Editor’s Note: In Part I, we examined the bearing our attitude might bring to bear on what keeps us from loving others the way Christ does. Today, we will look at what we can do about it. Here is the question we are examining:
Dear Fr. Bartunek, thank you for this most relevant reflection. In the last paragraph, the question, “What is keeping me from loving others with [Christ’s] kind of energy, constancy, and creativity?”, has been playing in my mind repeatedly for months. I have been blessed beyond belief over the past year and a half; yet, I cannot bring myself to love everyone with this same generosity. Most recently, I have allowed a woman into my home temporarily who is culturally very different from myself. Though she is a very kind-hearted individual, I feel like a hypocrite because I have such difficulty accepting her. This is not how Christ treats me. This is not an isolated concern. I can meet someone for the first time and immediately have a disdain for that person. I know we are to pray for all the people we dislike or disagree with, as is the situation with all the cultural unrest going on in our country; but our Lord did not seem to have this problem. He loved everyone and asks us to do the same. Any thoughts on how to get beyond this stumbling block of loving others as Christ loves me are greatly appreciated.
Feelings in the Driver’s Seat?
Our moral responsibility always inhabits the realm of our free actions. In this case, it has to do with how we respond to the emotions that spontaneously surge up in our souls in response to these people and situations. The bottom line here is that we should not make our choices based solely on emotions. That is, in fact, almost the definition of immaturity. Rather, we need to make our decisions based on truth, moral truth and the truths of our faith.
Thus, for example, when I feel an emotional distaste towards prayer, I don’t stop praying. Rather, I humbly persevere, even though I may reflect on why I am feeling that repugnance and try to learn from it.
Acting “As If…”
In the case of a repugnance towards another person, the same principle applies. I should treat them, to the extent that is possible for me, as if I felt the love for them that I know they deserve as God’s children. This is virtuous action, a free choice to love, in spite of contrary feelings. And that love means that I treat them with respect and kindness, willing what is good for them. Your actions towards them, then, are consistent with your faith and the commandments of the Lord. You don’t torture them, you don’t abuse them, you don’t talk bad about them behind their back, you don’t insult and humiliate them, etc… You try to help them, affirm them, and encourage them.
Sometimes our subjective repugnance towards someone may be so strong – again, not because we will it, but just because that’s the way it is – that we actually need to avoid them in order not to treat them poorly. This can be painful for us – we wish we didn’t have such strong negative emotions towards them. It hurts our pride to experience our brokenness and woundedness so palpably. But the right action is to avoid, in as much as is possible, situations where we know that our emotions have a chance to get the better of us. Pray for that person. Don’t harm that person. Be civil and kind to that person when you have to interact with them. But until God’s grace heals you a little bit more and until you develop more virtue, you may need to minimize your contact with them.
Actions as Reactions
In the second case, the case of the objective negative emotions that flow from identifiable behaviors and behavior patterns, the loving thing to do is to communicate about it. Talk about the behavior patterns, try to understand what’s behind them, try to calmly express why they are so bothersome or destructive. Try to help each other adjust them, etc. This is especially the case if your relationship with the person in question is habitual – if you have to continue to interact with them on a regular basis.
In some of these cases, you may run into a person who is not willing to change. They won’t acknowledge their destructive behaviors or take responsibility for them. In that circumstance, you may need to sever the relationship, at least temporarily. It is not an expression of love to continue enabling someone’s dysfunctional behavior by the kind of toleration that tacitly approves of it.
In summary, our spontaneous emotional reactions give us information, and until we are mature enough in Christ that they are in perfect synch with the truths of our faith, they will sometimes clash with those truths. That’s okay. Accept that and seek to understand it. But don’t let it drive your actions and decisions. Pray for grace and strength to always act in accordance with your faith, with God’s will, even if your feelings disagree. Gradually, with God’s help, your feelings will catch up to your faith and line up more fully with God’s will, increasing the energy at your disposal for loving God and loving your neighbor.
God bless you!
Art: Christ in the House of Mary and Martha, Giovanni Bernardino Azzolino (c. 1572-1645), undated; Anger or The Tussle, Dosso Dossi, between 1515 and 1516; both PD-US, Wikimedia Commons.