Tough love: When loving your neighbor isn’t easy

Dr. Susan Selner-Wright

This is a very difficult time for all of us.  The polarization of our political parties seems to be echoed in deep divisions right across our culture.  Acts of hatred and violence committed by extremists and opportunists shock us daily. Many of us are suffering rifts within our own families that feel unbridgeable.  Sometimes that is because we disagree politically. Sometimes it is because someone thinks that our failure to affirm their choices means we don’t love them. What is a Catholic to do?  How do we love one another as Jesus commands when there is so much hatred all around us and even directed toward us? What do we do when people think we don’t love them because we disagree with them?   

First, we must remember what a Catholic means by “love.” For us, love is not primarily a matter of emotion or attraction.  Nor is it an endorsement of all of someone’s thoughts and actions. Love is not an emotion or a judgment but rather a matter of the will.  To love people as a Catholic Christian means wanting what is good for them and, if possible, doing what is good for them, whatever our feelings about them or our assessment of their choices may be. To love someone who does not love us is difficult precisely because our feelings run the other way. And wanting what is good for someone sometimes means that, if we know that their choices are not good for them, affirming those choices would be an act of cowardice not of love.  Love of those who seem to hate us and love of those we disagree with – let’s look at these one at a time.  

Loving those who don’t love us 

Jesus understands well the difficulty of loving those who seem to hate us.  His command, “Do to others as you would have them do to you,” is immediately followed by this caution:  “For if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do the same. … [R]ather, love your enemies and do good to them” (Lk 6: 32-33,35). 

This is not easy! Our resentment and even fear of those who do not love us may make it seem impossible to obey Jesus’ command to love them as we love ourselves.  But this is precisely why Jesus gives us this command as the second of the two great commandments: we cannot obey it unless we are already obeying the first: “‘You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind’” (Mt 22: 37-40; Cf. Mk 12: 29-31 and Lk 10:27-28).   

Before we can mend any of our human relationships, each of us must first examine our own relationship with God.  Do I pray?  Do I come before him with the humility to wonder how I might have been a better Christian today?  Do I consider the beam in my own eye before I start complaining about my brother?  Am I mindful that God personally willed me into existence?  Am I grateful for that?  Do I accept his offer of help along the road in this life?  Do I aim myself toward eternal life with him?  This self-reflection is essential if we are to cultivate the love that Jesus commands. 

We cannot want the good for those who hate us or threaten us unless we recognize that they, like us, are sons and daughters of the God whom we love with all our hearts and souls and minds.  They, like us, were individually called into existence by God so that they, like us, might come to choose eternal life with him.  It is our common source and destiny in God that makes authentic human community possible.  This is what it means to establish the kingdom of God.   

So let’s resolve that the next time we are overwhelmed with anxiety or anger because of the words or actions of someone who does not love us, our first move will be onto our knees to pray for that person—to ask that God, who knows what is good for him or her, will bless this person.  And if we have an opportunity to do something good for this person, we should do it.

Loving those whose choices we cannot affirm 

For many of us, praying for our enemies comes more easily than disagreeing with someone we love about something that is important to them. But if we genuinely want the good of another, we cannot blindly endorse whatever they may happen to think is the good for themselves at a particular moment. That might be what they want, but as any parent knows, loving someone and giving them everything they want are not the same at all.  Giving a child everything he or she wants is, in fact, a very destructive form of negligence.   

Recent controversy over a deceptively edited portion of the film “Francesco” has brought to the fore once again the question of the loving response of the family to a member who is same-sex attracted and who chooses to engage in homosexual activity.  Through the Vatican Secretariat of State, Pope Francis has now formally clarified that when he said homosexual persons have a “right” to a family he was repeating a point he has consistently made throughout his ministry, i.e. that no family should mistreat or ostracize a member who is same sex attracted, even if that family member acts on that attraction.  To love this person is to want their authentic good, and among the most important of those goods is an open door and a welcoming ear.  That doesn’t mean agreeing with everything they say or cooperating in things that convey our approval of choices we can’t approve.   

Just as in our love for those who hate us, we cannot properly love those with whom we disagree if we are not already loving God rightly. If we believe that Jesus gave us the Church to be a reliable guide in discerning God’s will, then we must adhere to the Church’s moral teaching in our own lives and, when someone we love chooses something that the Church teaches is not good for them, we must continue to welcome them, continue to share as much of our lives with them as we can, and prepare to share the truth about God’s will with them if a time comes when they are ready to hear it as we mean it: in love. 

