“In your anger, do not sin.” Ephesians 4:26
Scrolling through Facebook and other social media sites, it is clear that we are increasingly feeling free to express our rage, disgust and disappointment however we choose. Regardless of the issue and which side of the fence we land on, emotions are running strong and a lot of blood is boiling. Differing opinions are nothing new. There have always been issues where people don't see eye to eye. But the way in which we are discussing those differences has changed in recent years. And the consequences are anything but good.
It seems we have lost our ability to listen first, to only post something we would be willing to say to someone's face. Distance demonizes, and the social isolation that results from communicating screen-to-screen, instead of face-to-face, is hurting us.
We are relegating character and integrity to the backseat as our emotions are unleashed, and sadly, Christians are not the exceptions to the rule. And all the while, a watching world observes us not practicing self-control becoming unhinged by our hatred and disgust.
When I travel across the country and speak, there is one thing that remains consistent no matter which state I am in. We are worried about passing on the faith to our children. We see that they are disengaged from our faith and are bored by it, and we aren't sure what we can do about it. A 2015 study of Catholic family life found that 68% of Catholics with children under the age of 18 have not given their children any form of religious education. One in three parents did not find it important that their children celebrate their first Communion, and one in four didn't consider it important that their children be confirmed.
In the words of Kathleen Cummings, the director of the Cushwa Center for the study of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame, “For the first time in history, young Catholic women are more disengaged than their male counterparts. That is a huge, important shift. If you don't have women, you lose the children.”
What part does our lack of practicing self-control with our anger and expression play in this? Studies of Millennials reveal that they greatly value authenticity and are repelled by hypocrisy. Is it possible that they understand enough of our faith to wonder why our religion isn't impacting the way we talk about our enemies or those who are different from us? James 1:26 reminds us, “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person's religion is worthless.”
In Colossians 4:6, St. Paul writes, “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” Salt enhances flavor-it makes food more appealing. In the past, salt was used to preserve meat. When St. Paul compares our words to salt, he's encouraging us to communicate in a way that is winsome, drawing someone closer, preserving unity whenever possible. Being behind a screen or in the midst of an angry group does not give us permission to let graciousness go by the wayside.
Shifts in culture and moral decline unsettle us. Many Christians are feeling increasingly powerless as we see that in a very short span of time, we lost a seat at the table and no one is really listening to us anymore. And it's true. Millennials will not listen when what they hear smacks of judgment, anger, and a sense that we are looking out for our own interests instead of caring for the poor and defenseless.
We might look to politicians to fix the problems we see. But the truth is, it begins with us. The hard work of reaching your hand across the aisle, of being an agent of reconciliation-that begins in our communities, our churches, our neighborhoods, and our homes.
Nowhere in Scripture will you find Jesus exhorting us to defend our rights. But there are countless times when He implores us to lay down our rights for another. We are able to do this because we have our eyes fixed on heaven. We have a sure hope as an anchor for the soul (Hebrews 6:19), and because of this, we don't need to be afraid. God is in control-His purposes and plan will not be thwarted.
As our children watch us engage in a culture very different from the one we grew up in, they do not need to see our fear; they need to see our courage and hope. They do not need to see our rage; they need to see us practicing self-control. They do not need to see our judgment; they need to see our mercy.
“Mercy is the force that reawakens us to new life and instills in us the courage to look to the future with hope.” -Pope Francis
The Year of Mercy has begun, and oh, how we need it. As we journey through Advent towards Christmas, so many hearts are aching. We desperately need hope. We need it more than Christmas gifts or the perfect tree or eggnog by the fire. Without it, we lack the courage to move forward. And when we extend mercy to each other, it's hope that is poured out.
When I sat down next to my friend after the funeral reception was over, the raw ache in her eyes tore into my heart. She had just lost her teenage daughter. Christmas would never again be the same for her. There would always be an emptiness in the midst of the festivities. My friend's story was heavy with pain. When despair and depression had become overpowering, when the pain had felt unbearable, her daughter had made the choice to end her life. So we sat, with just quietness between us. After a few minutes, she looked around the room and spoke words that I believe hold a message for the body of Christ.
