Some years ago, I was fortunate enough to have for a time a truly wonderful spiritual director. She was a Roman Catholic nun, who was an absolute well of wisdom and insight. She was kind, and patient and attentive, but she also had the capacity to be both very astute and extremely challenging. I learnt a huge amount from her – not only about God, and about the life of faith, but also about myself, and I shall remain forever in her debt.
And I can remember one particular conversation that we had, that has stayed with me, in which she was describing to me a phenomenon that she called ‘soap opera morality.’ Imagine for a moment the standard kind of soap opera story line, in which Person A, who is married to person B, falls in love with person C. The drama comes to a head when Person A finally decides to leave person B, in order to go and live with person C. And in justifying this action, Person A tells the distraught Person B: ‘I can’t help how I feel.’ I can’t help how I feel. That, my lovely nun said to me, is classic soap opera morality.
Let’s think about that for a moment. After all, at an entirely superficial level, it is probably true that for much of the time we can’t help how we feel – simply because feelings are feelings. If, for example, I see someone close to me being treated badly, I may well feel angry or upset on their behalf. That is not in itself a good or a bad thing, it is just how it is. Just as, far less commendably, in another kind of situation I might find myself feeling envious, or resentful. The fact that we feel what we feel is not the problem. The problem comes when we convince ourselves that such feelings are in themselves justifications for our actions.
During my early years of ministry, I had a senior colleague who had a very significant problem with anger management. If he was feeling angry, or frustrated, or thwarted, or wrong-footed, for any reason, he would need to give the nearest available person (usually me) the emotional equivalent of a good kicking, even when the recipient had nothing at all to do with the issue. That was bad enough in itself – it really did have quite a devastating impact on me, in quite a range of ways. But, worse still, was the way in which he then justified it. When I first knew him he had recently acquired a book called something like The Theology of Anger, which convinced him that it was really important to express your rage – to get it out. After having done so, he himself felt much better, of course, so he forgot all about it, and expected everyone else to behave as if nothing had happened. But I don’t think it ever occurred to him to think about the effect that his behaviour had on the people whom he savaged in his violent rages. And I choose my words carefully. It may be true that we ‘can’t help how we feel’ – but we are most certainly responsible, and answerable, for what we do with those feelings. If our actions were solely and exclusively dictated by what we happened to be feeling, moment by moment, I doubt that any kind of mature human relationship of any kind would be possible. Where our actions are concerned, feelings alone justify nothing.
There are three really interesting themes in our Gospel reading this morning, in which we heard Jesus, preparing to take his leave of the disciples. And the first of these relates very directly to what I have just been speaking about, when Jesus gives the disciples, a new, an incredibly important, and at first sight a rather baffling, commandment. Namely that they are to love one another, as he has loved them.
Some of you may have heard me observe before what a bizarre instruction that might appear to be – in the sense that we do not normally think of love as something we can be commanded to do – any more than you can command somebody to like lumpy custard or jellied eels. But that is because we tend to think of love as being a feeling that happens to us (or doesn’t), and so remains basically outside our control.
But what Jesus is talking about here is not feelings but conduct – how we behave towards one another: we are charged to behave lovingly, regardless of how we happen to be feeling towards a specific individual. The point being that, if we get into the habit of behaving like that, then in time, that will begin to affect our relationship with the world; which in turn will begin to transform the kind of person we are. Jesus is requiring us to think about how we relate to one another (particularly to those whom we find most challenging), as a fundamental imperative of the Gospel.
At which point, we find ourselves being confronted by the exact opposite of ‘soap opera morality’. Because instead of: ‘I can’t help the fact that I dislike you, if I’m really honest, so I have no choice but to express that in the way that I behave towards you, because I can’t help how I feel’ – instead of that, we encounter the marvellous inverted logic of the Gospel, which goes more like this:
‘At the feelings level, I really don’t like you – but the Gospel requires me to regard you as a precious child of God, and to behave towards you in that way, despite what my personal feelings might be. And if I commit myself to treating you in a loving and respectful manner, it is likely that, in time, not only will I find myself thinking about you differently, but that my feelings towards you will also change. And because I refuse to allow my conduct towards you to be dictated by my feelings, it is entirely possible that, eventually, you might begin to relate to me differently as well. And the world will be that little bit different as a result.
And the consequence of all that, is the second important theme of which Jesus speaks in our Gospel reading today – which is joy. Joy is not the same thing at all as pleasure, although we can make the mistake of regarding the two as basically the same thing. If you don’t believe me, try substituting the words in the Christmas carol, ‘Joy to the World’. The phrase, ‘Pleasure to the world,’ would make no sense at all.
The reason being that pleasure is basically to do with personal gratification: we may derive pleasure from doing something utterly self-indulgent (enjoying a cream cake, or a particularly fine glass of wine) – or from doing something that is entirely generous and praiseworthy – as in the sense of satisfaction you can feel when you know that you have helped and supported someone who was in need. But because it is personal in that way, pleasure is by its nature, fleeting and transitory.
By contrast, it seems to me that joy, properly understood, is something that is much more important and more profound than that. Because joy is not ultimately to do with specific experiences that are personally gratifying; rather, joy is a state of mind – a state of being. And whereas pleasure is essentially inward-looking, joy is by its very nature something that we communicate outwards.
Love and Joy. And thirdly, as Jesus explains to his disciples in our gospel reading, the reason why he is commanding them to love, so that they may know true joy, is in order that they may go out and bear fruit – fruit that will last. Love, Joy, Fruit. A very simple equation.
I wonder what people see, and experience, when they encounter us – whether as individuals, or as a church community? Do they look at us – at the way we behave – at our actions, and our words, and the ways in which we relate to one another, and see something different? See something that sets us apart as people of faith? As a community charged, not only to proclaim, but to live out the love and the joy and the fruit of the spirit? I wonder.
There is an old saying that the Christian faith is ‘caught not taught’. Because love, and joy, and the fruit that is the product of lives filled with love and joy, those things are utterly contagious.
And thanks be to God for that.