My confessor admitted to a common theme he’s hearing among COVID-19-related confessions: no more patience. I think Mother Angelica hit the nail on the head when she said, “We’d all be perfect if it weren’t for people.” Quarantining with the same people, day after day, will certainly challenge one's holiness, don’t you agree?
But here’s the thing. I was struggling with people before COVID-19. And by people, I mean my family. I am just going to come out and say it at the risk of you not liking me, because up until now you had no idea how selfish I was, but here it goes: why do I always have to be the one to go first?
The first to make the coffee.
The first to ask, “Can I get you more coffee?”
The first to do the dishes.
The first to say sorry.
The first to put others first.
Why can't you go first?
This, sweet sisters, is a toxic weed that we need to pull at the roots. Nothing kills a relationship faster than a tally chart in your head and a stone of pride in your heart. And yet, nurturing the weed is easier than lovingly serving our husbands or friends, especially when it requires putting our own comfort aside.
If we look to Scripture, there is no denying that to “go first” is what we are called to do. Matthew 20:26-28 says, “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” And in Philippians 2:3 we are commanded, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.” Try preaching that one at your next cocktail party.
It’s tempting to follow the world instead of Christ. The world, after all, would support my complaint. The world would see nothing wrong with the bitterness I harbor and anger I justify when, once again, I have to be the one in a relationship that goes first. Have you ever experienced this feeling? Have you ever been in a relationship that was dying a slow death because you couldn't let go of the resentment for always having to go first? If so, I’d like to offer you one small piece of practical advice; a little something that works for me when resentment invites himself into my heart, and I reach for that tally chart.
I turn to Ephesians 6:5-8:
“Slaves, be obedient to your human masters with fear and trembling, in sincerity of heart, as to Christ, not only when being watched, as currying favor, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, willingly serving the Lord and not human beings, knowing that each will be requited from the Lord for whatever good he does, whether he is slave or free.”
There is a sentence tucked neatly in the middle that jumps out at me. Did you catch it?
“Do the will of God from the heart, willingly serving the Lord and not human beings.”
How do we do this? How can we willingly serve God as we struggle with wanting to be served? How do we see God in all of the human faces that we have been staring at for the last three months? I have an idea. And listen up, because I am not saying this is easy but nothing worth gaining heaven ever is. The next time you are called to go first, and something in your heart starts bubbling up, and it is so not love...ask yourself this:
This cup of coffee I serve, I serve to God?
These dishes I clean, I clean for God?
That loving response I offer, I offer to God?
This is how I have been slowly transforming my heart. Ridding it of the bitterness and anger, and replacing the desire to be served with the desire to be the servant. And not just any servant. But a servant of Christ. Because here is the thing. I do love Him. And I don’t want anything to get in the way of that love.
Just this week, as I grabbed myself a cup of coffee (coffee that I made; one check for me on the tally chart!) and settled on the couch with my Bible, I opened up to begin my morning prayer. The reading was from the First Letter of John, and was not a coincidence:
“We love because he first loved us.” 1 John 4:19
And so I got up, threw out my tally chart, poured a second cup of coffee, and lovingly brought it to my husband. You see, when we ask, “But why do I have to go first?”, we must remember...we don’t. God does.
God went first.
P.S. If you relate to this struggle, I highly recommend watching the Opening Your Heart Connect Coffee Talk 4: Priority Three Marriage (Lesson 14: Marriage - Transformed By Grace in the study guide). You can watch it for free over at the Walking With Purpose website!
A friend texted me last night with good news. It was a long time coming. She deserved it. Her child deserved it. And yet, something prevented me from celebrating with her. A not-so-great feeling crept into my heart, blocking my ability to rejoice in her rejoicing. Instead of praising God for answering her prayer, I wanted to know why He had yet to answer my own.
"Why can’t I be happy for her blessing?" I asked another friend. "Why does her good fortune steer my eyes towards my misfortune? And why does this need to be about me anyway? And what even is this? Jealousy? Envy? Ugh. I hate it."
Determined to pull up this sin by its roots, I knew God had the answer and remedy that I desperately needed.
According to a Catholic definition, jealousy is when you guard something you have and are afraid it will be taken away, whereas envy is when you strongly desire something that somebody else has. Jealousy and envy are some of the worst feelings ever. In fact, they are the only sins we commit that never feel good! They are joy, love, and relationship killers. Not only do they never make us feel good, but they have the potential to lead us into serious spiritual danger. Doing their best to pull us into the pit of discontent and ungratefulness, jealousy says, “What God has given me is just not enough!” while envy whispers, “Someone else got what I deserve.”
