Following Jesus -According to the Letter or the Spirit?

Ronald Rolheiser
San Antonio, Texas
February 27, 2011.
Reproduced with Permission

I work and move within church circles and find that most of the people I meet there are honest, committed, and for the most part radiate their faith positively. Most church-goers aren’t hypocrites. What I do find disturbing within church circles though is that too many of us can be bitter, angry, mean-spirited, and judgmental, especially in terms of the very values that we hold most dear.

It was Henri Nouwen who first highlighted this, commenting with sadness that many of the really angry, bitter, and ideologically-driven people he knew he had met inside of church circles and places of ministry. Within church circles, it sometimes seems, everyone is angry about something. Moreover, within church circles, it is all too easy to rationalize our anger in the name of prophecy, as a healthy passion for truth and morals.

The logic works this way: Because I am sincerely concerned about an important moral, ecclesial, or justice issue, I can excuse a certain amount of neurosis, anger, elitism, and negative judgment, because I can rationalize that my cause, dogmatic or moral, is so important that it justifies my mean spirit: I need to be this angry and harsh because this is such an important truth!

And so we justify our anger by giving it a prophetic cloak, believing that we are warriors for God, truth, and morals when, in fact, we are mostly just struggling with our own wounds, insecurities, and fears. Hence we often look at others, even whole churches made up of sincere persons trying to live the gospel, and instead of seeing brothers and sisters struggling, like us, to follow Jesus, we see “people in error”, “dangerous relativists”, “new age pagans”, “religious flakes”, and in our more generous moments, “poor misguided souls”. But never do we look at what this kind of judgment is saying about us, about our own health of soul and our own following of Jesus.

Don’t get me wrong: Truth is not relative, moral issues are important, and right truth and proper morals, like kingdoms under perpetual siege, need to be defended. Not all moral judgments are created equal, neither are all churches.

But the truth of that doesn’t trump everything else or give us an excuse to rationalize our anger. We must defend truth, defend those who cannot defend themselves, and be solid in the traditions of our own churches. But right truth and right morals don’t necessarily make us disciples of Jesus. What does?

What makes us genuine disciples of Jesus is living inside his Spirit, the Holy Spirit, and this is not something abstract and vague. If one were searching for a single formula to determine who is Christian and who isn’t, one might look at the Epistle to the Galatians, Chapter 5. In it, St. Paul tells us that we can live according to either the spirit of the flesh or the Holy Spirit.

We live according to the spirit of the flesh when we live in anger, bitterness, judgment of our neighbor, factionalism, and non-forgiveness. When these things characterize our lives we shouldn’t delude ourselves and think that we are living inside of the Holy Spirit.

Conversely, we live inside of the Holy Spirit when our lives are characterized by charity, joy, peace, patience, goodness, longsuffering, constancy, faith, gentleness, and chastity. If these do not characterize our lives, we should not nurse the illusion that we are inside of God’s Spirit, irrespective of our passion for truth, dogma, or justice.

This may be a cruel thing to say, and perhaps more cruel not to say, but I sometimes see more charity, joy, peace, patience, goodness, and gentleness among persons who are Unitarian, New Age, or Baha’i (and are often judged by other churches as being wishy-washy and as not standing for anything) than I see among those of us who do stand up so strongly for certain ecclesial and moral issues but are often mean-spirited and bitter inside of our convictions. Given the choice of whom I’d like as a neighbor or, more deeply, the choice of whom I want to spend eternity with, I am sometimes pretty conflicted about the choice: Who is my real faith companion? The angry zealot at war for Jesus or cause? Or the more gentle soul who is branded wishy-washy or “new age”? At the end of the day, who is the real Christian?

We need, I believe, to be more self-critical in regards to our anger, harsh judgments, mean-spirit, exclusiveness, and disdain for other ecclesial and moral paths. As T.S. Eliot once said: The last temptation that’s the greatest treason is to do the right thing for the wrong reason. We may have truth and right morals on our side. But our anger and harsh judgments towards those who don’t share our truth and morals may well have us standing outside the Father’s house, like the older brother of the prodigal son, bitter both at God’s mercy and at those who are receiving that mercy.