Q: 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.
A: 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.