The text I received? The good fortune that God bestowed upon my dear friend? I wanted it for myself. I desired what she had received from the Lord so badly, that her happiness made me sad. Her abundance highlighted my lack. Her more made me feel less. I could not be happy for her because with my laser-focus on God working in her life, I was blind to His works in my own.
Have you ever felt this way?
I called my friend again this morning. I was not done talking about envy. Still hard-pressed to find the remedy, we went back and forth, trying to get to its core, when finally she said something that was like a slap on the face; something I think can be a gamechanger for all of us who wrestle with this sinful attitude: “I don’t like that the only way I can feel better about someone getting what I wish that I had is by telling myself that one day, it can all fall apart for them! It is awful to wish for suffering for another! I don’t like it and I need to fix this now!”
And the conversation paused. I knew exactly what she meant. I, too, am guilty of making myself feel better by thinking, “Sure, her daughter is successful now...her husband makes good money now...her kid is the star of the team now...her job is going great now...but you know, this could all take a turn for the worse tomorrow.” And then, she said this….
“At my WWP table this week, the table leader shared a verse she goes to whenever she feels envious; whenever she sees the people around her living the life she thought she would have...the life she thought her children would have. The life she felt she deserved.” And it comes from Lisa Brenninkmeyer’s “I Declares” from the Bible study Fearless and Free. I could hear the pages of her Bible flipping until her eyes rested on the very words—the remedy—both our hearts had been searching for. “Yes! Here it is. Phillippians 1:6.” And then, my friend declared Truth over us:
I declare that you have begun a good work in my loved one’s life, and you will continue to complete it until the day of Jesus Christ.¹
Next to Jesus showing up and breaking through the darkness of one’s heart, the greatest blessing one can hope for is a faithful friend who allows His light to shine through her. Someone humble enough to admit her sin, and brave enough to declare the truth. A friend who walks alongside you on life’s journey, stopping every few steps to remind you of who God is. Of what He is doing. And that He is not done.
Merciful Jesus, forgive me for believing the lie that you answer everyone’s prayers but my own. For forgetting Who you are. For allowing the enemy to hold me face down in the mud, so that I am not able to see Your glory. For being so focused on myself, I can not be happy for others. Please pull the sin of envy out of the root of my heart. I want to be changed. I am so grateful for all that you have given and continue to give and I pray to never lose sight of that. But because I know that I will, thank you Jesus, for sending me a friend who never shrinks back from correcting me, who listens to my craziness with compassion, who always takes me by the hand and leads me to You. If this friend is all that I am given in this lifetime, You have given me more than enough. I have been blessed with more than I deserve.
Gratefully yours in the name of Jesus,
¹ Lisa Brenninkmeyer, Fearless and Free (2019), 178.
Why is it we can have total confidence and trust in God's plans with everyone else's life, but not our own? It is easy for me to recognize God's hand in your life... in your misery... in your tragic circumstance, but when the storm hits my own house, I question and doubt. I begin to wonder if my Catholic faith really is crazy and the saints are all just a bunch of nuts.
I spent my summer with the Blessed Mother. I managed to turn a 33 Day Consecration into a four-month plan, but I finally did get there and praise be to God for it. Because no sooner did I give my fiat, uncertainty and disappointment came crashing down on me, and once again, I was hurled back into that pit of doubt and despair-otherwise known as, “Seriously, Lord? THIS is for good?” And I hate this place. I really do. It makes me feel unpleasant, and worse, I become unpleasant. It's more hideous than getting a root canal at the DMV, naked.
Has this ever happened to you? Not the naked root canal at the DMV part; the other part about falling into despair when uncertainty hits. About being so confident and unafraid about everyone else's circumstances, but your own? Because it happens to me more often than I care to admit. I am, however, practicing something that helps get me out of the pit-not immediately but sooner rather than later. I meditate on the virtues of Mary.
Do you know there are ten virtues of Mary? According to the teachings of Saint Louis De Montfort, the ten virtues of Mary are: constant mental prayer, ardent charity, profound humility, universal mortification, blind obedience, divine wisdom, surpassing purity, angelic sweetness, lively faith and heroic patience. Now don't get overwhelmed by this. There is no way any of us can be perfect at all ten virtues all of the time, or quite possibly, ever. Why? Because we were not chosen to be the Mother of God. But, with a brand new consecration to Mary under my belt and the desire to emulate her, I figured if I pick one virtue a month to intentionally focus on, it had to work better in times of trial and tribulation than what I was currently doing (which was yelling at the dog and wondering why on earth my husband has to breathe so darn loud).
