One of the great struggles of our time is to want what is good, but to realize that, simply wanting what is good, is not enough. We must want what is good in ways that are upright, just, peaceful, and serene.
As Christians, and particularly Christians who engage on the Internet, we run the risk of desiring to influence the culture, and correct the errors of our days, (which are both good things), but we can do this in ways that are hostile, unnecessarily argumentative, and sometimes just plain mean.
It is not enough for us to do that which is good, e.g. speak the truth, we must do this in ways that are good, i.e. we must speak the truth in love. And even though love must sometimes be firm, and unambiguous, it must in fact be rooted in love.
This fact is not always evident in the discussions that take place on blog comboxes, between Christians, let alone Christians and non-Christians. Too often, our discussions are marked by impatience, name-calling, unnecessary harshness, leaping to conclusions, all or nothing thinking, rash judgments, oversimplifications, and many other negative tendencies which tend to poison the discussion, or shut it down altogether.
Again, it is not enough to want that which is good, we must want what is good in a good way, and to seek to achieve it in a good way.
I would like to take some reflections of the theologian Jacques Philippe who speaks eloquently of this need for a “double goodness.” His reflections point not only to an external goodness, but also address the need for an internal righteousness that helps us maintain serenity, and avoid the impatience and the combative attitude that too easily leads to sin. I am here quoting from his Book, Searching for and Maintaining Peace:
Not only must we be careful to want and desire good things for their own sake, but also to want and desire them in a way that is good. To be attentive not only to that which we want, but also to the way in which we want them. We may want something which is good, and even very good, but we can want it in a way that is bad.
In order to understand, [let us take an example]. It is normal that the superior of a community should watch over the sanctity of those in his care. Is an excellent thing, and conforms to the will of God. But if this superior gets angry, irritated or loses his peace over the imperfections or the lack of fervor of his brothers, it is certainly not the Holy Spirit that is animating him.
And we often have this tendency. Because the thing we want is good, even seen as desired by God, we feel justified in wanting it with that much more impatience and displeasure if it is not realized. The more a thing seems good to us, the more we are agitated and preoccupied to realize it! [Kindle Edition Loc 669-85].
And here we see a very good description of the impatience of the modern age, especially of those who live in the 24/7 news cycle. Too often, we want immediate results and we fail to see that the proclamation of the gospel is often a long-term process.
In particular, many Catholics have impatience with the Church, wanting immediate action, strong pronunciations, and quick solutions to problems that, frankly, have set in over several generations, and whose philosophical roots stretch back several centuries.
By nature, the Church is slow and deliberate, thinking more in centuries, than in 24-hour news cycles. There is a patience built in to her ways that often infuriates those of us caught up into the fast pace of modern world. Yet this patience, is born in many centuries of experience that rash solutions often cause more harm in the long run, and often harm the innocent along with the guilty, the wheat is harmed in puling up the weeds too hastily. Frankly one strategy of the Church is to out-live her opponents, and it hasn’t worked too poorly. And, I will say, in my own life, I have seen many good reforms take root and grow, but it does take time. We are in a far better condition today in the Church than we were in the 1970s and 80s.
Prudential judgments about when and when not to punish, or how quickly to respond and in what manner, are, of themselves, judgments about which reasonable people will differ. It is not, therefore, sinful for someone to wish that the Church would act more swiftly or more severely in a certain matter, or, conversely, more slowly and with greater leniency in another matter. Where sin sets in however, is when those who disagree with the approach, adopt a dogmatic attitude, as though the proper course of action was dogma, rather than the mere prudential judgment it is. This flawed premise, tends to rob the critics of serenity, which then ushers in, quite frequently, strident language, unnecessary denunciations, and unkind or uncharitable things said of Church leadership, or of other fellow Catholics.
Jacques Philippe goes on to say:
Our wanting must always be caring, peaceful, patient, detached and abandoned to God. It should not be an impatient wanting, hurried, restless, irritated, etc….
All of the Saints insist on telling us that we must moderate our desires, even the best of them…. St. Francis DeSales goes so far as to say “nothing retards progress in virtue so much as wanting to acquire it with too much haste!”…..
A desire that causes us to lose peace, even if the thing desired is excellent in itself, is not of God. It is necessary to want and desire, but in a free and detached way, in abandoning to God the realization of these desires, as He desires and when He wishes. [Ibidem].
Therefore we do well to consider not only if our goal is good, but if the means to that goal is good and Godly. It is clear that one way Satan can easily delude us is tempt us into a false sense of righteousness. And thus, having determined that our goal or purpose is good, we reflect poorly on the means to that end. The scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day often had good insight into what was right, but they erred in their harsh treatment of others, and their egotistical and exaggerated sense of self-righteousness. And thus their pride eclipsed what was good in them.
We must be careful, my fellow cultural warriors, for in the battle for what is right (a battle both good and necessary), we can sometimes loose our way. Even if Satan cannot trap us by having us deny the truth, he can still trap us by robbing us of charity. And though we claim to see the light, we are enveloped by the darkness of of mean-spirited rhetoric, unnecessary critique, rash judgment, disrespect, insubordination and so on.
I realize that the “the world” often defines down love and charity simply to mean being agreeable and “nice.” It cannot be so reduced. True love reverences the truth and must sometimes speak to hard things. That the world is wrong about this does not however give us the right to wholly abandon love’s rightful requirements.
As Jacques Philippe notes above, a lack of inner serenity is a sure sign that our desire to set things right (good though that desire is in itself) is not of God. We would be on the battlefield for our Lord must ask a purification of our desires. For, it is not enough to want that which is good. We must also be willing to pursue that which is good in a way that good.
The Photo at the upper right is the Coat of Arms of James Cardinal Hickey, the Archbishop who ordained me. The motto is appropriate for our consideration here: “The Truth in Charity.”
In this video Fr. Francis Martin reminds of the patience we are often called to have in the battle. especially the patients to slake that desire to throw lots of people out of the Church in our anger and frustration. There are times when excommunication is necessary. But as this video reminds, much must also be left to God.