By: Gregory Popcak
“Love is…the fundamental and innate vocation of every human being.”
-John Paul II
I have a confession to make. I’m a screener. I know it’s an obnoxious habit, but there are just some evenings when, after a long day of counseling, I don’t want to talk to anyone on the phone unless they are; a.) Dying. b.) Sending me lots of money. c.) All of the above. Sometimes, I’m sorry to say, I even try to put God on hold, especially when he’s calling me to love. We all do this from time to time. We know that the Scriptures tell us to love our spouses as Christ loves the Church, but we respond as if we are listening to a disembodied voice on our answering machine, “Thanks for calling, Lord. I’m washing the dog right now. (Ruff! Sit, Cujo. Sit!) If you leave your name and number at the tone….”
Marital Call Waiting.
But God–being so, well, Godly–sees through such pathetic attempts to put him off. Eventually, I am obliged to respond. Which, to be perfectly honest, is in my best interest anyway. Being a marriage counselor gives me a unique opportunity to see for myself the effects of consistently choosing not to love; effects that range from the silly to the truly frightening. When I take a moment to consider these different situations, two kinds of “marital call-waiting” emerge. That is, there are two major excuses we give for ignoring our call to love; our addiction to comfort, and a game I call, Marital Chicken.
The first obstacle, our love of comfort (a.k.a. sloth) stops us from challenging ourselves to live out the love God has placed on our hearts. You could be more present, more romantic, more sexual, more helpful, a better listener, or a more attentive mate, except that you’re tired and just too comfortable in your own little corner of the house. It happens to all of us, men and women. We are called to be Christ to our mate, but too often, “Christ” is sacked out on the sofa, hiding out in a hobby or job, or out saving the rest of the world instead of actively searching for the million or so ways he or she could be loving right at home. Marital Chicken is the second and more insidious obstacle to being Christ to our spouses. Like the game of “chicken” in the fifties where two teenagers drove toward each other at breakneck speed to see who would veer off the road first, Marital Chicken is the game couples play when they sit around whining to each other, “If you were more (romantic, sexual, helpful, complementary, emotional, rational, etc.), maybe I would be more (romantic, sexual, helpful, complimentary, emotional, rational, etc.) But I know you. You’ll never change!”
Playing this game allows us to avoid confronting our own fears of intimacy while getting to feel self-righteous at the same time. Obviously, the game can be fairly addicting. What the couple playing Marital Chicken forgets is that they are not really responsible to their partner for living out those loving qualities. Rather, they must become more affectionate/ sexual/ helpful/ complimentary/emotional/rational/etc. because that is the person they want to be, because that is the person God is calling them to be. When I die and God asks me if I lived out my vocation to love, I don’t really think the Almighty is going to accept, “Well, Lord, I would have, if only my spouse had been more….”
The Selfish Person’s Guide to Love.
Still, knowing all this doesn’t make responding to the call any easier. Sometimes, when we are choked with our own self-righteousness we may need a more immediate, more “selfish” reason for doing what we know is the right thing. God, in his mercy, gives us not one, but two reasons to take his call.
1) Choosing to love others helps us feel God’s love more.
When I bring a difficult situation in my marriage to the Lord, an odd thing happens. Somewhere in the middle of my prayer (which goes something like, “So help me God, you BETTER do something about this RIGHT NOW because if you think for one minute that I’m going to be loving….”) I hear a quiet voice that stops me in my tracks.
“You know, Greg. Now that you mention it, sometimes you do that to me.”
“What are you talking about, Lord?” I say, irritated at having been interrupted mid-rant.
“That thing you’re complaining about. Sometimes you do that to me.”
It doesn’t matter what it is. Invariably, God uses the circumstances of my anger to teach me about the latest way I have been putting him off, selling him short, or otherwise treating him with unintentional contempt. Moreover, where I might be tempted to whine, complain or argue with my wife to get what I want, God reminds me that he does none of these things when he wants me to change. He just loves me more persistently until I realize, “Hey, this God of mine isn’t so bad after all. Maybe I should trust him with more of my life.” When I ask God to help me in my marriage, he begins by leading me to see my own resistances to his love. When I confess them, seek his pardon, and ask for his grace, he not only fills my soul with a peace beyond words, he shows me that the answer to my current marital struggle is simple; I must love more, love better, and love now. Opening myself up to his love, Christ gives me the courage to try and become the husband he would be.
2) Choosing to love increases my self-esteem.
There is a second reason I must choose to be loving even when I don’t feel like it. I simply don’t like the person I become when I choose not to love. If, as the Holy Father said, the call to love is innate within us, then to not love is to not be true to myself. When a person does things that are inconsistent with their Nature, it has a horrible effect on their self-esteem. I see examples of this all day long when people tell me that they despise how they’ve let their marital problems turn them into “a witch,” “an abuser,” “a miserable person,” or worse. When I can help these people make more loving choices in their marriages (not because their spouse deserves it but because their own dignity demands it) two remarkable things happen. First, they begin to like themselves again. There is a great deal of satisfaction that comes from being able to say that at the end of each day, no matter how “crazy” your spouse was, you behaved in a way that you can be proud of. Secondly, when the husband and wife respond to their calls to love, acting in a manner that is consistent with their personal dignity, nine times out of ten the marriage problems disappear; sometimes in a matter of weeks, sometimes overnight, but always faster than the couple would have ever dared dream was possible. If I want to be loving to myself, the only logical choice I have is to be loving whether or not I feel like it. Whether or not I think “they” deserve it. To do otherwise is to become bitter and isolated. I deserve better than that. You do to.
“One, Ringy Dingy….”
God rewards our choice to love with deeper submersion in his joy, greater self-satisfaction, and more fulfilling relationships. The call to love is indeed the most invigorating and most important call we could ever answer. It is our beginning, our middle and our end.