“You know, this isn't my church. This isn't where I had planned to have the funeral. But when we called the church to tell them what had happened, they said they'd come to us, but they never did. If you are ever going to show up and be the church, that time was now. That time was this week for my family. Their silence spoke loudly to us. So we decided to do the funeral somewhere else. It was just too painful to be in a place where they obviously didn't care about us.”
I don't believe my friend's church doesn't care. Most likely someone dropped the ball entirely by accident. Perhaps a note with my friend's name and address had been caught by a draft and fluttered away. It's very unlikely that anyone proactively decided to ignore this hurting family at such a critical time. But what I really wonder is where was the safety net of the church community? Why were their arms not wrapped tight around this family? They could have run interference, helping bridge the gap between who the church wanted to be and what the family was experiencing.
Affliction comes in many forms. We don't wear our heartache as visible, outward wounds, but we all know how much pain is out there. In the midst of a sin-saturated world, people need to know that they matter-that their pain matters-that they are seen. It's been said that suffering that feels senseless is the hardest to bear. When that is compounded with a feeling that the pain must be carried alone, despair can quickly set in. But what a difference the presence of a comforter can make. We can't answer all the questions about the suffering, but we can say, “I see it. And most importantly, I see you. I won't let this pain swallow you or overwhelm you.”
Isn't this the message of the Incarnation? Bridging all distance between God and man, Jesus moved into the neighborhood. He reached out and touched the leper, looked into and healed the eyes of the blind man, and restored Peter when his heart was overwhelmed with his own failure. He rushed in when there was pain instead of recoiling or standing back where it felt safe.
Isn't this the example that the Blessed Mother gave us? She didn't shrink back from human suffering. She didn't shield her eyes when her Son was stripped, beaten, and crucified. She pressed into the suffering, and stayed by His side, providing strength with her presence.
This is how we are asked to live.
“Comfort, give comfort to my people, says your God.” (Isaiah 40:1) These words aren't just for our priests and parish staff. They are spoken to you and to me. God promises in Isaiah 43:1-2, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name: you are mine. When you pass through waters, I will be with you; through rivers, you shall not be swept away. When you walk through fire, you shall not be burned, nor will flames consume you.” He understands that while His presence makes all the difference, we also need a human hand to grasp hold of. We need to see eyes that understand and don't judge. What a privilege it is that He trusts and calls us to be a part of this ministry of comfort.
Nothing makes us more effective ministers of comfort than having suffered ourselves. Not one of your tears of pain will be wasted, if you allow them to be redeemed in the life of another. God can use every ounce of what you have been through to make this world a better, kinder place. 2 Corinthians 1:4 tells us, “The God of all comfort…comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.”
If you have experienced miscarriage, divorce, grief, abuse, financial crisis…could it be that God is calling you to step out and encourage and give comfort to others who are going through those very things today? You are uniquely equipped to offer comfort because you have been there. You understand. You are proof that life does go on. You are a carrier of hope.
This is the call to the body of Christ. We are to surround one another, to press into one another's pain, to offer the gift of our presence, to give comfort to others, just as God gives comfort to us. Sometimes sitting silently alongside someone is the best gift we can give. Sometimes it's making a meal. Sometimes advice is truly helpful. The important thing is that we show up. That we slow down enough to notice the pain in someone's eyes. That we ask questions, and then wait for the answers. There is no Christmas present under the tree that will have the kind of life-changing impact that the gift our comforting presence offers.
Lord, open our eyes to see the invisible wounds people carry. Help us to look through grace-healed eyes that search deeper, that pause, that step closer when an aching heart is near.
Originally published in Beautiful Mercy (featuring content from Matthew Kelly and twenty-six other authors)
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