COMING UP: Five tips for reading the Word of God

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Sunday, Jan. 24 marks “The Sunday of the Word of God,” instituted by Pope Francis last year and to be held every year on the third Sunday of Ordinary Time. This may strike us as odd, as we might think to ourselves, “but isn’t the Bible read at every Sunday Mass?” Certainly so. Not only that, but every daily celebration of the Mass proclaims the Word of God.

What’s different about “The Sunday of the Word of God,” however, is that it’s not just about hearing the Bible read on Sundays. As the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith notes, it “reminds us, pastors and faithful alike, of the importance and value of Sacred Scripture for the Christian life, as well as the relationship between the word of God and the liturgy: ‘As Christians, we are one people, making our pilgrim way through history, sustained by the Lord, present in our midst, who speaks to us and nourishes us. A day devoted to the Bible should not be seen as a yearly event but rather a year-long event, for we urgently need to grow in our knowledge and love of the Scriptures and of the Risen Lord, who continues to speak his word and to break bread in the community of believers. For this reason, we need to develop a closer relationship with Sacred Scripture; otherwise, our hearts will remain cold and our eyes shut, inflicted as we are by so many forms of blindness.’” This gives us a wonderful opportunity to pause and reflect on the Sacred Scriptures. 

There are two means by which God Divinely reveals truths to us: Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. As such, the Bible is not merely a human document, nor simply a collection of amazing stories that call us to do heroic things, or a collection of wise sayings. Rather, the Scriptures are “inspired.” St. Paul has a beautiful teaching about this in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 – “All scripture, inspired of God, is profitable to teach, to reprove, to correct, to instruct in justice, That the man of God may be perfect, furnished to every good work.” By “inspired” we mean that God is the principle author of the Bible.

Certainly there were different men who physically wrote the words on the papyrus. Yet these men were influenced by the grace of inspiration to write, not just their own words, but God’s. And so the Scriptures are a mysterious congruence of Divine and human authorship – the human writers capably made full use of language, literary forms, creativity, and writing style to communicate their message, yet they did so under the grace of Divine inspiration. This means that while they wrote in such a way that they had full freedom to write as they wanted, what they wrote was also, “to a tee,” exactly as God wanted written. God is the principle author of the Bible, the human author its secondary writer. Such inspiration is how, despite the various human authors, events, and historical and cultural contexts behind the 73 Biblical texts, we’re still left with only one story since they all have the same one primary author. 

Given that the Bible is the written word of God, I’d like to offer a few “tips” for reading the Bible, since it certainly cannot be read like any other text. 

1. Pray! We must pray before opening the Scriptures for enlightenment from God. We must pray after reading in thanksgiving to God. And we must pray throughout reading in order to encounter God in Scripture and apply it to our life. Of course, the tried and trusted practice of praying the Scriptures is Lectio DivinaThe Ladder of Monks by Guigo II is the ancient resource for Lectio Divina, while a helpful book to get you started is Dr. Tim Gray’s Praying Scripture for a Change: An Introduction to Lectio Divina

2. Remember that you are in no rush. The important point is encountering Christ in the Scriptures, not racing through them. Speed reading isn’t reading, after all, much less when applied to the Word of God. It’s not about getting through the Bible, but encountering Christ therein. That may be a few chapters at a time or may actually be only one verse that you pray with. Whatever the case, slow and steady wins the race, as Aesop reminds us. 

3. We have to read the Scriptures regularly, daily if possible. We read in Psalm 1, “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.” Meditating day and night. A good way to start would be to read one Psalm a night as a part of your nightly prayer. Ever better would be praying that one Psalm with your spouse, if married. 

4. Do not worry about starting on page one and reading from cover to cover. It’s easy to get overwhelmed and lost in the text. We all know about Adam and Eve, Noah and the Flood, Moses and the Plagues. But how many understand animal sacrifices in the Book of Leviticus or its purity laws? It’s very easy, starting from page one and flipping straight through, to lose sight of the story of salvation history. Start from page one if you’d like, but don’t feel like you can’t start with whatever book (especially the Gospels) that you find yourself drawn to. 

5. Come take classes with the Denver Catholic Biblical School! In chapter eight of the Book of Acts, we read of an Ethiopian Eunuch reading from the Prophet Isaiah. When the Deacon Philip asks him if he understands what he’s reading, the Eunuch responds, “How can I, unless some one guides me?” This is what we at the Biblical School are here for – to guide you in your encounter with Christ in the Sacred Scriptures. We’re in the middle of our Scripture classes already for this year, but we always start new classes in the fall every September. And in the meantime, we have plenty of things still coming for this year – a class on Catholic Social Teaching that begins on Jan. 27 a lecture series for Lent that starts on March 1, a conference on the Sacred Heart being offered on May 15 and Aug. 28, and a six-week class on St. Joseph in the summer starting in July. We have something for everybody – just reach out to us!