How can I practice true Christian charity in the face of worldly ideas of love?

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Roslan Rahman | AFP
There is a mechanism that brings balance to both kindness and truth; without it, our efforts are incomplete.

I live in a bustling convent with more than 50 religious sisters. Our community is large and there is no shortage of opportunities to do charitable acts, whether it is in washing the dishes, patiently listening to another sister, or picking up someone from the airport. Over time, however, as I have observed myself in community, I have realized that when I do something charitable, it is often out of some form of self-interest.

If we closely observe our interior emotional life — and if we are honest with ourselves — many of us would realize that we often do seemingly loving things for selfish reasons. We love in order to gain the appreciation of others, to be liked, to feel superior to others, to feel needed, and to keep friends. We perform acts of love in order to get something in return. Because charitable acts can so easily mask selfish love, I’ve asked myself many times, “What is true Christian charity?” and “How can I live real love?”

Learning what Christian charity looks like has been a long journey for me and, after seven years in the convent, I can say that I am just barely beginning to grasp what it really looks like. One thing I’ve realized is that it doesn’t look like the secular, worldly idea that defines love as a sentiment: affection that does not “hurt” anyone else. This notion is incomplete, and also inherently flawed, because it is conceived of as separate from and unrelated to God.

But God is love so love without God is simply not love.

Since the love we see professed in the world is divorced from God, it often ends up lacking truth. When love lacks truth, then kindness becomes the most vital aspect of love. Worldly love is kind and tolerant to everyone — except those who believe love includes fraternal correction and an articulation of objective moral truth; for them the greatest intolerance is reserved.

In response to this incorrect view of love, some Christians rightly emphasize that love challenges immoral behavior because it has the good of the other at heart. Unfortunately, this love too often becomes so narrowly focused on correction as to exclude other aspects of the fruits of charity, namely mercy, joy, peace, generosity, friendship, and communion (see CCC 1829).

When Christians do not live the fullness of charity’s fruits, it becomes a source of true scandal and confusion for non-Christians and Christians alike. The scandal of incomplete Christian love causes people to turn away from Jesus and draws people to the outside world’s partial view of love.

All of the confusion around love is one of the reasons I have had difficulty living the virtue of charity in the convent. The world’s emphasis on kindness often leads me to wonder if I am being unloving when I am “unkind.” And the emphasis of some Christians on fraternal correction leads me to think that I am not loving others if I am not constantly correcting them. Either of these approaches, if unbalanced, is incomplete, which can lead to serious pitfalls in the spiritual life. On the one hand, if we are afraid to make sacrifices and challenge ourselves and others, we might find ourselves falling into a false kindness and a love of comfort that is nothing like real love. On the other hand, if we’re over-focused on pinpointing the faults of others rather than loving, we may become judgmental.

Without balance, we become ensnared by our instincts and love is paralyzed. To live for kindness alone is to live superficially. To live for truth divorced from love — which is not truth at all — is to end up frustrated, feeling misunderstood and isolated from others (and very little we do influences the behavior of those we’d like to set to rights).

Amidst this confusion, the power of the Gospel and the grace of our Baptism is, in a way, neutralized, which must please the devil greatly.

So, the question keeps coming back to me, “How can I live true Christian charity?” What is the mechanism that brings balance to both kindness and to truth?

Thomas Merton once wrote, “Our growth in Christ is growth in charity.” As years pass by in the convent, one thing becomes clearer: I cannot live real charity by myself. Left to my own devices, my acts of love often mask selfish intentions. But the virtue of charity is a participation in the love of God himself.

To grow in the virtue of charity, then, is to grow in the life of God. To do that always means the surrendering of one’s own self-interests or concerns. Thus surrender is that missing mechanism; it provides the needed balance that authenticates our Christian charity. Only charity disinterested in itself — in one’s own feelings, or one’s need to feel victorious in some way — can be truly “true.”

Love requires an act of the will, but it also requires a sincere and complete surrender to the action of God within us. This unleashes grace. What separates a charitable person from an uncharitable person is not that one is perfect and the other flawed–we are all broken and selfish in some way. However, when a person has done something truly charitable, they have surrendered their “earthen vessels” (2 Cor 4:7) without expectations to God’s grace, so that it might flow freely and work unencumbered in them, for the good of another.

Anyone can be charitable with God’s help. Anyone can become a conduit of grace, through charity, whether that charity is “kind” or “corrective.” It requires a surrender to the balance Christ models for us in the Gospel, that our love might be rooted in the Truth, and our truth be tempered with Love.

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