Suffering teaches me important lessons.
I am often not the most willing of students when suffering comes knocking at my door. However, through no merit of my own, new awarenesses cross my threshold and enter my heart. God’s grace and mercy are not deterred by reluctance.
These past few weeks have been a time of struggle for me. When I wrote of my “wants” in a recent post, I mentioned one that was particularly poignant: I wanted to visit my friend who is not well.
More weeks have passed and visitors are still not allowed. My heart has been bereft, fertile ground for the grim teacher to plant seeds for new growth.
If only I can accept them, tending to them until they germinate and develop roots that penetrate the depths of my soul…
In the past week or two, I was reminded of the “New Commandment”. It simply came into my mind uninvited – but welcome nourishment for my dry soul.
The Gospels tell us that, when asked what to do to enter the Kingdom, Jesus instructed the inquirers to “keep the commandments”.
And when the people asked Him which commandment was the most important, He made it even simpler by summarizing the Law and the prophets in this way:
You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. (Matthew 22: 37-39)
He was not giving them any new commandments but helping them to understand the old – for both aspects of this instruction were already present in the Law. He even told a story to help them (and us) understand who we ought to consider our neighbor.
We all know that, despite the simplicity of this command, it is hard for us to carry out. To love God will all of myself, holding back nothing. To love everyone and to want for everyone what I want for myself. Not nearly as easy as it sounds.
But the new commandment, given to His closest friends at the Last Supper, asks for even more.
I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. This is how all will know that you are my disciples… (John 13: 34-35)
So what is it that makes this commandment new? On the surface, it seems much like the one He already imparted.
“As I have loved you…” These are the words that penetrate to the very core.
To be His disciple, I must love all people as He has loved me. It is no longer enough to merely love others as I love myself.
I cannot escape the reality that He has loved me more than He loved Himself in this earthly life. For He willingly gave up His life that I might be freed from the eternal death to which I was consigned by sin.
Yes, He loved me more than Himself.
This is the Cross. The Cross that I both fear and long for.
So does this mean that I am called to die for others? Perhaps someday it shall.
But for now, to keep the New Commandment involves not one big sacrifice but all sorts of small sacrifices that, unfortunately, don’t always feel so small to me.
Someone leaves me a message, wanting to talk. Perhaps I am tired or don’t feel well or just want to do something else. If I am to love the other more than myself, how can I close the door to such a small request?
And so I must leave the door open and allow God to decide what happens next. If I am loving Him with all of my heart, soul and mind, I am His to use as He pleases.
And I trust that His plan to use me for love, however that manifests itself, is far better for me than anything I might prefer.
Along the same vein, if I sorrow over not being able to see my friend (for sorrow is a normal emotion not to be squelched), once again, I am called to seek the way of greater love.
When consumed with love of self, I may complain and feel sorry for myself. I may even want to break down the doors and disobey. I may convince myself that these reactions are because I love my friend. However, in truth, they would be because I love myself.
To love God and my neighbor more than myself oftentimes results in suffering.
Keeping the New Commandment bids me to bear this suffering patiently, to bear it out of love. To die a small death for my friend.
This death I die is one of many deaths to self I must die.
Apart from Christ, such a death has no meaning, no power. However, when I empty my heart into His Sacred Heart, it is, perhaps, the most powerful prayer I could possibly offer for another.
For those who know me as a psychologist, this notion of loving others more than myself may seem out of character.
What happened to all that psychobabble about learning to put yourself first? Or the suggestion that it is unhealthy to take care of others at your own expense?
Yup. I’ve said those things. And meant them.
There is a vast difference between codependency and discipleship, though we may sometimes be blind to the distinction.
As I have written elsewhere, I cannot give myself completely to the service of God and neighbor unless I first have a self.
And what does it mean to “have a self”?
It means to have a coherent sense of who I am, as well as a firm awareness that who I am is someone both loved and loveable. To have a healthy self is to accept all that I am in a realistic manner, both the beauty and the inevitable imperfections that are me.
Many of us have been wounded by events beyond our control and, because of our wounds, we have never developed a coherent self or, alternately, our sense of self has been badly damaged.
Certainly it is no one’s fault if they are so injured. Even when there is a long list of mistakes made, seeming to confirm culpability, in reality the mistakes are more often evidence of the depth of the wounds than of the “badness” of the wounded one.
And what is the difference between the unhealthy putting-others-ahead-of-self (which we call codependency) and the sacrificing of self for love of God and neighbor?
Frankly, it is not always easy to discern. Sometimes we may genuinely think we are following the way of the Lord when we are not. We may find it too disturbing to look at our wounds and therefore hide our pain beneath a facade of being “loving”.
Perhaps more loving than anyone else we know.
Being “more loving than anyone else” is but one of a number of possible indicators that we may be lost in unhealthy self-giving.
Some of the other indicators?
When “loving” makes us sick, mentally or physically.
Or when it makes others sick, mentally or physically.
When our efforts to give of ourselves result in ongoing disaster or drama, bearing no real fruit for anyone.
When resentment builds up in us because no one appreciates our love.
Such happenings develop from a genuine desire for love by the wounded and therefore ought to be regarded with compassion and respect, despite their dysfunctional nature.
