Monday, August 24, 2015

Self-Sacrificing Love

What is the opposite of love? Is it hate? Is it apathy or indifference?

Pope John Paul II in his book, Love and Responsibility, has an interesting answer to the question. Unlike what we might normally think, the opposite of love is not hate or indifference. Rather, the opposite of loving others is using them.

Any of us who have had the heart-wrenching experience of having been used by another person know how true the Holy Father’s words are. Those who use us do immensely more damage than those who merely hate us. We let such people into our lives because we believed they loved us and wanted to be our friend. We trusted them and may have even shared intimate secrets with them. But when they got from us everything we could give them, they abandoned us leaving us feeling cheap and useless. We feel like fools for ever believing that they were really our friends. Going forward, we find it difficult to ever trust someone again. If they had just hated us rather than used us, they would have done far less damage to our psyches.

When we use others, we treat them as mere objects. We are saying to them that their needs and desires are not as important as our own. We are telling them that their only value lies in what they can do for us. The minute they are no longer useful to us or begin making demands of us, we drop them and move on to our next victim.

How different love is! When we love someone - whether it be a friend or a spouse - we treat him or her as a unique individual full dignity and value.  We accept them for their strengths and their weaknesses. We are by their side in good times and bad. In our concern for their well-being, we often put their needs and interests before our own. Being with them and spending time together is all that we ask. Love always seeks the good of the other even when it is difficult or painful.

Today’s second reading from Saint Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is one of the most difficult readings in all of Scripture for our modern culture to hear - “Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord.” It seems to go against the grain of our ideas about the equal dignity and value of both women and men. Furthermore, the passage has been misused in the past to keep women in harmful and abusive relationships. However, if we read these words in the light of Pope John Paul II’s words and our reflection on the true meaning of love, Saint Paul’s teaching becomes clearer to us.

By being subordinate to each other - by putting the needs and concerns of the other before our own - we make sure that we are never in a position to use the other person. Our submission in love to one another - both the wife for the husband and the husband toward the wife - ensures that we are not in a relationship only to benefit ourselves - to get what we want out of the other person - but that we are really seeking his or her good even when it means sacrifice on our part.

We should also remember that Saint Paul’s words are directed not only to the wife but to the husband: “Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ.” In fact, his words are even stronger for husbands. While he tells wives that they should be subordinate to their husbands, he tells husbands that they should love their wives as Christ loved the Church. And how did Christ love the Church? He died for it. Just so, men should be willing to lay down their lives for their wives.

What does that mean in practical terms? It means taking the time to listen even if it means turning off the TV. It means emptying the dishwasher without being asked or not groaning when the wife points out repairs that are needed in the house. It means going out when we feel like just staying in. Men are often tempted not to do such things because they seem small and insignificant. But to women, these small actions show that we are paying attention to them and attending to their needs.

Though Saint Paul’s words are directed to married couples, they still hold meaning for those of us who may not be married or who are not planning on getting married. In all our relationships we should be practicing love and avoiding using others. By so doing, we imitate Jesus who gave His life up for us. If we can put the needs and concerns of our family members and friends ahead of our own now, it will come more naturally to us later on if we do get married.

We are naturally selfish people. It is not easy for us to put others first. That is where Jesus comes in. He gives us the strength to forget ourselves in service to others through the inspiration of His word and by His Body which He offers to nourish us. When the needs of our loved ones become difficult to bear, when we are tempted to abandon them, we should first turn to Jesus in prayer and ask Him for the strength to carry on. He will not fail to give it to us because, like a good friend, He always puts our needs and concerns ahead of His own.

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