St Paul got knocked off his horse, and then he stopped persecuting Christians. Pretty dramatic. From that day forward, he stopped being the guy that helped kill Christians, and started being the guy who saved them.
Some people do experience a conversion so dramatic and easy to pinpoint, you could paint a picture of the exact moment it happened — and many people have, with St Paul. And by all accounts, his behaviour was dramatically different after he got up from the ground, and it remained different until he died.
But it’s far more common for Christians to undergo a conversion that drags on, un-picturesquely, for decades and decades, in fits and starts, with long spells of no progress, with several incidences of backsliding, and with such incremental progress that you can’t discern it at all unless your eyesight has been sharpened by the Beatific Vision.
The fits and starts and barely discernible progress? That’s me — specifically, regarding the one sin that I’m having the hardest time overcoming, which is uncharitable words and thoughts against other people. I’ve been trying to change. I’ve been trying to change for about 20 years now.
So far, no one has made any fine art depicting my conversion. Instead, countless people have gently or firmly objected to the uncharitable things I’ve said in public and in private; and countless people have showed me a more Christlike approach that looks so attractive, I feel the faint stirrings of wanting to imitate it. It’s hard, because it’s just so much easier to be mean.
I get rewarded for being mean far more than I get criticised for it. And I enjoy being mean. I’m really good at it.
But I still can’t completely ignore the words and witness of the people around me who have done a better job of conquering this sin.
Because of them, I have made . . . a little progress. I still lose my temper routinely. And even worse, I still lose my temper, recover it, and then deliberately and coolly choose to be uncharitable anyway, because it feels good, or because I came up with a really funny zinger, or because I tell myself it’s just a little thing and doesn’t matter much. Even though I have read and heard the words, over and over and over again, that it does matter. That if I have not love, I have nothing.
Charity toward others is not a little thing. It’s the biggest thing. But still I struggle, one step forward, ten steps back. It is discouraging. I would rather be knocked off my horse, but who knows? Maybe I would pick myself up, brush myself off, and go right back to being an unfettered jerk. It could happen.
So I’m not waiting for the life-changing drama to change my behaviour. I’m not even looking to change my life dramatically. Instead, here’s what I’ve been focusing on lately: At least, I will try not to sin against charity when I’m actually talking about Jesus.
Good, eh? Achievable? And hard to argue against? I will still try to be charitable when I’m discussing other topics, when I’m dealing with people who make me mad with their politics, their ideas about social issues, their ideas about fashion or literature, or by how they drive, and by how loudly they chew. I will try, and I will probably fail. But I will absolutely not allow myself to be cruel, demeaning, insulting, churlish, or belittling to anybody when I’m explicitly talking about doctrine, about scripture, about prayer, about the Pope, about theology, about the sacraments, about the Church, about God. Or if I fail, I will apologise and back away before I do it again.
I may be a jerk, but I’m trying at least not to be a jerk in His name.
I know I’m not the only one who struggles with charity, especially with our election coming up, especially with strange and confounding news coming out of Rome, especially with social media constantly pushing us all to come up with clickable, shareable, combustible content. But I think this is something I can achieve, and I wish other people would, too.
I have a feeling it will lead to something good — even, perhaps, a renewed desire and energy to stop myself from being a jerk about other things, and not just avoiding being a jerk about Jesus. Maybe? At very least, it will take ammunition away from people who want to attack the Church by simply standing back and saying, “You see how these people are?”
Well, one step at a time. No more Jerks for Jesus. Who’s with me? It’s not being knocked off a horse. But it’s something.