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.

  • DKowalsky2

    Jason – great article. One typo you may want to address, as it affects your overall message:

    “Christ says that He came not to serve, but to serve (Matt. 20:28)” – I think you meant “not to be served, but to serve.”

    A blessed last bit of Advent here, and a Merry Christmas to you and your family.

  • Bob Ewald

    I don’t know that it’s possible as fallible humans to do something good without feeling a sense of happiness about it. Sometimes even patting ourselves on the back a bit because of what we did. The ego becomes a problem, for me anyway, if I don’t remind myself that the reason I did it was to try and be His hands on earth, to build up His body right now before His second coming. That it’s what we are called to do as servants. So if I get an acknowledgement or “atta boy” I accept it graciously but with a verbal reminder to the speaker that I am just paying it forward as others have done and continue to do.

  • David

    Every time I read things like this I kind of feel like “great, I just barely got over feeling like I’m crap, and now I have to go back to feeling like I’m crap”.
    How does someone do this without becoming scrupulous and anxious and miserable and well … like crap.
    Love God. Yes, of course that’s always the answer. It feels kind of weird where it’s almost like we’re saying to someone we’re serving ” I don’t really love you and want to serve you, I’m just doing this to please God. That doesn’t sit quite right.
    Pray that some day I get it. In the meantime I need to be patient with myself . . . Or is it ruthless with myself ? I need to find peace . . . Or I need to find more imperfections in myself…

    • Joseph Larson

      Your comment resonated with how I have felt in the past and I wanted to share where God led me next. Through grace I realized thattrying harder to be virtuous wasn’t working.
      When saints talk about what horrible sinners they are and how unworthy of God’s grace they are, I saw it as a sort of facade of humility to defend themselves from pride. The truth is they are telling the absolute truth. Saints can see that all good they do is from the abundant graces of God, and should God stop his grace the devil would have them for lunch the next day, because without God we are all weak.
      Pride is the mother of all sin, thus God would be doing us a disservice if he gave us the graces to be virtuous at a point in our maturity where we thought our virtue was self gained. The devil would have a field day watching us revel in spiritual pride.
      Thus the first step to virtue for me was trying to become poor in spirit. My prayer was, “Lord help me to see how incapable I am of virtue without You. Help me to become small and to rely on you alone as an infant does his mother father.
      I recommend above all else, the Consecration to Mary. It has been the most powerful event in my life. Once you give yourself to her the world’s best mother will never let you go and carry you in her arms through life and into the next.
      God Bless and never stop the fight.

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      • David

        Thank you for your comment Joseph. I really appreciate it. You state it quite clearly when you say:
        “God would be doing us a disservice if he gave us the graces to be virtuous at a point in our maturity where we thought our virtue was self gained.”

        I find this helpful. This helps me to have a focus for this year – poverty of spirit.
        God bless you.

    • Phil Alcoceli

      David, you make some excellent points in your comment. Theology is great but it is when it gets translated into daily life that the rubber meets the road: “Rubber, meet road”, “Road, meet rubber”. Rubber: “Hey Road, I am noticing that we’re both so close to each other most of the time, could we be related?” Road: “Yeah, I think we are. Let’s keep rolling together”. We roll with God a lot better when we go way beyond praising the crap out of ourselves or beating the crap out of ourselves, both dangerous extremes that set us away from God. If the Saints set out in search-and-destroy-sin missions inside themselves it was not out of sick masochism or Pharisee-like scrupulousness. That’s all disguised pride.

      They did it because they were in a growing, passionate, fiery desire for God and sin was the sabotaging third wheel of that great love. That’s why St. Therese of Lisieux asked God for a kiss every time she sinned. She wasn’t asking God for a free pass, but for Him to increase and inflame her total love and absolute trust in Him. That’s like an all-powerful laser against sin and you just want to shoot and shoot and shoot, to get ever closer to the Loving One that lives in you and others, and who will make sure you don’t become just a “respecter (gluteus kisser) of persons”. (Please read: “Trusting God with St. Therese” by Connie Rossini for more detail on this). God bless you!!

      • David

        Thanks Phil, I guess the order is important. The love should come first, otherwise it’s a cart before horse sort of thing. But then, some would probably suggest to will it first. Likely it’s a classic Catholic “both/and” sort of thing.
        I’ll check out that book.

      • Phil Alcoceli

        You’re welcome, David. You explain it very well in that it is a “classic Catholic “both/and” sort of thing”. It’s what’s usually called in the Church the Via Media, the Middle Way, where both love (heart devotion) and will power (discipline) work together in Divine Synthesis and don’t oppose or cancel each other, but help and complement each other, becoming one. Jesus put it this way: “If you love me, you’ll obey my commands” (John 14:15). For example, St. Theresa of Avila passionately loved God (check her ecstasy statue by Gian Lorenzo Bernini) but she also spent long years in dark spiritual dryness, pushed mostly by the tough discipline she had cultivated. At the end, both strengthened and transformed each other into Real Godly Love.

        Extreme Liberal Catholics cultivate almost only the love side. Extreme Conservative Catholics cultivate almost only the discipline side. By themselves, each side is mostly sterile, misleading and damaging. Love leads the way but only grows in the holy soil of self-sacrifice, obedience to Absolute Revealed Truth and discipline. Both together are balanced, mature, powerful and incredibly fertile even if the bigger fruits take years, sustained by true humility and trust, which we ask for every day. You will greatly enjoy that book. It is one of my great top favorites and is changing my life in unexpected, very Catholic ways. Thanks God for Little Therese, the Saint Maker, for making holiness accessible like no one else.