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Catholic Spiritual Direction

Am I being selfish by denying help to my family or friends? – Part I of II

October 24, 2011 by  
Filed under Fr. Bartunek, Mortification, Self Denial

Dear Father John, if Christians are called to charity, and we assume that our charity must cost us something (like time, comfort, or money), is there a time when we can justifiably deny a request without being selfish? I’m an at-home mom and my friends often ask me to babysit for their children.  I always say “Yes”, but only because it is difficult for me to do so, and I wonder if God is increasing my capacity to give.

I know for certain that you are not the only reader of this blog who struggles with this issue.  We all experience the limitations of time and space (and energy!), and yet we believe we are called to be limitless in our love: “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).  How can we reconcile the apparent contradiction?

A Gospel Paradox

First, we have to get somewhat theological.  Charity – Christ-like, self-forgetful love – is by nature sacrificial.  We give of ourselves to someone else, for their benefit instead of our own.  And that goes against the grain of the selfish tendencies deep within us, which we inherited with original sin.  Therefore, self-giving is often painful, or, as you put it, costly.  This is what Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta meant when she said, “This is the meaning of true love: to give until it hurts.”  This is also what Jesus had in mind when he taught that “the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it” (Matthew 7:14).  Following Christ, learning to love like Christ, involves a constant battle against our innate tendencies to self-indulgence (of any variety), which necessarily involves self-denial: “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me” (Matthew 16:24).

But in a true gospel paradox, the initial pain of self-denial out of love for God and neighbor doesn’t last.  It is transformed into interior peace and deep joy: “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35), our Lord promised, and again “Give, and it shall be given to you” (Luke 6:38).  Love, Christ-like love, touches a deeper chord in our soul than selfishness.  And so, when we obey the law of Christ-like love, we experience a spiritual satisfaction and tranquility that can actually coexist with the discomfort caused by denying our selfish tendencies.  On the surface, we feel the pain of self-giving, and in the depths, we know we are doing the right thing; we experience interior peace.  In the end, this deeper level outweighs the more superficial, emotional tantrums.

Think of the mother whose young child is seriously ill.  She has to stay up night after night to care for and watch over the child.  At times she feels that she simply can’t go on.  Exhaustion is wreaking physiological and psycho-somatic havoc.  And yet, she would have it no other way.  In her heart she experiences a spiritual peace because she knows that this is what God is asking of her, that this is what a mother should do, regardless of the cost to herself.

Costliness Is not the Essence of Love

And so, although Christ-like love will always be costly, we cannot really equate the love with the costliness.  The costliness is more like a byproduct, which comes from the automatic resistance of our innate selfishness.  And it is not the only byproduct – interior peace and inner joy are also the byproducts of true love.  When we give of ourselves out of love, and not out of vanity or fear, we experience spiritual satisfaction, because that’s what we were made for.  We are created in God’s image, and God is love.

In our next post we will give some examples of our “yes and no” in relation to charity.

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About Fr. John Bartunek, LC

Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D, received his BA in History from Stanford University in 1990. He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a member of the Catholic Church in 1991. After college he worked as a high school history teacher, drama director, and baseball coach. He then spent a year as a professional actor in Chicago before entering the religious Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1993. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003 and earned his doctorate in moral theology in 2010. He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" while researching the 2005 Catholic best seller "Inside the Passion"--the only authorized, behind-the-scene explanation of the film. Fr. John has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on NBC, CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He also served as the English-language press liaison for the Vatican’s 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. His most widely known book is called: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer". He has also published four other titles: "Seeking First the Kingdom", "Answers: Catholic Advice for Your Spiritual Questions", "Meditations for Mothers", and "A Guide to Christian Meditation". Fr. John currently splits his time between Rome and Rhode Island, where he teaches theology as an adjunct professor at the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum and at Mater Ecclesia College. He is also continuing his writing apostolate with online retreats at www.RCSpirituality.org and questions and answers on the spiritual life at www.RCSpiritualDirection.com. FATHER JOHN'S BOOKS include: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer", "Inside the Passion"--The Only Authorized Insiders View of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, "Meditations for Mothers", and "A Guide to Christian Meditation".

