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How can we know that a decision we make (i.e. for sexual abstinence) is truly of the Holy Spirit?

I am relatively new to the Course, but when I read what you said to the lady who gave up drinking, smoking and premarital sex, I was surprised and very confused. If we should make no decisions by ourselves, then couldn't a decision about renouncing sex before marriage, for example, be one we mistakenly made without the guidance of the Holy Spirit? And, if this was so, wouldn't the self-imposed decisions have the potential to generate enormous conflict?

Also, wouldn't it be presumptuous of me to assume that I know what (e.g. sexual abstinence) is in the best interests of a relationship? I am trying to understand the ideas in the context of the course, where we are told not to trust our good intentions, (in this case, controlling physical impulses) but to trust our willingness. Does this not mean that we are to entrust all decisions into His care, rather than acting on our own, and then consulting Him to help us carry them out?

Thanks for your questions. Your questions are actually asking for clarity on the topics of decision-making and purpose. Every question aimed at the mind and at false belief is helpful in undoing the ego or removing the obstacles to the awareness of Love's Presence. It is true that the aim is to trust all decisions into the Holy Spirit's care and to consult Him for help in carrying them out. Peace of mind comes from making all decisions with the Holy Spirit, and with deep clarity it becomes evident that the Holy Spirit IS the decision for Atonement. The Holy Spirit is the "real alternative" in a world of pseudo-decisions (those which attempt to decide between illusions). The Holy Spirit is a Purpose for the world, which is forgiveness, to be decided for. In deciding for this Purpose you have decided against the ego's purpose for the world, which is death. There are no formulas with regard to this, for this is a decision of Content and not for a particular form. This idea can be summarized as follows:

"The curriculum is highly individualized, and all aspects are under the Holy Spirit's particular care and guidance. Ask and He will answer. The responsibility is His, and He alone is fit to assume it. To do so is His function. To refer the questions to Him is yours. Would you want to be responsible for decisions about which you understand so little? Be glad you have a Teacher Who cannot make a mistake. His answers are always right." (M-29.2.6)

If you look at my answer again you will see that I emphasized the purpose or motive and not the actions: "Your question about the morality of premarital sex is your concern about the moral codes and rightness of sexual behavior at this time. Yet the motive behind the action (the purpose) is what is most important. Strictly speaking, behaviors are not independent of the motives which inspire them. Why you act is more important than what you do. What you do comes from what you think, and you are calling on Christ to inspire all your thoughts. To the extent that you are at peace with your decision-making, there is no need to look to a moral code of behavior."

Behavior is the result of (or apparent outcome of) thought. It is the purpose of thought (meaning the content) that the Holy Spirit discerns as meaningful or not. The Course is a tool to help the mind learn to think with God rather than trying to think against God. The Course is a tool aimed at releasing attachment to unreal thoughts and becoming aware of real thoughts. The ego and the Holy Spirit are different purposes in a split mind and different thought systems arise from these different purposes. In the deceived state, the mind believes that decisions are between behaviors and forms, yet the simplicity of salvation shows that purpose is the only choice.

"I do not foster level confusion, but you must choose to correct it. You would not excuse insane behavior on your part by saying you could not help it. Why should you condone insane thinking? There is a confusion here that you would do well to look at clearly. You may believe that you are responsible for what you do, but not for what you think. The truth is that you are responsible for what you think, because it is only at this level that you can exercise choice. What you do comes from what you think. You cannot separate yourself from the truth by "giving" autonomy to behavior. This is controlled by me automatically as soon as you place what you think under my guidance." (T-2.VI.2)

It is not wise to attempt to control behavior, yet you do have control over what you think. Behavior follows from thought automatically. The mind is the mechanism of decision and you do have control over it. If you are not at peace, a wrong-minded decision has been made. Should this mistake occur, give your mind to this instant reminder and remedy:

"Your part is merely to return your thinking to the point at which the error was made, and give it over to the Atonement in peace. Say this to yourself as sincerely as you can, remembering that the Holy Spirit will respond fully to your slightest invitation:

I must have decided wrongly, because I am not at peace. I made the decision myself, but I can also decide otherwise. I want to decide otherwise, because I want to be at peace. I do not feel guilty, because the Holy Spirit will undo all the consequences of my wrong decision if I will let Him. I choose to let Him, by allowing Him to decide for God for me." (T- 5.VII.6.5)

