"Hate the Disease, Not the Patient"
Finding God's Perspective on Conflict
[Chapter 9 of my book The Saints' Guide to Making Peace With God, Yourself and Others (Servant, 2001), © 2001 by Paul Thigpen]
Give up your anger, and forsake wrath; be not vexed, it will only harm you. For evildoers shall be cut off. … Yet a little while, and the wicked man shall be no more.
Ps 37:8-10 NAB
Anger is a kind of temporary insanity.
Anger has deadly consequences. Perhaps worst is its blurring of our spiritual vision. "The emotion of wrath boils over," observed St. John Cassian, "and blinds the eyes of the soul." Not surprisingly, reconciliation becomes all the more difficult when we fail to see clearly our adversaries and ourselves.
The remedy? God sees things as they truly are, so we do well to seek his perspective — which is, after all, simply another name for wisdom. If we try to take his point of view into consideration, we'll find it easier to forgive and make peace.
Seeing As God Sees
The saints offer a number of insights to help us readjust our focus and recover our spiritual vision. Consider these:
God sees both you and your offender as sinners in need of forgiveness.
Your mind is inflamed by the memory of your enemy. It grows swollen, and your heart rises. Whenever the memory of the one who has caused you pain comes back to you, you're unable to keep your thoughts from swelling to fill your mind.
But set against this inflammation the memory of sins you yourself have committed, so that you begin to fear the resulting punishment to come. Recall how many things you're accountable for to your Master, and that for all those things you owe him satisfaction. The fear will surely overcome the anger, since it's certainly far more powerful than that passion.
Recall the memory of hell, punishment, and vengeance during the time of your prayer, and the thought of your enemy won't even be able to enter your mind. Make your mind contrite. Humble your soul by the memory of the offenses you've committed, and anger won't even be able to trouble you.
But the cause of all these evils is this: We scrutinize the sins of everyone else with great exactitude, while we negligently let our own sins pass by. Yet we ought to do the contrary — never to forget our own faults, but never even to admit a thought of the faults of others.
St. John Chrysostom, Homily Against Publicizing the Errors of the Brethren
A monk came to the abbot St. Poemen (4th century) complaining about the sins of another monk. When he finishing speaking, the old man looked down at the ground and picked up a wisp of straw. "What is this?" he asked.
"Straw," answered the younger monk.
Next the abbot reached up to touch the roof of his cell. "What is this?" he asked.
"The beam," said the other monk, "that holds up your roof."
"Take it into your heart," said St. Poemen, "that your sins are like this beam, and your brother's sins are like this wisp of straw."
Sayings of the Fathers
God leaves you no excuse for failing to forgive.
For what is easier, I ask, than to get rid of resentment against the injurer? Is there any long journey to be undertaken? Is there any expenditure of money? Is the aid of others to be invoked? All we have to do is resolve to let go of the offense, and the good deed is done at once. …
If I say, "Practice fasting," you may plead to be excused because of bodily weakness. If I say, "Give to the poor," you may say you're too poor, or that your money must go to the expenses of bringing up children. If I say, "Make time to go to church," you may say worldly cares prevent you. If I say, "Pay attention to what is spoken in the homily, and consider the power of the teaching," you may say you lack the education to understand it. If I say, "Correct another person," you may say, "When he gets advice, he pays no attention; I've often tried to help him, but he scoffed at me."
As frigid as such pretenses are, at least you still have some pretenses to use. But suppose I say, "Dismiss your anger." Which of these pretenses will you use then?" For neither physical infirmity, nor poverty, nor lack of culture, nor lack of time, nor any other thing of that kind can you offer as an excuse. Above all others, then, the sin of failing to forgive is the most inexcusable.
St. John Chrysostom, Twentieth Homily on the Statues
If you grieve, as God does, over your offenders' sins, your grief will drive out your anger.
No one ever saw St. Martin of Tours (c. 316-397) enraged. … Never was there any word on his lips but Christ, and never was there a feeling in his heart except piety, peace, and tender mercy. Frequently, too, he used to weep for the sins of those who insulted him — those who, as he led his retired and tranquil life, slandered him with poisoned tongue and a viper's mouth … who were envious of his virtues and his life … who really hated in him what they did not see in themselves, and despised what they lacked the power to imitate.
