“THERE IS NOTHING NEW UNDER THE SUN!” (Ecclesiastes 1:9) When the author of these words wrote them back in the 3rd or 4th century BC, he never thought that they would become a stock phrase in the 3rd millennium AD, in a language that as yet did not exist. This and other Bible phrases like “A wolf in sheep’s clothing” (Matthew 7:15) or “Money is the root of all evil” (1 Timothy 6:10) would be repeated by people who did not know they came from the Bible or the content in which they first were written.
Another such phrase which has entered our vocabulary poses an interesting question. “God loves a cheerful giver” (1 Corinthians 9:7) is easily remembered and understood, but is it so easily lived? Many people know that they ought to do “good works” or be generous, but do it reluctantly, out of a sense of obligation. From our earliest years we learn not to be selfish, yet we often secretly resent having to make room for another at our table or donate to yet another cause. Yet the Scripture repeatedly calls on us to develop a cheerful liberality in our dealings with others. We seem to always be asked to give, but find ourselves resenting that we never really receive anything in turn.
St John Chrysostom insists that we have receive inestimable blessings, gifts that we have not yet learned to cherish: “Who that is receiving a kingdom, has a long face? Who that is receiving pardon for his sins keeps frowning?” When we have the knowledge of God’s love for us firmly in our heart, then what to some may be a burden, to others is a joy.
In his Epistle to the Romans St. Paul encourages us to use whatever gifts we may have been given to build up the Church. He also indicates the spirit in which these gifts should be exercised. “[Let] he who gives, [do so] with liberality; he who leads, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness.” Those who share material goods are to do more than to share them; they are to be truly generous, to give from their heart. Those who lead are not simply to seek the honor of leader, but to do the often thankless work of a leader conscientiously. Those whose gift it is to minister to those in need are not to lord it over them or play the martyr but to be cheerful in their service.
St John Chrysostom confronted the paradox of those who did good deeds without those deeds proceeding from an open heart. “Why do you complain that you have given alms? Why do you grieve at showing mercy, and lose the advantage of the good you have done? For if you serve grudgingly, you are not being merciful but cruel and inhuman. For if you grieve, how shall you be able to raise up the sorrowful … since nothing seems to men such a disgrace as to be receiving from others? By an exceedingly cheerful look …you show that you are receiving rather than giving, you will even cast down the receiver rather than raise him up. This is why he says, ‘He that shows mercy, with cheerfulness.’”
The epistle continues in the same theme: love, but without pretense. Do not simply pretend to love. Give preference to others and do it fervently. Rejoice, be patient, be steadfast. The burden of being a Christian seems to grow with every line. How do we attain a heart so open to God and His world that these injunctions no longer seem a burden?
Opening Ourselves to Others
Often, like Charles Schultz’ character in Peanuts, we find ourselves saying, “I love mankind – its people I can’t stand.” Our abstract commitment to love is sorely tested when we come into contact with concrete examples of people who are hard to love. We retreat into seeing the world as “us” (those we like, whose company we enjoy) and “them” (everyone else). Is this the way life is meant to be lived?
The call to reach out to one another, to love one another is a burden to many Christians. To do so runs counter to the egocentric bent of our fallen nature. It has been said that we continually try to reconstruct around us the world of our childhood, where we were at the center. Then we either pulled things and people toward ourselves in order to possess them or we pushed them away to keep them from dominating us. Thus we often find ourselves trying to organize the world around us: the family, the parish, the organizations to which we may belong. At the same time we may be indifferent to others who are not of our family, our clan, our nationality or our social class. We may prefer to keep out of sight those who do not contribute to our perceived identity.
We can begin to deal with this aspect of our broken nature in ourselves by prayer. Repeatedly asking God to help us overcome our indifference to others will gradually produce an openness to those whom God has placed in our life. Reflecting on the Prayer of St. Ephrem the Syrian can help us to see the ways in which our passions stand in the way of being openhearted in our dealings with others. While this prayer is used liturgically only during the Fast, it may be an important part of our private prayers at any time.
O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, despondency, lust for power and idle talk.
We ask in this prayer to be delivered from the two extremes to which we may be prone. Sloth here represents the general feeling of indifference we may have to others and despondency points to joylessness that results when we try to live the Christian way of life. When we surrender to such feelings in the spiritual life we become like people suffering from depression who may go through the motions of living but find no joy in life itself.
The opposite feelings, lust for power and idle talk, represent our attempts to control others rather than to serve them. We may try to “help” others by telling them how they should be living or directing how they should be dealing with their problems. We try to be “elders” when we are still spiritual children.
But grant unto me, Thy servant, a spirit of chastity (σωφρόσυνη/sōphrosunē), humility, patience and love.
The second phrase gives us the virtues which we need to correct our fallen inclinations. The first of them, chastity and humility, are the opposite of lust for power. Chastity refuses to dominate physically or sexually; humility refuses to dominate spiritually or psychologically. Disinterested love is possible only when we no longer are trying to depersonalize others by controlling them.
The tendency to give up on ourselves and others is countered by patience and love (ἀγάπη/agape). A parent endures the “terrible twos” or the “traumatic teens” only with these qualities. A friend and especially a brother or sister in Christ needs the same character to bear the burdens of others.
Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see mine own faults and not to judge my brother. For You are blessed unto the ages of ages. Amen.
It is so much easier, as the Lord noted, to see a speck in someone else’s eye than to see the log in our own. Rather seeing myself as a sinner and my brother as beloved of God makes the spaces that separate us from one another seem to vanish, bringing me closer to following Christ who the Lover of Mankind and the One who sees the absolute worth of each person as well. We see that He truly loves us to the very core of our being and that He loves “them” the same way.