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  • another mom

    Fr. John,
    I wonder if you could address this, I often see many moms in this same scenario and often the ones who are saying YES feel obligated out of christian charity and at times they aren’t able to fulfill their basic responsibilities at home to their husbands and children, etc. What about their christian charity that begins at home?  I guess since I see this is such a common everyday problem I wish you could address this specifically.  Many moms feel guilty for not saying YES to more outside their homes mainly because our culture is breeding a supermom mentality.  I see so many moms who want to go shopping, have free days, etc. depend on other moms to take care or their children for them and they tend to depend on the moms who don’t want to say ‘no’ out of vanity.  Can you somehow answer this too, it seems that it is not a lack of charity to say ‘no’ to someone when in reality you are saying ‘yes’ to your family and first responsibilities?

  • Joanna

    Fr John

    From my personal experience, I have found that sometimes out of obligation, love, charity I simply don’t know how to refuse anyone and I just don’t know how to say ‘No’, with the result that I am worn out, exhausted, resentful and no fun for anyone to be with.  I have realized that not knowing how to say ‘No’ is only going to cause more problems in the long run.  I stretch myself over my limits without realizing it until it is too late.  Am I right in this point of view?

    • http://www.spiritualdirection.com/ Dan Burke

      Fr. John is not available but here are a few thoughts. True charity will never lead you to sin. It may lead you to give all that you can and more – as Christ did, but it will never lead you into darkness. The source of resentfulness is to be found elsewhere and this is worth exploring with a spiritual director. What are our true motivations for saying yes? What do we believe will happen when we say no? How will people respond to us? These questions lead to the real issue and the real solution. This challenge is not a practical matter, but one of the heart. Keep digging.

      • Guest

        I can confirm the veracity of your response, Dan, with a recent personal experience. Our Eucharistic Apostles of the Divine Mercy Spiritual Director, found himself in a crisis with his Congregation.  He reported the situation to their Superior who ordered immediate action. And because our Director reported his colleagues to their Superior, they became so hostile to to him to such a degree that he was forced to appeal to our Cardinal for help.  Unfortunately the Cardinal was going away and was not able to resolve the issue immediately.  So our Director was is a dilemma.  When I was advised of this by my fellow Eucharistic Apostles of the Divine Mercy, we started exploring the options of how we could help him until the Cardinal returns next month.  Eventually, I just could not stand the pain he was undergoing and I just asked Jesus: “OK. what do you want me to do?”.  So I told my friends I would move my House Girl into the Main House with me and give the Staff Quarters to our Director.  Though my financial means are very, very modest, I told Jesus to step in and ensure I would be able to provide for him adequately. And you know what?  The arrangement has worked so well.  Our Director is at peace now.  He has Private Living Quarters, personal privacy commensurate with his Sacerdotal Position, assured meals and all the other personal services like laundry and transport,  a friendly, caring Home where he is treated with utmost respect. When I decided I take him in, I was apprehensive if I would be able to provide for him adequately but everything has turned out a roaring success.  Our Director is now able to continue with  his Pastoral Duties,  his teaching job at the University and attending his Doctorate Lectures without any disruptions. Truly Jesus is In Charge and the three of us are so happy.

  • Sfbierly

    Charitable giving comes from the heart.  As our relationship with Jesus grows,  love expands and charitable acts flow naturally.  This does not mean that we exhaust ourselves serving others until there is nothing left to give.  We need to refresh ourselves on a regular basis through prayer and quiet time.  We need to be able to say “No” at times when too many requests are asked of us, simply for our own sanity and our family’s well-being.  We don’t want to become enablers.  

