One of the hardest discernments in the spiritual life, one of the hardest things to see, is how self-love creeps into our actions and motivations. All men fancy their actions are truly for others. Just consider within yourself how quickly you can add a dash of charity to all you do – “Oh I work hard to provide for my family;” “How I love giving my time to the Church; “I just love seeing the faces of the young men of Fraternus light up at Frat Night.”
Yet, we must not delude ourselves into thinking that because others are served that our own ego plays no role. Let’s see if we can add some hard truths to what was just said. “I work as much as necessary to keep my boss happy and I like having more money;” “I love being praised as a ‘Church guy’ and being seen in what I do;” “I like the praise I get being a Fraternus Captain, and I get the admiration of boys.” After all, who doesn’t like an attaboy. Is it so bad to want some recognition here and there?
The saint does not try to convince himself he is not selfish but tries hard to find where he is. The saints presume self-love. They don’t hunt praise from others to confirm their holiness but are on the hunt for imperfections within themselves. They shun praise when it comes, knowing how easily it can descend into thinking we have done something on our own, without grace. What they seek is God’s face. So often in our pride we oh-so-slightly solicit sympathy, praise, and good-will from others. We rarely examine ourselves deeply to find how even in acts of so-called service we are serving ourselves or our own egos in some way.
How, then, can we simply and actually serve Christ and others? Is true service possible? Or is it all just vanity of vanities? If we dig deep enough into our actions, are they just all totally depraved, as Calvin would say?
Part of the answer is in the classical distinctions between kinds of love present in, for example, Greek but not in English. Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical on love rehabilitates the Greek words for love, of selfish and pleasure-bound eros set essentially as opposed to agape, which is a total self-giving love, one that does not count any cost at the service of the loveable. Benedict says that eros is not totally depraved, but is a sort of step towards agape, a possibly innocent love that both enjoys how “loving” makes him feel but is still able to mature upward to greater love, sacrifice, and service. Yes, it can descend into lust and self-service, but eros can mature into agape through, according to Benedict, maturity and self-denial: “Purification and growth in maturity are called for [for the perfecting of love]; and these also pass through the path of renunciation” (Deus Caritas Est, 5).
Christ says that He came not to be served, but to serve (Matt. 20:28). And those that serve Him are honored by His Father (John 12:26b). What is the best way for us to be like Him, coming to serve? This is the wisdom hidden in that traditional “act of charity” you learned, where we pray to love others out of the love for God. And that’s the key to a man becoming a true servant. I’m not speaking of “servant leadership” or other business-talk spins on virtue (which always boil down to more profit). I mean true service, love in the highest – agape. We must serve God first, keeping out eyes on Him; letting His eyes pierce through our falsities. If you haven’t identified lately a place inside where you are judgmental, vain, egotistical, or prideful, then you’re not making progress. To truly serve means that we will be a disciple. “If you wish to serve me,” Jesus said, “then follow me” (John 12:26a). Anything else is likely delusional and unsafe, because it’s following yourself or a god you invented. To follow Christ requires so much more of us, and it makes us true servants.