Love does no evil to the neighbor; hence, love is the fulfillment of the law. (Romans 13:10)
When I say the word “love”, what comes to your mind? Giving someone flowers? Or hugs and kisses? Feeding hungry people? Fixing someone’s broken down car? Showering someone with compliments? All of these can be beautiful acts of charity, indeed. Typically when we think of love, we think of its “positive”, “constructive” side. We think of all the things we can do for, or make for, or give to people, and rightly so. We’ll dive into this more later on.
But, this month, Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (John 14:15) And have you ever noticed, interestingly enough, that eight of the ten original commandments are actually “negative”? Not negative in the sense of being bad, of course. Negative in the sense of telling us what we should not be doing, rather than what we should. The Decalogue is only twenty percent “thou shalt” and eighty percent “thou shalt not.” St. Paul’s description of love in 1 Corinthians 13:4-6 (“Love is patient, love is kind, etc.”) bears roughly the same ratio.“If you put to death (do not do) the deeds of the flesh, you will live,” says Romans 8:13.
In an age of instant gratification, wherein a single click can bring a new product or service to your door in a matter of minutes, it can be difficult to grasp the vital power of refraining from, rather than actively doing something, in order to achieve or “construct” something. So, the aim of this article is to highlight the “negativity” of most of the commandments simply to help all of us better appreciate the truly productive value of certain forms of inaction, or – differently put – of giving something up. Denying oneself, or not doing what we want to in a given circumstance, can be just as powerful, just as loving as an action can be.
There are a variety of different ways to define prayer. The one I’d like to suggest here is negating the object(s) of our desires to make way for God’s. We could easily be spending time doing any number of other activities: playing video games, watching TV or Netflix, hanging out with friends, shopping at the mall. When we deny those longings and turn our attention to God instead, especially when we don’t feel His presence in prayer or any other sort of consolation but persist at it anyway, we are being much more productive than we may realize or appreciate. Keep at it! Eventually, God will breakthrough.
Do you intentionally not eat (otherwise known as fast) on certain days? Or consciously refrain from other things like TV, or social media, or your daily latte from time to time? You are loving God in emptying yourself so that He may fill you up. I remind you of St. Paul’s words in Philippians 3:7-9, “whatever gains I had, these I have come to consider a loss because of Christ. More than that, I even consider everything as a loss because of the supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake, I have accepted the loss of all things and I consider them so much rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him…”
You’re not truly “missing out” on anything that matters in the end by sacrificing these things now.
The book of Hebrews lauds a good many pre-Christian Jews for their faith, including a number of women who, “received back their dead through resurrection. Some were tortured and would not accept deliverance, in order to obtain a better resurrection.” (Hebrews 11:35)
When someone is seriously worked up about something, it’s possible that the most loving thing you can do for them is precisely nothing at all. Sometimes just remaining quiet as they scream at you, being tranquil when they threaten you, and just patiently waiting for them to get it all out, to come to trust you (again?) and allow themselves to be civil with you, is love. (Otherwise known, as we saw last month, as holiness.)
Are you a recovering alcohol or drug addict who has been strongly tempted to use again, but has not done so? By this simple omission, you are demonstrating love – for yourself, those who care about you, and for God who designed you for freedom, not slavery. Are you the family member or friend of someone actively addicted to drugs or alcohol? Have you consciously refrained from enabling the addict by not giving them cash, by not giving them a place to stay (or paying their rent for them), by not bailing them out of jail? If you’ve done so out of positive regard for their well-being (as opposed to just despising them and not wanting to have anything to do with them anymore), you have loved them.
2 Corinthians 13:4 says Jesus “was crucified in weakness.” Rather than voluntary, have your sacrifices been forced upon you? Are you continuing to walk in faith in spite of the deep pain from losing a loved one, especially if they died unexpectedly? Through no fault or choice of your own, are you without one or more of your senses, or limbs? Have you been unjustly robbed of your reputation? Jesus may have been crucified in weakness but he rose in great power, the same verse says. And he certainly will not appear to you on Judgment Day empty-handed.
Were you physically or sexually abused growing up? Do you understandably have problems with bitterness as a result? Hopefully, you have found or are looking for help to resolve those issues. You are in my prayers for healing and deliverance. In the meantime, have you rejected the urge to explode verbally or physically on somebody else as a result of that abuse? Have you had to resist the urge to sexually harm others? The urge to nag or bitterly tear others to pieces? It might surprise you to hear that you have loved them each time you’ve chosen to refrain. Rest assured God sees and is pleased with your effort.