You wrote: "If we should make no decisions by ourselves, then couldn't a decision about renouncing sex before marriage, for example, be one we mistakenly made without the guidance of the Holy Spirit? And, if this was so, wouldn't the self-imposed decisions have the potential to generate enormous conflict??" If decisions are made with the Holy Spirit there is peace, the absence of conflict. This is discernment: How you feel is the indicator of which purpose you have chosen. You are not asked to repress thoughts or emotions, yet you are asked to look closely at the beliefs which generate unreal thoughts and upsetting emotions. As Christ reminds in ACIM:

"Your mind and mine can unite in shining your ego away, releasing the strength of God into everything you think and do. Do not settle for anything less than this, and refuse to accept anything but this as your goal. Watch your mind carefully for any beliefs that hinder its accomplishment, and step away from them. Judge how well you have done this by your own feelings, for this is the one right use of judgment." (T-4.IV.8.3)

You wrote: “Also, wouldn't it be presumptuous of me to assume that I know what (e.g. sexual abstinence) is in the best interests of a relationship?" Remember that the ego is the belief in separate self interests that is being undone. The ego is a purpose that is being exposed and unveiled as a lie, and the Holy Spirit's Purpose is offered as an alternative to conflict. Nothing of value can be reduced to or explained at the level of form. It is all a matter of the purpose in mind. 'Sexual abstinence' based on repression is not helpful. 'Sexual abstinence' which follows from chastity (purity of thought) or from the desire for purity of thought and from turning the decision over to the Holy Spirit is helpful. All body thoughts (ie., about behavior, hunger, thirst, preferences, cravings, etc.) raised to the level of mind are wrong-minded:

"Fear cannot be controlled by me, but it can be self-controlled. Fear prevents me from giving you my control. The presence of fear shows that you have raised body thoughts to the level of the mind. This removes them from my control, and makes you feel personally responsible for them. This is an obvious confusion of levels." (T- 2.VI.1.4)

The attempt to control behavior is always based on ego self interests and preferences. The Holy Spirit Guides the mind to the realization that wholeness has no preferences, for there is no hierarchy of illusions in wholeness. The Course is aimed at changing your mind about your mind, and seeing that you are only capable of thinking with God. Forgiveness is a complete thought reversal from ego thinking to a thought of wholeness, which sees that there is nothing "outside" of wholeness. A change of purpose from ego to Holy Spirit will yield happiness, freedom, joy, and peace of mind. Since behavior flows from thinking, a change of behavior seen as independent or autonomous—in other words, in and of itself—is meaningless.

You wrote that you are “trying to understand the ideas in the context of the Course, where we are told not to trust our good intentions, (in this case, controlling physical impulses) but to trust our willingness." I am not advocating an attempt at controlling behavior. I am encouraging the willingness to change your mind by accepting its changelessness and wholeness. All physical impulses are distorted miracle impulses. The miracle calls you Home. Through the ego's dense lens of lack, miracle impulses reach awareness as bodily cravings which seem to be satisfied by imagined fantasies or false associations of bodily behaviors (e,g., eating food, drinking liquid, sexual activity, etc.). The little willingness being asked for is really the willingness to have a change of purpose and thus a change of mind. Consider these ideas from ACIM:

"You must change your mind, not your behavior, and this a matter of willingness. You do not need guidance except at the mind level. Correction belongs only at the level where change is possible. Change does not mean anything at the symptom level, where it cannot work." (T-2.VI.3.4)

"Your distorted perceptions produce a dense cover over miracle impulses, making it hard for them to reach your own awareness. The confusion of miracle impulses with physical impulses is a major perceptual distortion. Physical impulses are misdirected miracle impulses. All real pleasure comes from doing God's Will. This is because doing it is a denial of Self. Denial of Self results in illusions, while correction of the error brings release from it. Do not deceive yourself into believing that you can relate in peace to God or to your brothers with anything external." (T-1.VII.1)

"Fantasy is a distorted form of vision. Fantasies of any kind are distortions, because they always involve twisting perception into unreality. Actions that stem from distortions are literally the reactions of those who know not what they do. Fantasy is an attempt to control reality according to false needs. Twist reality in any way and you are perceiving destructively. Fantasies are a means of making false associations and attempting to obtain pleasure from them. But although you can perceive false associations, you can never make them real except to yourself. You believe in what you make. If you offer miracles, you will be equally strong in your belief in them." (T-1.VII.3)

