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Principle or InspirationAfter reflecting upon many of my life experiences and those of others, I continue to be fascinated of living life by principle or inspiration.  Is one better than the other?  What are the consequences of living a life entirely by principle or conversely doing or saying only what inspires us in the moment?  Before contemplating these questions, some definitions are needed.

Principle can be defined as “an accepted or professed rule of action or conduct” (

Examples of principle statements:

“You reap what you sow.”

“You will invest time, money and resources in something you value.”

“Honesty is the best policy.”

“It is better to give than receive.”

“Hard work and attention to detail in small things will result in increased responsibility, authority and financial reward.”

There are many other principles that could be mentioned and all have a similar formula – if you do “x” then expect “y” to occur.  Also, a principle is always true and can be applied in many situations with an expectation of similar results.  Logical analysis is involved in the decision making process.  Living by principle produces security for the individual and those he/she is in relationship with due to the predictability of the result.  Apparently.

However, what about times when applying the principle does not produce the expected result?  You sow countless hours, days and weeks of kindness and generosity into a relationship and nothing but greater expectation comes back in return. Telling the truth gets you ostracized from a friend, group or even fired from a job.  Being the hardest and most conscientious worker at your workplace seems to count for nothing as the laziest person on the team is promoted or given a raise.  Is the principle flawed?  Is there something wrong with you?

Perhaps the concept of inspiration can offer some insight.  Inspiration can take many different forms.  For the spiritual or religious, it may sound something like:

“God told me to do “x”.” or conversely “God hasn’t told me to do “y”.”

“The Spirit is leading me this way.”

“I rely on my Higher Power to guide me in making decisions.”

“The Devil made me do it.”

The non-spiritual person may express it this way:

“I’m not feeling it.” or “If it feels good, do it.”

“Doing that doesn’t inspire me or excite me at all.”

“I must go wherever my heart leads me.”

Again, inspiration can take many forms but the predominant themes are that subjective feelings or emotions are involved, often happening on the spur of the moment.  Perhaps more importantly, there is heavy reliance on something external (e.g. God, Spirit) or an experience (e.g. emotional high, physical feeling or sensation) that is caused by something external.  Where principle is always true regardless of the external circumstances, inspiration is entirely subjective and in the moment based on what we feel at the time.  Is it possible to rely too heavily on inspiration?

What if a decision made by inspiration harms others we are in relationship with?  Is it really God or Spirit we are hearing from or simply our own vain imaginations that are spiritual projections of our own soul?  Is living by inspiration just a way to avoid living by principle and the responsibility that goes with it?

So what is the answer?  Principle or inspiration?

The short answer is both/and.  Principle and inspiration.  Not principle or inspiration.  Choosing one or the other is framing the question entirely the wrong way.  In fact, this type of binary thinking is what gets us into trouble in the first place.

A healthy way to think about the relationship between principle and inspiration is that principle is the foundation upon which inspiration operates.  They work together in a complementary way.  Principle without inspiration is boring, repetitive and sometimes does not produce any positive results because it may be the wrong time, place or situation.  Inspiration without principle is flighty, unreliable and unpredictable since there is nothing to build upon.  What looks brilliant one day is gone the next because there is no root developed and no structure that lasts.  Consider these examples:

  1. Going to work every day, on time, well rested and fed with a plan for your day while asking God/Spirit/Higher Power to help you prioritize what is most important is a balanced way to approach your career.  Conversely, coming in late after being out all night, sipping a coffee and eating a sugar filled donut to recharge your batteries while asking God/Spirit/Higher Power to bail you out may work once or twice but is likely not a recipe for success.  Furthermore, arriving on time, well rested and fed with a detailed plan for the day without looking for spiritual inspiration may produce results but may also create a very busy day with nothing to show for it.
  2. Living with an abusive partner, roommate or friend on an ongoing basis and justifying it by saying God/Spirit/Higher Power have not told me to confront or deal with the abuse or “I just don’t feel to do anything about it yet.” is how other relationships or our own health can be jeopardized.  Establishing respectful principles in all relationships and relying on inspiration to highlight the most important ones is a much healthier way to live.
  3. Sowing time, money and resources into a business venture over a long period of time without seeing any fruit from the investment may indicate that inspiration is needed from God/Spirit/Higher Power or even random sources.  To continue the metaphor, perhaps all that is needed is to sow into a different field to reap accordingly.  Conversely, waiting to be inspired (by God or any other source) without being willing to put in the hard work is a lottery based mentality that is often just a spiritual excuse for laziness.

If you are stuck in neutral in life or perhaps going backwards, maybe it is time to do an inventory and ask yourself why your wheels are spinning in the muck.  Are you faithfully applying every principle you can think of and forgetting to reach beyond yourself for inspiration to light the way forward? Or perhaps you are agonizing in prayer for God to provide all of your needs while you remain firmly planted on thy holy hindquarters, unwilling to put in the time and effort or make the hard decisions necessary to move on?  Either way, maybe it is time to take personal responsibility to change the situation.

Principle or inspiration?  How about starting with personal accountability?

John Matthews

  • Jessica Sanders

    A lot to think about here, and even more to apply. 🙂

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