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.
In our last post we laid the groundwork for balance in self-giving. In this post we will dig into a few practical ideas.
Saying “No” and Saying “Yes”
With those distinctions in mind, I think we can answer your question: “Is there a time when we can justifiably deny a request without being selfish?” Absolutely! The ultimate goal is not to go around looking for things that are hard for us to do and to do as many of them as possible. The ultimate goal is give ourselves to God and our neighbor, out of love, out of a sense of what would please them and be good for them. This provides us with a hierarchy of values that enable us to discern when to say “yes” and when to say “no.”
For example, as a married woman your first arena of love is in your friendship with God himself. That friendship requires you to hold dear what God holds dear, and so you will never disobey his commands. If someone asks you to babysit on Sunday, when you know God wants you to be with him at Mass, you can say, “I am so sorry, I am not available.”
Your second arena of love is your relationship with your husband – that is your sacrament. Through that bond God promises to send his grace into your lives and, through you, into the world. If you and your husband have instituted a weekly or monthly date-night in order to help keep your communication channels healthy, you won’t be able to babysit that night – you will have to deny that request. You might actually enjoy the date-night more than the babysitting, but that doesn’t mean you are being selfish. You are actually being faithful; you are loving as God wants you to love; you are saying “no” to one very good thing in order to say “yes” to an even better thing.
Vanity Disguised as Love
In some cases, it is actually a sign of selfishness NOT to deny a request. Let’s take a radical case. Your girlfriend is having an affair. She wants to get together with her lover while her husband is at work. She asks you to babysit her kids so she can have her tryst. Part of you may want to say yes to this request, because you don’t want to alienate this friend (who is popular and influential in your social circles). But you know that you should not encourage her in her infidelity. If you were to babysit to help cover up her adultery, would you really be showing her Christ-like love? Or would you be putting your own social status ahead of your responsibility as Christ’s follower to help people leave sin instead of dive into it?
Discerning God’s Path
The principle underlying these examples is always the same. It has to do with keeping God first in our lives, with loving him by finding and following his will for us. That is the true measure of love. Sometimes that path will be steep and painful, just like Christ’s path to Calvary. But even then, in the depths of our soul we will find a spiritual resonance, an interior peace and assurance that comes from the Holy Spirit.
If we don’t, if we only find turbulence and confusion even in our hearts, it could actually be a sign that we are making a wrong turn, that we are operating out of vanity or pride instead of Christ-like love. How can we tell the difference? Usually it is clear. When it isn’t, we need to turn to God in prayer (and it’s much easier to do that if we have already developed a healthy prayer life), and get solid advice from someone we trust, like a spiritual director. And, like all things in the spiritual life, practice makes perfect: the more we engage in Christ-like love, the more easily we discern the real thing from its distracting counterfeits.
“How” vs “How Much”
As a final comment, I would like to make an observation about St. Paul’s “Hymn to Charity,” which we find in 1 Corinthians 13. This passage summarizes the characteristics of Christ-like love (which is why it is so popular as a Reading during wedding Masses). Notice that St. Paul is much more interested in how we do things and how we treat each other than he is in how much we get done. In our world of maniacal overachievers and merely material standards of success, that is a very, very important distinction to keep in mind. If we say yes to so many things that we end up doing them all angrily, resentfully, and bitterly, we have probably lost the balance somewhere along the line and need to pull back. It may be costly to decide to give of ourselves, but once we have made the decision, we should be able to let our trust in God banish the emotional resentment: “Each one should give as much as he has decided on his own initiative, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7). Let’s let St. Paul have the last word:
Love is always patient and kind; love is never jealous; love is not boastful or conceited, it is never rude and never seeks its own advantage, it does not take offense or store up grievances. Love does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but finds its joy in the truth. It is always ready to make allowances, to trust, to hope and to endure whatever comes. Love never comes to an end. (1 Corinthians 13:4-8)