It's Hard to Hate
“It’s hard to hate someone you pray for every day.”
It’s a line I heard as part of a sermon some years ago. Predictably, it was delivered as part of a “love thy enemies” message, which would make it fitting for a reflection on this week’s Gospel reading and the readings from the previous few weeks. But when I heard that line some years ago, my situation at the time made me consider it’s message in a unique way: “Someone” can mean ourselves.
After all, how often do we make enemies out of ourselves? How often do we harbor anger toward ourselves? How often do we chastise ourselves for what we consider our own weakness? How often do we employ negative self-talk, calling ourselves “stupid” and “idiotic” and far more descriptive adjectives whenever we make a mistake or fall short?
If you’re anything like me, the answer is frequently.
So Jesus’s teaching in Sunday’s Gospel gave me pause. One line in particular made me reflect on the state of my heart. Jesus says, “if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.”
Seems harsh. After all, I can think of far worse four-letter-words than “fool,” but that, of course, is missing the entire point of the Gospel: The spirit of the law matters every bit as much as the letter of the law. Christ doesn’t care about whether or not we follow the rules. Christ cares about the condition of our hearts. And a heart that is constantly ridiculed and berated for one weakness or another is a heart that is not conditioned to receiving God’s healing mercy and abiding peace. To hold one’s own heart in the heat of hatred, anger, and resentment is to live with the “hell of fire” during one’s own life.
So why do we do it? Why do we torture ourselves?
The scary thing is, I believe we do it with good intentions. It’s our way of balancing the scales, of acknowledging when we’ve fallen short and imposing some sort of punishment on ourselves. Even though we believe put our faith in a God of mercy and forgiveness, we live in a world of transaction. We criticize ourselves and become angry with ourselves because we think we deserve it. As Pastor Jim said on Sunday: “Our anger feels good.” It’s our way of exercising some control over our lives.
In his message, Pastor Jim discussed our own tendencies to interact with others from a place of superiority and ignorance rather than dignity and empathy. And then he asked the question, “Are we willing to face those realities in ourselves?” For me, the answer is always yes. And that’s the problem. I am hyper-aware of and afraid of my own potential to perpetuate callousness and arrogance, and that awareness is the very thing that prevents me from fully embracing the relational existence our God invites us into.
Maybe not everyone deals with anxiety-inducing overanalysis and self-doubt to the extent that I do, but in general, I think most people realize their own shortcomings. I think most of us are all too aware of the “spirit of destruction” that dwells within us, and the problem is not seeing it or hearing it. The problem is responding to it.
Which brings me back to, “It’s hard to hate someone you pray for every day.” Instead of responding to ourselves with anger, criticism, and frustration, we can respond to ourselves with the type of gentleness and forgiveness we would gladly extend to others. If a dear friend accidentally hurt you, but they apologized sincerely, would you not forgive them, readily and gladly?
And yet, we often struggle to extend the same grace to ourselves.
When was the last time you prayed for yourself? When was the last time you prayed for yourself outside a time of immediate need? When was the last time you simply prayed for God’s abiding peace to fill your heart, to allow you to let go of your own failures and doubts?
If you’re anything like me, it’s been too long. So let us pray that prayer now:
Lord, I strive to serve you well, but I forget that you are the judge, not me. You know my heart better than I know it myself. Help me to trust in your mercy. Help me to stop treating each day like a battle against my own worst self, but an opportunity to embrace your deep, abiding peace. Amen.