I have chosen to work on blind obedience; to fully trust in God's plan for my life and the lives of my loved ones, even when-especially when-I do not understand His ways at all. Even when strapping the dining room table to my back and jumping off of a bridge feels like a safer option. When the ground drops out from beneath you and nothing you planned for or expected appears to be anywhere on God's radar, blind obedience looks as attractive as a 1980's bridesmaid gown. So before I allow myself to spiral into a total abyss of despair and depression, I fly to Mary. I sit with her at the Annunciation. I reflect on her life, which quite frankly was a series of unplanned, difficult to understand events, and I stay in that place with my Mother. I sit with her in that moment when all was changed by her “yes.” Often when uncertainty strikes, we throw aside our “yes” and run miles ahead into the land of “what if?” We let go of God and grasp onto things that give us a false sense of security. But not Mary. Mary loved God enough to trust that all that was required of her was the next one step, not the next hundred miles. She could be blindly obedient because she loved Him more than she loved her plan. What a treasure chest of grace we have in Our Blessed Mother, who took the leap so that we could, too.
On a dog walk with a friend that was filled with both of our projecting and fear over the ones that we love, I finally said it out loud: faith is a leap! It just is. And when we hit these obstacles that aim to knock us off course and throw us into worry, we have to choose this leap. We must embrace this uncertain, unplanned thing in our life and give God our yes, whether we understand it or not, and then... we need to leap... off of our plans and into His. I am not implying that any of this is easy, but boy do I allow my wild imagination and lack of patience to complicate what really is so simple. Leap, or don't leap. Trust, or don't trust. Love, or don't love. The choice is ours.
If you are in the midst of a trial that is uncertain and you feel your doubt increasing, I encourage you to meditate on these ten virtues. Get to know Mary, who knows better than anyone else what it is like to trust that God's uncertain plan is good. Give yourself to Him entirely through her, and do not worry about the future. Will this require you take a leap of the worst kind? Yeah, probably. But as C.S. Lewis says, “The terrible thing, the almost impossible thing, is to hand over your whole-self-all your wishes and precautions-to Christ. But it is far easier than what we are all trying to do instead.”
Praying we all take that leap,
For someone who likes words and lots of them, editing a book can be hard work. After pouring over each sentence and getting to the point where you love them all, no author wants to hear that she has to cut hundreds of words. But that is exactly what a writer is told and tends to be reluctant to do. When I was in the midst of that very process, I received great advice from an editor. Surprisingly, it applies to Holy Week. She said, “You have to kill your precious.” To the writer, every word seems golden. But unless you “kill your precious” and get rid of the parts that are unnecessary, the finished work won't be as concise or impactful.
Holy Week offers us opportunities to kill lots of precious. It's the home stretch, the last incline of the journey of Lent. It might be tempting to just switch gears and start focusing on Easter Sunday, but if we skip over these key days in the Church calendar, we'll miss out. The spirit of sacrifice is hard for us pleasure-seeking people, but a few more days of focused effort can make the celebration of the resurrection that much sweeter.
We all have those sins that we like to justify. The ones that we hide and don't think matter much. I struggle in this way too. It makes me think of Gollum in the Lord of the Rings and the way he called the ring that he coveted “his precious.” This was something he had possessed that wasn't actually good for him, but he longed for it nevertheless.
What is it that you reach for when you are longing for security or comfort or an escape? Maybe it's attention from someone who doesn't belong to you. Perhaps it's too much wine. Maybe it's shopping and spending money you don't have. It can be porn, or Netflix, or eating food to try to fill a void in the heart...anything that distracts or diverts. Maybe it's your ego that needs to die a death. Instead of a hearty dose of accomplishments and accolades, you are actually needing to grow in humility. Even as I write this, it all sounds quite horrible to me. I suppose it does to us all, which is exactly why we reach for these things. They feel so good in the short-term.
God is asking us to “kill our precious,” not because he is out to spoil our fun, but because He knows that's the very thing that is holding us back from the life that is truly life. He is asking us to have a long-term perspective. He wants my eye not just on the reward of Easter Sunday but on the ultimate reward of being in His presence in heaven. Which do I want more, short-term gain or long-term glory?
What I have found very helpful is to kneel before the altar with that “precious sin” on my mind. I picture holding it in my hands. And this is what I pray: “This is the sin I am wanting to play around with. This is what looks so good to me in the short-term. But I want to be a saint more. And I want to be free.” Romans 6:16 tells us, “You are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?”
I wish that our desire to grow closer to God meant that the enemy of our souls would just give up and leave us alone. But nothing scares him more than people who know their true identity as beloved children of God, and he is terrified of the ones who take their faith seriously. The more committed to God we get, the more the enemy will tempt us to settle for mediocrity. Let's resist him with all we've got- especially during this Holy Week.
Our lives are too short and our calling too great to play around with sin. We're in the home stretch, the final incline in the marathon of Lent. Let's finish well. Let's fling aside those sins that entangle and cling so closely. Let's ask God to kill our precious, and do all we can to stay on the path of holiness.