She was a patient, kindly woman with a cold, critical mother-in-law. Their relationship was a bit of a cliché, actually. Every year she shopped carefully for her mother-in-law’s Christmas present, and every year her mother-in-law gave it back, saying she hoped she had saved the receipt. But she was a patient, kindly woman, as I said, and she borne up fairly well under a lifetime of little slights and snubs.
No, it wasn’t easy. But more than anything she wanted to be a good Christian. And for her to be a Christian was to have the right attitude. And she felt this was her Christian duty, because she loved her husband to love his mother. So when her mother-in-law became ill, she quit her job at the bank to stay home to take care of the old woman, who died without once expressing her thanks. And now this patient, kindly woman feels guilty because she sometimes had a bad attitude.
There is something haywire with that story, and I’m sure you can spot it. This woman had a choice. It wasn’t a perfect choice, but it was hers to make. She didn’t have to care for her mother-in-law, but she did, and she did it kindly and patiently. I don’t think people ever do all that they can do, but she got as close as ordinary people can to doing it all. And now she feels bad because in her heart she was sometimes angry, sometimes resentful, because sometimes in the middle of night she bitterly longed to have her life back, and finally because when the old lady finally died she was not that broken up.
But that doesn’t change the fact that she did a good thing. Her husband told her time and again how much he appreciated all she had done for his mother. People called her a saint. But their words sounded hollow because she knows better. She suffers from that particular kind of messed up scrupulosity peculiar to those who want more than anything to be a good Christians, and if you are also that kind of person, you already know it.
My mother used to say—it is a sad thing when you cannot see the good in the good. But it isn’t just sad, it’s tragic and unnecessary. People who are trying to follow Jesus suffer much more for their attitudes than for their actions. And we all need to be reminded that no one ever does anything difficult with a perfect attitude, unmixed with selfishness or impatience or resentment.
We have some freedom when it comes to what we do. We are are free to make the better choice and free to stick with it. Our attitudes, however, are something else altogether. Over those we have no control. Attitudes are like birds that fly over our heads; we can’t stop them. If they make a nest in our hair, then we have a different problem. But for most of us attitudes are birds of passage. They come and they go.
Some are good; others are bad. If we were to wait for them to align themselves with our actions, a perfect attitude with a good decision, we might well wait forever to do anything. But to do the right thing right now is what is crucial, beloved. And if you can do it with a relatively positive, loving attitude, well that’s gravy. That’s the work of the Holy Spirit. But attitudes alone mean nothing—they change with the weather. Tomorrow they will be different, better perhaps, perhaps worse. But the act is the thing that matters.
The life of discipleship in Christ is a series of tasks we are called upon to perform. When the Lord gives us something to do, we need to do it. If we waited until we had a better attitude we might well never get around to the job at hand. And when we do the thing we are called to do, our attitude toward it will sometimes improve—and sometimes not. As far as that woman with the cantankerous mother-in-law is concerned, she did what she could. Caring for someone else whom we don’t always feel much inclined to care for is a high achievement. It takes grace to do it. But grace does not always take the form of a loving attitude. Just as often it takes the form of detachment and a sense duty.
Of course when the Kingdom of God finally comes, things will be different. Then every good action will be accompanied by a righteous, loving attitude, but not in this world. In this world we are always victims of our moods, which change constantly like shadows on the moon.
But the action and the feeling we have when we do it are not the same thing, and it is important to keep them separate. In the first place, we need to do the thing you know to be right. Give generously of ourselves. Show compassion for other people even when they don’t particularly merit it. And then have compassion upon ourselves for Jesus’ sake and not expect perfection. When we do that we put ourselves in the place of God, who made us what we are—dependent upon his grace.