The seriously wounded person often faces a great dilemma. When trying to give from an absent or damaged self, there exists an agenda which may be hidden from conscious awareness: the need to create or repair the self.
Beneath the surface, a little voice urges more and more giving, “If I love more, then I will be loved in return. And then, when I finally know that I am loved, I will have worth.”
This is not only unsound thinking – it will never achieve its goal.
And it is not at all what the Gospel calls us to do.
I have diverted from my spiritual discussion to one sounding more psychological in tone. Yet we cannot separate these parts of ourselves into neat little compartments.
I write of “the wounded” but aren’t we all wounded to some degree?
Indeed, we are. And yet, for reasons beyond our comprehension, some among us have been given greater burdens to bear than others in this regard.
As each of us seeks to follow Christ and His commands, it is vital that we watch for and respect our own vulnerabilities, lest our efforts to give and sacrifice lead us away from Him and onto a self-destructive path.
None of us are meant to give ourselves to God in precisely the same way. Although some seem to have been given deeper wells to draw from than others, the humble gift of one who has little may actually be greater in the eyes of the Lord (see Luke 21: 1 for the story of the widow’s mite).
Where we are on the path to God is not nearly as important as simply being on the path. Walking forward with a sincere heart.
And whether our wounds are small or great, we are to bring them to our Savior for healing.
As we all are at different stages of life biologically, so too are we at varying stages of healing spiritually. We need feel no shame in bringing our wounds to the Lord. Nor should we fear any reprimand from Him if we are not yet whole enough to love as He did.
When the Lord Jesus encountered someone beset with disease, demons or sin, did He start giving them commands first thing?
Of course not. He looked at them with love – and then He healed them, cast out their demons and forgave them.
It was only then that He gave them instructions – to go home, to make an offering to the priest, or perhaps to avoid repeating their sin. Simple instructions for the newly healed, to start them on the path to God.
They were allowed to be beginners – and so are we.
As I have noted elsewhere, I am not good at being a beginner.
I can write about the way of love as though I am some sort of expert – but I am nothing of the sort.
In reality, I cannot live out the New Commandment anymore than the apostles could when they first heard it. And this is, in part, because I cannot comprehend the depths of how He has loved me.
When I consider the apostles listening to Christ’s final message to them before His death, I see myself being very much like them. I am ready to make all kinds of promises to follow Him wherever He goes.
I’ll stick with Him no matter what. I won’t betray Him.
However, when the actuality of “suffering” and “sacrifice” come upon me, I become frightened and I pull back, much like Peter who three times denied knowing Jesus the very next day.
The same Peter who began to sink when he stepped out of the boat to come to Christ upon the water. He wanted to walk with the Lord but was not ready for all it entailed.
Paradoxically, I can only come to know His love for me out of the depths of my wounds, my own suffering. When I am at the point where I cry out to Him in fear and desperation, “Lord, save me!”, as did Peter, it is then that I begin to understand.
All the fine words about my love for Him and what I am willing to do for Him mean nothing until, unable to breathe, I feel the grasp of His hand as I blindly reach into the darkness.
It is not I who have loved Him. It is He who has loved me.
But this is not a single lesson that I can learn once and be done with it. I must reach out for Him, again and again.
I must remember that I can never save myself. That I am incapable of love apart from Him.
To help me learn, my loving Lord allows me to sink into the suffering of myself over and over again.
He allows me to grow bored with Him, to doubt Him, to betray Him. To feel myself drowning in my fears and sorrows and rages until I cannot breathe.
“Lord, save me!” I cry once more.
And each time I reach out into the darkness and feel His hand grasp mine, I grow just a bit closer to knowing what it means to be so loved that I long to give away everything I have just received.
Indeed, when such a love takes possession of me, I will long to die the many little deaths I must die.
But I am not there yet. Despite all my words, I am a beginner, a reluctant learner who pulls back at the slightest assault on my security and comfort.
I am weak. I am afraid.
The discovery (and rediscovery) of my weakness is not a pleasant lesson. But it is a good one.
I must know weakness to receive His love. I must know weakness to give His love.
Were the Lord to allow me to see myself as strong, I might be tempted to believe that He loved me because of my strength.
I would not receive His love because I would grow to think that I did not need it.
In truth, He loves me in spite of my weakness. Humbled, I open my hands and receive the riches of His mercy.
Were He to allow me to see myself as strong, I might be tempted to think that I am better than “the weak” to whom I offer these riches.
In truth, as one of the weak, I can only share what I myself have received. Anything else would be a sham and a mockery of our Savior.
For the Lord is not taking me to a place where He Himself has not willingly gone before. Having embraced weakness, first in the Incarnation, then at the Cross, He lovingly surrendered all claim to the supremacy that was rightfully His.
Weakness in itself has no meaning or virtue. But when Christ our Savior entered into our weakness out of love, He made it holy.
I still do not like being weak. And I continue to resist suffering.
I am a beginner, somewhere on the path to love.
The way of love can be very hard to follow at times. Yet there is no other path I would rather walk.
I can only live for Him Who has loved me and become the Way and the Truth of my Life.
All you who are weak, who are beginners, my brothers and sisters – walk with me. We are not alone. He is always walking beside us – ready to grasp our hands when from out of our darkness we reach for Him.
All glory to Him forever. Amen.