Tug of War
(Jer.1:4-5, 17-19; 1Cor.12:31-13:13; Lk.4:21-30)
I once knew a man who was a very successful businessman. He was successful because he was ruthless and always put his own interests first. ‘When I negotiate,’ he once admitted, ‘I can be as hard as a rock. It doesn’t matter who I’m dealing with.’
Yet he also considered himself a Christian. He sometimes went to church, gave to charity, and loved showing off his photos, taken with famous church leaders.
I’ve often wondered how he slept at night, for he’d surely hurt many people.
This story’s not uncommon. Many of us today find ourselves caught in a spiritual tug of war, torn between the selfish ways of our society and the call of our faith. We want to do well in this world, but we also want to be good people.
Richard Rohr says that there are always two worlds. There’s the ordinary world around us which is largely about power. And then there’s the world as it should be, or the Reign of God, which is always about love.
He says that conversion is almost entirely about moving from one world to the next and yet having to live in both worlds at once. And he points out that power without love can lead to brutality and evil. [i]
St Paul says something about this in our second reading today. The Corinthian church which he established had many talented members, but they came from very different backgrounds and often quarrelled with each other.
St Paul tells them that there’s an essential link between faith and love, for it’s pointless saying we love someone if our actions don’t match our words. Indeed, whatever we do, he says, if it’s without love, then it’s ultimately empty and worthless. And regardless of our talents, if we have no love, then we’re nothing.
Paul thinks they don’t understand love, so he describes it for them in 15 different ways, explaining what love is, and what it’s not: ‘Love is always patient and kind; it’s never jealous; it’s never boastful or conceited; it’s never rude or selfish …’ he writes.
But his key point is that love isn’t just a feeling; it’s a conscious decision. And love between two people can only last if they behave in ways that strengthen the relationship, and not weaken it.
These words from St Paul are some of the most beautiful ever written about love. Most of us have heard them before, especially at weddings.
But do we actually live by them? Let’s revisit verses 4-8, and see if the words apply to ourselves:
I’m always patient; I’m always kind; I’m never jealous; I don’t boast; I’m not proud; I’m never rude or selfish; I don’t get angry; I’m not resentful. I take no pleasure in other people’s sins; I always rejoice in the truth; I’m always ready to forgive, to trust, to hope and to endure whatever comes.
Do these words describe you? If not, would you like them to?
The problem for many of us is that we love the idea of love, but we also like putting ourselves and our own interests first. And we’re reluctant to change.
St Thomas Aquinas once said that love is in the mind, in the will and in the decisions we make. It’s not just a feeling.
In fact, love cannot just be a feeling. As Richard Rohr points out, Jesus commands us to love, and you can’t command feelings.
Jesus doesn’t say, love when you get healed. He doesn’t say, love when you grow up. He doesn’t say, love when you feel loving. And he doesn’t say, love when you get it together and have dealt with all your problems.
No, Jesus says love one another as I have loved you (Jn.13:34-35). The commandment for all of us is to love now and so fill the tragic gaps of every moment. [ii]
Love, therefore, is a decision, not a feeling, and as Christians it’s also our obligation.
All of this is certainly a challenge. We’re all caught up in a spiritual tug of war, pulled from one side to the other. Ultimately, though, what we’re experiencing is the struggle between heaven and hell, and we need to choose.
Huston Smith, in his book The Soul of Christianity, says that just as scripts are not plays and music is not music until it’s performed, so our Christian faith really isn’t faith until we start performing as genuine Christian disciples. [iii]
And how do we perform our Christian faith?
the decision to love, even when we don’t feel like it.
[i] Richard Rohr, Yes, And …, Franciscan Media, Cincinatti, 2013, p.167.
[ii] Op cit., p.15.
[iii] Huston Smith, The Soul of Christianity. HarperSanFrancisco, 2005:154.