"…That He might try you (to see) which of you is fairest in works." (Qur'an 67:2) We all know that we face many tests and trials in life. According to the above verse, we understand that one of our tests relates to the fairness of our deeds. Imam Ja'far as-Sadiq (peace be upon him) explained the meaning of this in more detail. He said this verse is not referring to doing more good deeds, but rather it refers to performing deeds with sound quality. So, what makes one deed of more quality than another? Is donating $20 to charity of greater quality than giving $10? Is holding your tongue against backbiting when you are more tempted better quality than holding your tongue when you are less tempted? Our Imam said that quality is rightful conduct, implying that giving more money or withstanding temptation when more challenged are not necessarily the fairer works. One would think giving either $10 or $20 is both "rightful conduct", so how do we distinguish between the two?
Fortunately for us, he expanded his explanation. "Rightness is nothing but fear of God and sincerity of Niyyat (intention). To persevere in an action until it becomes sincere is more difficult than performing the action itself." (Al-Kafi) From this, we can see that the fairer work is the one that is more sincere in intention. Therefore, if we want to improve the quality of our works, we must learn what sincerity of intention is and struggle hard against ourselves to achieve it. At first thought, having a sincere intention sounds easy. We think to ourselves, "I'm doing this because I know it is right, therefore I'm sincere". But we can do something knowing that it is right, and still be lacking in sincerity. Someone can donate to charity knowing it is the right thing to do, but if he really examines himself he may find that it is also because the brother sitting next to him at the mosque just donated and he doesn't want to look bad in comparison. What's so wrong with that? Isn't that a natural kind of thought that each of us may have dozens of times daily without realizing it? Isn't that just societal pressure that helps keep us in line and allows the possibility of civilized society? Does the Qur'an not say that we should compete or strive with one another in good works?
Surely it is positive result that the fellow ends up giving to charity – he has been encouraged to do good works by the example of his companion. Someone may really be helped because of his donation, and maybe he will also be rewarded by God in some way. But only Allah knows what is in his heart, and by Allah's standard as explained by the Ahlul Bayt (peace be upon them), let us propose for this example that his deed would have been fairer if he had not desired any praise or recognition for it except from God Almighty – but he had been largely concerned with the opinion of his friends. His intention was not purely to please God, but also to save face amongst his peers at the mosque. So sincerity of intention is not easy and does require struggling against ourselves. We have to question our motives even in doing good things and we have to work against ourselves to make our deeds sincere. Notice that Imam Sadiq did not say, "Wait until you have perfectly sincere intention before performing an action", but rather he said that persevering in an action until it becomes sincere is more difficult than the action itself. Intention, then, does not seem to be a purely static entity, but rather something that we continually make and change. Trouble with an intention is not an excuse to avoid a good deed, but rather if we want to be fairest in works then we have to do the deed as well as struggle with ourselves to make it sincere. If we recognize a fault in our intention, we can repent and change the intention even after the act is done, and perhaps Allah will accept our improved sincerity.
Imam Muhammad al-Baqir (peace be upon him) also said that perseverance in action is more difficult than the act itself. When someone asked him to explain what he meant, he described it thus: "A man does kindness to a relative or expends something for the sake of God, Who is One and has no partner. Thereupon the reward of a good deed performed secretly is written for him. Later, he mentions it to someone and that which was written earlier is wiped out and instead the [lesser] reward of a good deed performed openly is written for him. Later, when he makes a mention of it again, the vice of Riya' (showing off) is written for him instead of the reward written earlier." In this example, someone apparently started with a sincere intention. But the man did not persevere in his original intention of doing something for the sake of God. Later on he told others about it desiring recognition, praise or status among people for that deed. What was originally a good mark on his record eventually counted against him.
The prospect that a good deed can turn into a mark against us may inspire fear and we may balk at performing the work. However, courage is that we persist in good works while having that respect for God's commands, and use it as motivation for developing sincerity. To shut down and decline to do the deed for fear of failing in it is even worse than trying to perform the deed sincerely but not reaching perfection yet. Avoiding the attempt to do good works implies several possible faults – from hopelessness to hypocrisy – that can go as far as being manifestations of living as an unbeliever who deceives himself that he has belief. It certainly cannot make us "fairest in works" when we shun the works.
Imam Ja'far as-Sadiq (peace be upon him) said: "Intention supersedes action. Lo, verily, intention is action itself. 'Say, everyone acts in accordance with his character.' (17:84) That character means intention." Therefore, a major task for each of us is to constantly test and purify our intentions, making our deeds for God. This does not mean we do not care about people and only care about God. In truth, one cannot perform a good deed for the sake of God without caring about the people who benefit from the deed, even if it is we ourselves. However, whether they appreciate it, acknowledge it, know we performed it, tell others about it, or hold us in high esteem for it should not be our aims or concerns. Indeed, if one is the recipient of a good deed, showing sincere appreciation is good character; but a giver with sincere intention will not have given in order to be appreciated, and ideally would not be expecting or demanding gratitude. If he complains to others about how his good deed went unacknowledged, perhaps the good deed will be unwritten from his book and replaced with something unfortunate.
We are all tested to see who is fairest in works. A person who is the busiest do-gooder in the community may not come out on top in God's judgment in comparison to someone who performed fewer works but persevered to make and keep them sincerely for the sake of Allah. Every believer should strive to purify his/her intentions continually. When we do so, we will find greater benefit and peace on account of our deeds, and the recipients and humankind on the whole will also find greater benefit and peace. Sullied intentions harm not only the person performing the act, but also many others because insincerity manifests itself in negative ways, such as causing the recipient of a good deed to feel shame for receiving, damaging reputations of people who are "religious" in the eyes of those unwilling or unable to distinguish between the sincere and the insincere, and so on. A pure intention helps avoid this ripple of negativity. And God willing, perhaps a pure intention may generate a positive ripple that compounds good upon good and sincerity upon sincerity within oneself and the larger community.