    • http://www.spiritualdirection.com/ Dan Burke

      Absolutely on target.

  • guest

    maybe you could address the situation where out of whatever a mom won’t say ‘no’ or apply discipline and the child never grows to become independent?  Just giving is not the answer.  I watched my mom give and give and try to help my nephew who was on drugs and none of what she did helped him.  She simply delayed the inevitable and when she finally could give no more then he got himself in jail and finally cleaned up, it took years but he was forced to do it. Mom thought this was the Christian thing to do but I disagree. People who can’t budget their money, always asking for help, giving them money isn’t helping them. I have numerous examples of where giving to those who don’t try to help themselves, or those self destructing, you don’t really help them.  Being kind and trying to enlighten them as to the error of their ways is sometimes the best way to help.

    • Bob S

      I also feel like an “enabler” of bad behavior. My brother drinks, smokes, does drugs and is always short of money. He also has a 4-year old handicapped son. I’ve sent money, bought food, talked to him, etc., etc. all without him taking any positive steps. I finally stopped with the financial support. The prayers continue yet I have a nagging feeling something isn’t right with my soul vis-a-vis my brother.

    • Becky Ward

      There, but for the grace of God, go I.

      My sister died in a homeless camp within minutes of several family members’ homes where she could have stayed…..if she remained sober.  My parents paid her rent for several months so she could stay with her children, but then couldn’t afford it…….so they opened their home to her.  Eventually they had to tell her she could only stay there if she wasn’t drinking.  She was home off and on for a couple years and then she lived in the camp….where she was beaten up and put in the hospital at least once.  She had been living in the camps for a year and a half when she died.

      I was of the same mind as you….”You’re enabling her!”…..”Let her hit bottom then she’ll get help.”

      But it wasn’t me that had to put my child out on the streets…….and now that she’s gone, my parents have peace of mind knowing that they did everything they could to help her.

      My sister knew the error of her ways……..it was crystal clear, and part of the reason she never sobered up was that she couldn’t forgive herself.  She went through AA two or three times and when she got to the step where they call people to apologize and ask forgiveness……..she couldn’t do it and left.

      It is a huge blessing to me that a few months before she died, she did call me and another sibling to make that apology.  God got her to the place where she could do that and then whisked her out of the devils snare.  We have learned much from our experiences in this regard.

      I believe we need to do what we can for people, and pray a lot.

      Until we have the vertical dimension (relationship with God) of our ‘cross’ in right order………we will have trouble with the horizontal dimension (relationship with our neighbors).

      Our motive in helping others is also important and as Blessed Mother Teresa often said, her 5-finger rule for life was …….”You did it to me.”

  • Catherine Teresa, OCDS

    As a woman and someone who has been trained to obey and give to others automatically without thinking, I think the answer to this dilemma comes from prayerfully seeking what God would like in any given situation rather than taking our cues only from people, i.e. learning to be a God pleaser instead of a people pleaser. While we are called to love as Christ did, sometimes the most loving thing to do is to say “no” to others requests. In looking at Jesus in the Gospels we see that he did not always do what others requested or in the timeframe they requested it because he was doing what his Heavenly Father desired and not what people desired. So in short, when someone asks us to do something and especially if we feel resentment inside, we might want to say a prayer and ask Jesus what he would like and it might be the harder thing at times to say “no” especially for those of us who hate conflict but when it is the right thing to do then it brings a sense of peace inside.

    • http://www.spiritualdirection.com/ Dan Burke

      Catherine – your thoughts here exactly on target and very insightful. I especially like the idea of pausing (rather than an automatic response) and then prayer. So, how would this look in practical conversation? “I might be able to help you with that, let me get back to you.”?

  • Laurie

    point perhaps missed…when one is being inordinately used for such services. Charity works both ways and so does selfishness.