Sulpitius Severus, Life of St. Martin of Tours
The Lord says: "Love your enemies" (Mt 5:44). That person truly loves his enemy who is not upset at any injury which is done to himself, but out of love of God is disturbed at the sin of the other's soul. And let him show his love for the other by his deeds.
St. Francis of Assisi, The Admonitions
Love your enemies as God does: not for what they are, but for what you want them to become.
You do not love in your enemies what they are, but what you would have them to become. Suppose there is a log of timber lying around. A skilled carpenter sees the log, not yet planed, just as it was hewn in the forest. He takes a liking to it because he wants to make something out of it. He is not attracted to it for the purpose of leaving it as it is. In his craft he has seen what it will become, and his liking is for what he will make of it, not for what it is now.
In the same way we say that God loved sinners. . . . Did he love us sinners for the purpose of keeping us sinners? No — our Carpenter viewed us as unplaned logs, and he had in mind the building he would make of us, not the rough timber that we were. …
As the Lord viewed you, you too must view your enemies, those who oppose you, raging, biting with words, frustrating you with their slander, harassing you with their hatred. You must remember that they are human beings; you must see all their actions against you as merely human works, while they themselves are the works of God. That your enemies have been created is God's doing; that they hate you and wish your ruin is their own doing.
What should you say about them in your mind? "Lord, be merciful to them, forgive them their sins, put the fear of God in them, change them!" You are loving in them not what they are, but what you would have them to become.
St. Augustine, Eighth Homily on the First Epistle of St. John
Dismiss all anger and look into yourself a little. Remember that he of whom you are speaking is your brother and, as he is walking along the way of salvation, God can make him a saint in spite of his present weakness.
St. Thomas of Villanova (1488-1555)
Like the Great Physician, hate the sickness; love the patient.
Do not be slow to love your enemies. Are there those who rage against you? If so, pray for them. Do they hate you? Pity them. It is actually the sick fever in their souls that hates you; one day they will be healed, and they will thank you.
Be like our physicians: How do they love those who are ill? Is it the illness itself that they love? If they loved their patients for being sick, they would want them always to be sick. But they love those who are ill, not so that they will remain that way, but so that their illness will be healed.
And how much does the doctor put up with when patients are delirious! What rude, foul language! Often such patients go so far as to strike the doctor. Yet the doctor attacks the fever while forgiving the patient.
What shall we say, brothers and sisters: Does the physician love his enemy? No — he hates his enemy, because his enemy is the disease, not the patient.
Even if a delirious patient strikes him, he still loves the patient but hates the fever that causes the delirium. For who is it that really struck him? Not the patient, but the delirium, the fever, the illness itself.
So he works to get rid of the sickness that fights against him, so that the patient who survives will give him thanks. And so should you. If your enemies hate you, and hate you without cause, remember that the ungodly passions of the world control them like a fever, making them hate you.
St. Augustine of Hippo, Eighth Homily on the First Epistle of St. John
Recognize that the offender may be God's tool for correcting or refining you.
A man who is well disposed toward and loves those who revile and abuse him and cause him harm, and who prays for them, in a short time attains to great achievements.
St. Simeon the New Theologian
Give me your grace, dear Lord …
To think my worst enemies my best friends.
For the brothers of Joseph
could never have done him so much good with their love and favor
as they did him with their malice and hatred.
St. Thomas More, A Godly Meditation
St. Augustine recounts an incident from the early life of his mother, St. Monica (c. 331-387).
A love of wine, she told me, began to creep up on her. She had been a sober girl, but her parents used to have her fetch them wine out of the cask in the cellar each day, and when she did, she would dip a cup in the opening at the top before she filled the pitcher. Then she would take just a tiny sip on the tip of her lips — the taste of it kept her from drinking any more than that. … But by adding to that tiny sip another tiny sip each day … she fell into the habit of guzzling her little cups filled almost to the brim. …
My God, what did you do when all this happened? How did you heal her? From which source did you bring her a remedy? You pulled out from another person's heart a rebuke, hard and sharp like a knife from your surgeon's bag — and in one stroke you cut away from her soul all that corrupt matter.