Justice is the Root of Love
Not causing harm to someone might not seem like “love” as much as a simple matter of justice. But the Catechism of the Catholic Church defines justice as, “the moral virtue that consists in the constant and firm will to give their due to God and neighbor.” (CCC 1807) Is our neighbor due to something from us? Do we “owe” our neighbor something if we’ve never entered into any kind of contract with them? We do – we owe them, love. (Rom 13:8-10) (Whether we are intimately familiar with our neighbor and “like” them or not.) And sometimes love means doing for, while other times, it means not doing to. As Sirach 35:5 notes, “To refrain from evil pleases the Lord, and to avoid injustice is an atonement.”
Obviously, we owe God the same debt of love; which is why the catechism goes on to describe justice toward God as, “the ‘virtue of religion’.” (CCC 1807) Justice is essentially love’s root. So, if the best we are truly capable of in a given moment is only to be just to someone by refraining from harming them (rather than going so far as to bless them or do something kind for them), it still counts as a “win” in God’s eyes.
Refraining From Sex
Do you not engage in sexual activity because you are not married? Or because your orientation is not consistent with God’s will and you’re courageously trying to be faithful in spite of this heavy cross? I promise you God is “taking notes”, and is very much consoled by your faithfulness.
Are you committed to entering a life of consecrated celibacy? Have you already been in such a life for decades now? Married people in particular, you’re well aware of the powerful, creative gift of sexual activity. It is so powerful that it literally has the capacity to generate an entirely new human being! Let’s not take that awesome truth for granted, nor its opposite – the even greater potency of consecrated celibacy. Yes, I did say greater. The sexual drive is the most powerful of all drives for a majority of human beings. Can you imagine someone reserving all of that energy for synthesis with God’s will, rather than physical expression? Talk about virility.
The rest of society typically imagines consecrated celibacy as a sort of “withering”, a “fruitless abstention.” But the truth is that it’s just the opposite. Stop and consider that it was not sex but abstention from it (consecrated celibacy) that brought us the greatest human being of all time – Jesus in the womb of the Virgin Mary. What’s more powerful than engaging in an act that creates a brand new human being? Negating that same privilege unto the manifestation of God Himself.
The foreigner joined to the LORD should not say,“The LORD will surely exclude me from his people”; Nor should the eunuch say,“See, I am a dry tree.”For thus says the LORD: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose what pleases me, and who hold fast to my covenant, I will give them, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name Better than sons and daughters; an eternal name, which shall not be cut off, will I give them. (Isaiah 56:3-5)
God will not be outdone in generosity. For every sacrifice we offer the Lord in love, He will give us something not merely equal but greater in return; whether in this life, the life of the world to come, or both. (cf. Sirach 35:13, Luke 18:29-30) Our recompense may be immediate, or it may take quite some time. It may come to us in this life, or it may have to wait for the next. But God is simply too good to ever let a single sacrifice, made with a pure intention, go unnoticed or unrewarded. (Matthew 25:31-40)
A Concrete Lesson From the Natural
Most guys would love to have bigger muscles. But one doesn’t achieve that feat simply by willing it or by eating certain foods that cause muscles to grow on their own. One has to lift weights first. And doing so destroys muscle fiber. It tears muscle away. And then the body replaces those torn fibers but also adds a few more to the mix, resulting in slightly larger muscle mass than was there before. And so, little by little over time, it’s tearing down that actually ends up building up.
Sometimes when we give up or don’t do something, we think we’re not being very productive. But as it turns out, after careful examination, it becomes clear that we are. As Jesus taught us, in seeming paradox, whoever hangs on to this life (or, in other words, lives it strictly fulfilling their own self-centered whims) will lose the life that matters most (Heaven); whereas those who renounce their desires in this life will receive far more than they could have ever asked for or imagined in and for eternity. (cf. John 12:25)
This is easier to do if we remember, “all things are vanity!” (Ecclesiastes 12:8). And that, “The world and its enticement are passing away. But whoever does the will of God remains forever.” (1 John 2:17) And remember, “Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.” (James 1:12)
As Lent continues, let’s “run the race so as to win.” (1 Cor. 9:24) Let’s think about how to better love God and others by not doing this or not doing that. In refraining from a wide variety of different things, we’re being much more constructive than most of us often realize.