  • Cymrais43

    So donating clothing that you won’t wear anymore to a parish coat sale to the poor is….what? I have a hard time seeing this as charity; I am willing to believe that people with limited food budgets who give a box of spaghetti to a food pantry are really giving in love, but is it the real deal to give only what you have no more use for?

    • LizEst

      Cymrais43,

      Try not to despise what some give.  This is a start to greater and more abundant giving later on.  In other words, growth in charity come from the exercise of charity.  And, little by little, they will give more and better than what they are doing now, if they don’t neglect the grace that comes from their initial gifts. 

  • Marjorie Campbell

    I have seen far, far too many times when women are made to feel guilty because they try to draw a boundary on demands from others, including children and other women.  I have even heard priests “scold” very active parish women for not doing more volunteer work at the parish.  This is often not a question of theology but one of gender talents where the nurturing tendencies of many women are abused by others and undirected by women themselves due to fear of conflict and concerns of vanity.   It took me many years to realize that my inability to say “no, I am sorry, I cannot do that for you” was actually sinful because it turned my heart and time away from God and subsituted silent suffering and pleasing others for a healthy and primary relationship with God.  For me, it is too negative to characterize my limits in keeping others happy as “denying help to family and friends.” I set my boundaries now by making sure I always tend my prayer life and relationship with God and, second, let God guide me to use my talents and time fully in His service.  Loving boundaries then come rather easily.

    • http://www.spiritualdirection.com/ Dan Burke

      Marjorie – there is a lot of wisdom here. My wife said that it was a huge turning point for her spiritually when she realized that she needed to schedule her prayer time in first and then she would schedule everything else as if that time was never available to anyone but God.

  • kit_carmelite

    Where is the “dividing line” between sacrificial love and codependence (inability to say no or practice “tough love” when it is needed)? How do we discern the difference in any situation?

  • Leslie R

    “I give to the needy, not the greedy”.  Who are the “greedy”?  Not the hungry, not the poor, not the sick, not the disabled, not the suddenly unemployed, not the widow, not the orphan, not the stranger in a strange land.   The greedy are those at the office who call you to do their projects and presentations for them, often trying to flatter you into it (“you’re such an expert!”).  The greedy are the entitled and the addicted, whose narcissism and fecklessness delude them into believing that the world owes them a living on the one-way street with no consequences or obligations.  The greedy are Wall Street types and  dictators/despots/”strongmen” drugged on money, power and control, who deem themselves answerable neither to God nor man.  That having been said, these are still humans and may God have Mercy on their souls.  Perhaps we can influence them by saying “no, No and NO!”.   Let us not forget the ultimate greedy b******:  the father of lies whose thirst for the destruction of human souls remains unslaked.  However, we know the end of his story.  Discern, people, discern!  Don’t unwittingly feed others’ selfishness and greed in misdirected charity that ultimately undermines the Kingdom of God. 

  • Mil Gan4

    For this one, I can say ( from personal experience) – the answer is to learn to say No.
    I am a woman and I am not able to say No even to people who are not my family or friends. For example, there was one lady in my block of flats – we started somewhat like coffee mates and she introduced herself as having depression and being very unfit physically, while at the same time her flat was very clean, she always was clean and nicely dressed, with expensive clothes, etc – obviously this was a woman, capable of waking up, getting dressed, cleaning her home and being active as every healthy human. 

    So, I was doing cleaning jobs for miserable money in our area and she was staying home, obviously doing nothing, but having money to do it. And she started abusing our so called friendship – oh, can you clean my windows, can you paint my wall, i am very ill, blah-blah, etc.

    I am a christian, but do you know what, when I see her out of my flat  and see she is simply waiting to get in conversation and just say one simple Hallo and go on to mind my business or go into my flat and etc.

    There you have people just seeing that somebody is nice and too soft and they try to use your time or work without any talk about money.

    Sorry, but not many people will do this for me, why should I do it for everybody else, even believing in the Christ???

    When I can,  support local charities and do volunteering jobs when I know that the cause is real.

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