Sometimes everything can seem right on the surface while, deep down, nothing is right at all. We see this, for example, in the famous parable in the gospels about the Prodigal Son and his Older Brother. By every outward appearance the Older Brother is doing everything right: He’s perfectly obedient to his father, is at home, and is doing everything his father asks of him. And, unlike his younger brother, he’s not wasting his father’s property on prostitutes and partying. He seems a model of generosity and morality.
However, as soon becomes obvious in the story, things are far from right. While his life looks so good on the outside, he is full of resentment and bitter moralizing inside and is, in fact, envious of his brother’s amorality. What’s happening? In essence, his actions are right, but his energy is wrong.
But, lest we judge him too harshly, we need to have the honesty to acknowledge that we all struggle in this way, at least if we are moral and generous. What is played out in the bitterness of the Older Brother is, in the astute words of Alice Miller, “the drama of the gifted child”, namely, the resentment, self-pity, and propensity for bitter moralizing that inevitably besets those of us who don’t stray from our duties, who do stay home, and who carry the brunt of the load for our families, churches, and communities. Sadly, often, the feeling we are left with when we give our lives over in sacrifice is not joy and gratitude for having been given the grace, opportunity, and good sense to stay home and serve but rather resentment that the load fell on our shoulders, that so many others dodged it, and that so many in the world are having a fling while we are on the straight and narrow. Too often, among us, good and honest people who are fighting for truth and God’s cause, we find a spirit of bitter moralizing that colors and compromises both our generosity and our sacrifice. But I say this with sympathy: It’s not easy to give oneself over, to forego one’s dreams, ambitions, comfort, and pleasure for the sake of God, truth, duty, family, and community.
How might we do it? How might we imitate the fidelity of the Older Brother without falling into his envy, self-pity, and bitterness? Where can we access the right fuel to live out the Gospel?
As Christians, of course, we need to look at Jesus. He lived a life of radical generosity and self-surrender and yet never fell into the kind of self-pity that emanates from the sense of having missed out on something. He was never disappointed or bitter that he had given his life over. Nor indeed did he, like Hamlet, turn his renunciation into an existential tragedy, that of the lonely, alienated hero who is outwardly intriguing but not generative. Jesus remained always free, warm, forgiving, non-judgmental, and generative. Moreover, throughout this entire life of self-sacrifice, he always radiated a joy that shocked his contemporaries. What was his secret?
The answer, the gospels tell us, lies in the parable of the man who is ploughing a field and finds a buried treasure and in the parable of the merchant who after years of searching finds the pearl of great price. In each case, the man gives away everything he owns so that he can buy the treasure or the pearl. And what must be highlighted in each of these parables is that neither man regrets for a second what he had to give up but instead each acts out of the unspeakable joy of what he has discovered and what riches this is now going to bring into his life. Each man is so fuelled by the joy of what he has discovered that he is not focused on what he has given up.
Only in this kind of context can self-sacrifice make sense and be truly generative. If the pain of what is sacrificed overshadows the joy of what is discovered, that is, if the focus is more on what we have lost and given up rather than on what we have found, we will end up doing the right actions but with the wrong energy, carrying other people’s crosses and sending them the bill. And we will be unable to stop ourselves from being judgmental, bitter, and secretly envious of the amoral.
To the very extent that we die to ourselves in order to live for others, we run the perennial risk of falling into the kind of bitterness that besets us whenever we feel we have missed out on something. That’s an occupational hazard, a very serious one, inside Christian discipleship and the spiritual life in general. And so, our focus must always be on the treasure, the pearl of great price, the rich meaning, the self-authenticating joy that is the natural fruit of any real self-sacrifice. And that joyful energy will take us beyond self-pity and envy of the amoral.