those who believe in God, we know that it is good to worship Him and He is worthy of our praise. We know that through prayer we can enter the “paradise” of nearness to God, and if we ignore Him, we will enter the “fire” of remoteness. But should this constitute our motivation to pray to Him? According to the Bab:
Fire and paradise both bow down and prostrate themselves before God. That which is worthy of His Essence is to worship Him for His sake, without fear of fire, or hope of paradise.
Although when true worship is offered, the worshipper is delivered from the fire, and entereth the paradise of God’s good-pleasure, yet such should not be the motive of his act.2
So, although we know that God rewards true worship with the paradise of His presence, our motivation is not to experience that paradise. Our motivation is to worship God for His sake. The rewards we receive are a byproduct of this and are not something to seek after.
To me, this also applies to service, for it is a form of worship:
Blessed and happy is he that ariseth to promote the best interests of the peoples and kindreds of the earth. ((Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 249))
… all effort and exertion put forth by man from the fullness of his heart is worship, if it is prompted by the highest motives and the will to do service to humanity. This is worship: to serve mankind and to minister to the needs of the people. Service is prayer. A physician ministering to the sick, gently, tenderly, free from prejudice and believing in the solidarity of the human race, he is giving praise.3
It feels good to help others. It is the greatest joy to serve the world. However, I think once we become attached to this pleasant feeling, and it becomes our primary aim, we are no longer serving others: we are serving ourselves. The act becomes tokenistic and empty. If our intention is pure, then we serve others not so that we can feel good, but because we honestly care for others and earnestly want to be of assistance to them.
And how does this apply to giving?
Shoghi Effendi said:
We must be like the fountain or spring that is continually emptying itself of all that it has and is continually being refilled from an invisible source. To be continually giving out for the good of our fellows undeterred by fear of poverty and reliant on the unfailing bounty of the Source of all wealth and all good–this is the secret of right living.4
This seems to say that we should give of our own wealth because we want others to benefit from it. We do not donate or give our money as a means to appease our guilt, or as a way to boost personal reputation or that of a company, or even to elevate our spiritual station.
What seems common between pure service and worship is that in both, we devote ourselves to the Other. In worship our intention is to praise God, not elevate our spiritual station. In service our intention is to assist people, not feel warm and fuzzy. The ecstasy of prayer and the joy of service are gifts from God. But we can’t become attached to them, for if we do, our intentions are compromised. Purity of motive is when we do something for God, humanity, the sick, the poor, a friend – not for ourselves. That being said, it is also important for us to know that pure-hearted service and worship do have a benefit on our souls and are the very means to their upliftment in this world and the next. Perhaps this knowledge provides a general understanding of our spiritual destiny that frames all our actions, but at the most conscious level of intention we are focused on God and our brethren.
Another thing is, when we think about purity of intention, we often try to separate it from the outcome of our actions. Going back to the example of the gift, it was the intention that was important not the fact that the present wasn’t needed. But we cannot take this to mean that the intention to achieve an outcome is not important. Buying the gift was only a pure act because the giver thought the receiver would like it. So, it seems that purity of motive is tied to what we believe is true about the world, not what is true. We can never fully know another person, or what they need, so sometimes our good intentions will not have the desired effect. That is why it is also important to ask people how we can help them – on their terms, not ours.