The challenge of being an adult, one who helps carry life for others, is to give ourselves over in love, duty, and service without resentment. Those last words are key: Real love is not simply a matter of giving ourselves over in service and duty (mostly we have to do this anyway, whether we want to or not), it’s a question of giving ourselves over without being resentful. Lent is the perfect time to look at this more closely.
This was one of the struggles of Jesus in Gethsemane. He was asked to give up his life and freedom for something higher and, like all of us, felt a fierce resistance. Nobody, easily and naturally, gives himself or herself over to the deeper demands of love, duty, and service. Transformation through prayer is needed to bring us there. We see this in Jesus: Only after having prayed is he finally able to say: “Yet, not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42).
When he says this, his gift is pure. He is able to give himself over without resentment to the demands of a love which will take his whole life. After his prayer in Gethsemane, he is able to do what he needs to do without the feeling that he is a victim. The Lord is victimized, but never a victim. When Pontius Pilate tries to intimidate him by telling him, “I can save your life or I can take it,” Jesus responds: “Nobody takes my life from me; I give it up freely!” (see John 19:10–11). That translates to: “You can’t take from me by force what I have already freely given over out of love!”
And that’s the lesson: We become life-giving adults and our love becomes free of manipulation only when we can say this and mean it: “Nobody takes my love and service from me; I give it over freely!”
Only when we stop seeing duty as an unfair burden that we haven’t chosen can we love and serve others without resentment and without making others feel guilty because of what it’s costing us. But it’s not easy to say those words and mean them. Like the Lord in the face of the deeper demands of love and duty, we initially say: “Let this cup pass! There’s got to be a way out of this, a way for me to become free of this.”
That’s natural. It’s natural to want our freedom, to want to be free of burdens, of duty, of unfair circumstance. Nobody wants a martyrdom that he or she didn’t sign up for! But eventually this form of martyrdom finds us all. If we are sensitive and good-hearted, love will frequently become duty, demanding circumstance, and an invitation to sacrifice ourselves for someone or something else.
Always there will be someone or something making demands on our freedom and opportunity: children who need us, an aging parent who has only us, family obligations, a spouse with an illness, a crisis at our workplace, a tsunami in Asia, a war we don’t want, a church that needs volunteers—the obligations that come from being sensitive to the demands of God, family, church, country, morality, and the poor.
The world is not divided up between those who are burdened by duty and those who are free of it: Anyone who is sensitive and good is burdened by duty. Rather, the world is divided up between those who are burdened with duty and are resentful about it, and those who are burdened with duty and are not resentful about it. That is very much the lesson of Gethsemane: What the Lord gave over to his Father in the garden is not perhaps so much his life, since his enemies were closing in on him and he might have had to die in any case, irrespective of any willingness or unwillingness on his part.
Thousands of people die violently every day against their will. There’s nothing special in that. What’s special in Christ is how he prepared himself to meet that death, namely, by being willing to die without resentment, without putting a price tag on it, without making anyone feel guilty about it, and with a heart that was warm rather than cold, forgiving rather than bitter, and large and understanding enough that it didn’t have to demand its due.
In the face of bitter duty, he took his life and his love and made them a free gift. That’s the greatest struggle we have in love. We’re good people, mostly. But, like the older brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son, all too often we nurse resentment, even as we do all the right things. That leaves us outside the house of love: hearing the music, but unable to dance and bitter about life’s unfairness.
At some point, perhaps even during this holy season of Lent, we need to say, “Not my will, but yours, be done.” If we say these words and mean them, we will taste real freedom—maybe for the first time.