It just so happened that one day a maidservant who used to go with her down to the cellar quarreled with her young mistress when the two of them were alone. In anger, the maidservant flung this fault into her face with bitter insults, calling her a drunkard. Pierced all the way through by this taunt, she saw the terrible state she was in. Right away she condemned her own behavior and put a stop to it.
Just as flattering friends may ruin us, contentious enemies often correct us.
In God's eyes, the damage you inflict on yourself through a grudge is worse than anything your offender could possibly have done to you.
Whoever hates another person can only end up injuring himself most of all. For when you try to hurt the other person outwardly, you devastate yourself inwardly. To the degree that our soul is of more value than our body, to that same degree we ought to provide for it all the more, to protect it from harm. But whoever hates another person harms his own soul.
What exactly would you want to do to the person you hate? He may have taken away your money, but can he take away your faith? He may have wounded your reputation, but can he wound your conscience? Whatever injury he does to you is only external.
Now consider, on the other, what kind of injury you would inflict on yourself by your continuing hatred. For whoever hates another person is an enemy to himself within, even though he may not realize it. … Just suppose you injure your enemy. What's the result?
By this injury, he is damaged — but you become wicked. What a great difference there is between the two! He has lost only his money; you have lost your innocence. Tell me: Who has suffered the heavier loss? He lost something that was sure to perish anyway, while you have become someone who himself must now perish.
St. Augustine of Hippo, Homilies on New Testament Lessons
View your situation, as God does, in the light of your ultimate destiny.
Who could be angry over the loss of goods if he remembers well how short a time he gets to keep them in the first place — how soon death might take them from him? Who could esteem himself so highly that he would take to heart a vile rebuke spoken to his face if he remembered who he really is: a poor prisoner condemned to death? Or how could we become so angry as we do now whenever someone does us bodily injury, if we were to think deeply about how we are indeed already laid in the executioner's cart? …
If we consider that this life is only a pilgrimage, and that we have no permanent dwelling place here, how foolish it is to scold and fight over little things along the way! … If we should see two men fighting together over serious matters, we would think them both crazy if they did not leave off fighting when they saw a ferocious lion coming toward them, ready to devour them both. Now considering that we surely see that death is coming on us all, and will undoubtedly within a short time devour us all — how soon, we don't know — isn't it worse than insanity to be angry and bear malice to one another, more often than not over trivial matters, in the same way children fight over cherry stones?
St. Thomas More, Treatise on the Last Things
The sons of peace remember death; and they forsake and remove from them wrath and enmity. As sojourners they dwell in this world, and prepare for themselves a provision for the journey before them. On that which is above they set their thoughts, on that which is above they meditate; and those things which are beneath their eyes they despise. They send away their treasures to the place where there is no peril, the place where there is no moth, nor are there thieves. They abide in the world as aliens, sons of a far land; and look forward to be sent out of this world and to come to the city, the place of the righteous.
St. Aphraates of Persia (died 345?), Of Death and the Latter Times
A meditation on the ultimate fate of our enemies offered by St. Thomas More as he awaited an unjust execution at the orders of his old friend, King Henry VIII.
Bear no malice nor evil will to any living man. For the man is either good or evil. If he is good, and I hate him, then I am evil. If he is evil, then either he will repent and die good, and go to God, or he will remain evil, and die evil, and go to the devil. So then let me remember that if he is saved, and if I am saved too (as I trust to be), then he will in heaven not fail to love me quite heartily, and I shall then in the same way love him.
Why then should I now hate someone for this little while on earth who will in the hereafter love me forever? And why then should I now be an enemy to someone with whom I will eventually be joined in eternal friendship? On the other hand, if he should remain evil and be damned, then he is facing such an outrageous, eternal sorrow that I would rightly think myself a mortally cruel wretch if I would not now rather pity his pain than speak evil of him.
I counsel every good friend of mine: Unless you find yourself in such a place that your position of authority involves the duty to punish an evil man, then leave to God the desire to punish. Or else leave the responsibility of correction to those who are so grounded in charity, and hold so firmly to God, that no secret, malicious, cruel inclination, under the guise of a just and virtuous zeal, can creep in and sabotage their task. But those of us who are no better than men of an inferior sort should always pray for the kind of merciful repentance in other folks that our own conscience shows us we need ourselves.
St. Thomas More, A Godly Instruction
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