Members of Sacred Heart Church, Waynesboro, hold hands and lift their arms in praise as, in unity, they recite the Lord’s Prayer during the celebration of Mass on Sunday, July 21. Photograph by Michael J. Johnson.
Commentary

Loving others is a choice

Originally Appeared in : 9916-8/1/19

In an adult faith formation group, we were recently discussing the nature of Christian love. How can we love people we don’t know? How can we love our enemies? How can we love people who have harmed us?

 

The conversation was sparked by this passage from the Gospel of John (9-13):

 

 “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

 

One man in the group shared this insight: We can love as Jesus calls us to do by conscious choice and not by relying on a feeling. His insight captured the essence of Christian love. It is an act of the will. Christian love is to will the good of another. 

 

We all know how fickle our feelings are. And we often lament the trend in our society to rely on our feelings to determine painful outcomes. “We fell out of love,” can lead to divorce. “I felt so hurt,” can lead to bitterness and resentment. 

 

Conversely, “I feel as if he’s the center of my world” can lead to an unhealthy dependence. “We’re madly in love” can result in rushed intimacy.
In the first chapter of his DVD series, “The Be Attitudes: Ten Paths to Holiness,” Fr. Albert Haase, O.F.M, tells a story about his time as a missionary in China. At a 25th anniversary celebration for a Chinese friend, he asks her when she fell in love with her husband. She laughed and said that she and her husband never “fell” in love, they made the commitment to love.

 

Even when we Christians can wrap our minds around the concept of choosing to love ALL people, as Jesus commands us, we still have a hard time doing so. 

 

It’s in our human nature to see love as a meritocracy. Love seems connected to goodness and innocence, so we find it natural to love those who are good and innocent: the newborn baby, the gentle child, the saint, the loyal friend. 

 

And so we struggle to love those who are not naturally appealing: the rude person, the angry friend, the sinner, the murderer, the one who betrays us. 

 

It’s in the midst of that struggle when we recognize our need for grace. Only through God’s grace can we love those who are difficult to love.
I’ll tell a story to illustrate my own weakness in this regard. I was at Mass, and I sat in the pew next to three women whom I don’t know. During this Mass we were recognizing the graduates of our parish. As the graduates were being called forward to receive a small gift from the parish, these women were talking loudly enough for me to hear. They were criticizing our pastor and the gift he was passing out. They were so distracting, I couldn’t concentrate. I knew some of the graduates and wanted to celebrate this moment with them. 

 

I felt so angry about their behavior, especially as it was just after we had just received Jesus in the Eucharist. I left the church furious that they subjected me to their pettiness and griping. I vowed I would never again sit near them at Mass.

 

One might say I was justified in my anger. Their behavior was inappropriate at best, scandalous at worst. Yet I allowed their behavior to get under my skin, and I allowed what I heard to destroy my peace and sense of communion.

 

How was my response at Mass different from a parishioner judging another for their choice in clothing? Another’s perceived irreverence? How is that different from judging a parent for not quieting a fussy child? 

 

When contemplating this experience, I have come to realize that my righteous anger prevents me from choosing to love. And my feelings at the time were more important to me than what Christ calls me to do.

 

This insight — that my perceived righteous anger permits me and justifies me to feel alienated from my brothers and sisters — strikes at the heart of how we remain in a state of disunity, as a world, as a nation, and as a Church.

 

What would happen if we all committed to love everyone regardless of how they make us feel? We can’t do that on our own. Our human frailty prevents us from perceiving our bond to all others, even those we perceive as enemies. But to come closer to this way of loving, we can try these steps.

 

First, we must acknowledge that loving others is a choice. Second, we must recognize that our feelings are not reliable when it comes to love. Third, we must recognize that Jesus loves everyone, even those whom we despise. And, in order to love those people or groups we cannot abide, we must ask to see them as he does. This process requires the work of a lifetime, but it is what we are called to do. 

 

As long as we allow our righteous indignation to close our hearts to others, we will never fully realize the kingdom Jesus proclaims. 
In the life of a Christian, nothing is more important. As St. John of the Cross observed: “In the evening of life, we will be judged on love alone.” 

Mary Hood Hart is a freelance writer and educator living in Pittsboro, NC. She can be reached at
 maryhoodhart@gmail.com

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