These ideas point to the depth of release called for behind the words in the original email that I received: "I have made the decision to go on a sex fast until we get married. I also stopped drinking and smoking. I feel that in order for the God I serve to dwell in me and have his will be done, I need to consecrate myself from pleasures of my flesh." The "sex fast" is but a symbol of the conviction to live in Christ and experience purity of heart with a Mind that knows "That which is born of the flesh is flesh; that which is born of the Spirit is Spirit." The body is neutral to the Holy Spirit and anything but neutral to the ego. The use to which the body is put is a question of purpose, and this is where your confusion rests. The Holy Spirit's Purpose offers everything and the ego's purpose offers nothing. Confusion is always a reflection of deciding for the ego's purpose as peace comes from deciding with the Holy Spirit. Confusion will seem to last as long as the ego is believed as real. The ego's purpose is death and it can never be achieved, so it need not be sought after or protected from the healing Light of the Holy Spirit.

I have written a great deal about the discernment between the two purposes of a split mind. I suggest reading Chapter 19 in ACIM and looking closely at the "Obstacles to Peace" sections of ACIM. The ego's attraction to guilt, pain, and death are exposed as unconscious motives which block the awareness of the Peace of God deep within. The so-called "desires of the flesh" are nothing more than the ego's attempt to make the body real in awareness and thereby maintain the amnesia the sleeping mind has with regard to the Kingdom of Heaven.

Here are a few more quotes that will help clear up any confusion about the two purposes (ego & Holy Spirit) with regard to the body:

"The ego uses the body for attack, for pleasure and for pride. The insanity of this perception makes it a fearful one indeed. The Holy Spirit sees the body only as a means of communication, and because communication is sharing, it becomes communion." (T-6.V.A.5.3)

"Fantasies become totally unnecessary as the wholly satisfying nature of reality becomes apparent to both giver and receiver." (T- 1.VII.3.11)

"It is impossible to seek for pleasure through the body and not find pain. It is essential that this relationship be understood, for it is one the ego sees as proof of sin. It is not really punitive at all. It is but the inevitable result of equating yourself with the body, which is the invitation to pain. For it invites fear to enter and become your purpose. The attraction of guilt enters with it, and whatever fear directs the body to do is therefore painful. It will share the pain of all illusions, and the illusion of pleasure will be the same as pain." (T-19.IV.B.12)

"There is no sacrifice in the world's terms that does not involve the body. Think a while about what the world calls sacrifice. Power, fame, money, physical pleasure; who is the "hero" to whom all these things belong? Could they mean anything except to a body? Yet a body cannot evaluate. By seeking after such things the mind associates itself with the body, obscuring its Identity and losing sight of what it really is. Once this confusion has occurred, it becomes impossible for the mind to understand that all the "pleasures" of the world are nothing. But what a sacrifice - and it is sacrifice indeed! - all this entails. Now has the mind condemned itself to seek without finding, to be forever dissatisfied and discontented, and to know not what it really wants to find. Who can escape this self-condemnation? Only through God's Word could this be possible. For self-condemnation is a decision about identity, and no one doubts what he believes he is. He can doubt all things, but never this. God's teachers can have no regret on giving up the pleasures of the world." (M-13.2-4)

"You see the flesh or recognize the spirit. There is no compromise between the two. If one is real the other must be false, for what is real denies its opposite. There is no choice in vision but this one. What you decide in this determines all you see and think is real and hold as true. On this one choice does all your world depend, for here have you established what you are, as flesh or spirit in your own belief. If you choose flesh, you never will escape the body as your own reality, for you have chosen that you want it so. But choose the spirit, and all Heaven bends to touch your eyes and bless your holy sight, that you may see the world of flesh no more except to heal and comfort and to bless." (T-31.VI.1)

You are the One, and the One is Spirit! Welcome Home Holy Child of God. Before the body was, I Am. As the illusion of "the material" is forgiven or released, the Truth of Spirit returns to awareness. And for the "giving up of nothing" is Everything restored in awareness. The Kingdom of heaven is at Hand. I rejoice with You as One Self!