Sunday, May 6, 2018

false compassion v. real love

May my words be in the name of the Holy and Undivided Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

I remember when the time came around ten years ago when all agreed that it was time for an aunt of mine to move into a nursing home. All but my aunt that is. She and her husband were childless and he had already moved into a home. She was becoming progressively unwell herself and needed the support of an extensive team of carers and regular visits from the district nurse to remain at home. This came to a rather abrupt end when, while she was having a spell of respite care in the same nursing home as her husband, it was decided by the medical authorities that it was no longer in her best interests to live at home. Their rather grim assessment was that if she returned home she would be dead within a few months; whereas if she was to move permanently into the nursing home there was ever chance that she would live for years with a very good quality of life. They therefore decided that that had to end all home support; because for them to otherwise would be effectively for them to be complicit in hastening her death.

I was the one dispatched to the nursing home on behalf of the family to inform her of their decision. A strong-minded and independent lady, she was not well pleased. Many phone-calls were made to various nephews and nieces, ordering them to come collect her and take her home. None did, knowing that she would returning to an empty house; and that there would be no one there to clean, cook, help her wash, do her shopping, or anything else she needed assistance with. She threatened to call a taxi and make her own way home. Which she could indeed have done; she was perfectly compos mentis; and she was certainly not some kind of a prisoner. Fortunately she did not.

It was, as I am sure all can imagine, quite distressing for all involved. It was very hard to say no to a much loved aunt, one who had been like a second mother to many of us during our childhoods, and later like another grandmother to our children. But to help to return home would have been a false compassion. It would not have been loving behaviour because it would have harmed her. Real love desires what is truly best for the other person; and sometimes that requires tough choices.

In our Gospel reading our Lord commands us to love one another. That he makes it a commandment tells us something very important about love. In the modern era many think of it as being something that we have no control over, that we either love someone or we do not. But our Lord's words make it clear that this is not the case. God does not ask us to do impossible things. He does not ask us to fly, to walk through a solid wall as if we were some kind of a ghost, to see when there is no light. But he does command us to love, which means that it is possible. 

Love, real love, is not an emotion, it is a choice, an act of the will. We decide to love people. When it comes to intimate relationships the physical attraction that we call 'falling in love' may play a part initially; but if that relationship is to have any future the commitment required to make it permanent and life-long requires an act of the will. When it comes to loving others, it also requires an act of the will. There is no requirement that we fall in love with them in some way; or that, in fact, we even find them vaguely likeable. What is required of us by our Lord's command is that we treat them lovingly – and this we can do because our actions are under the control of our wills.

So what must we do to behave lovingly towards others? Well, of course, we know that this includes helping them materially. Christ has told us that food or water or clothes given to those in need is as if it were given to himself; and woe betide those who fail to do so! But Christ also tells us the we must love others as he has loved us; and he came into to world so that all might be saved. This means that to love others we must consider not just their material needs but their spiritual also. The love that we show them must help them on the path to eternal life. And so just as we understand that in order to love God we must keep his commandments, so we must help others to understand this also.

This will often place us in what might be termed an awkward position. Because it means that when we see others doing wrong it is not ok for us to smile and nod and say it is their choice and all choices are equally good. It is indeed their choice, for God gives to all free-will; but those things that go against God's law are not good and we are obliged to say so … not because we wish to tell others what to do but because, out of love, we must warn them of the risks they run and the dangers they face in rejecting what God asks of all his children.

This also, I would suggest, means we must not help people to break God's laws. We should not, for example, lend money to a friend knowing that he plans to use it for drunkenness, gluttony, or debauchery; we should not give a married friend the use of our car for the evening to drive to a liaison with someone other than his or her spouse; and we should oppose laws that make it easier for people to do what commands us not to do. They may do these things anyway; but we do not show love for them, the real love that desires what is best for them in the light of eternity, if we help them to do these things in any way.

Because the help that a person asks for is not always the help that they truly need, what is in their real best interests. And because giving it actually harms them, it is a false compassion. Such false compassion would have persuaded the members of my extended family to return my aunt to her home as she asked for; where she would have soon died. The real love that was shown her has meant that she continues to live in the nursing home with her husband, both receiving the care they need. This love has brought her ten years of happy and healthy life; and will, God willing, bring her many years more. But that kind of love shown to those around us will bring them far more, if they are willing to accept it – eternal life in heaven. I pray that you will show then always the love that they need … just as I pray that others will show you that love also … so that all may one abide for ever in heaven in the love of God: Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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