There are acts which appear to be good, but the motive of the person who does them is not good; and there are other acts which appear to be bad, while the move of the doer is good. – Mark the Ascetic, On the Spiritual Law, Sentence 35
Concern yourself with your own sins and not with those of your neighbor; then the workplace of your intellect will not be robbed. – Mark the Ascetic, On the Spiritual Law, Sentence 63
This is a tale of two roommates, on an ordinary evening in their common life. One of them had planned to have company over for tea the next morning. The other had promised to do the dishes. And then, at 8:30 on the evening in question, the roommate who had promised to do the dishes went out on a date, leaving the dishes undone. And unlikely to be done before the arrival of company.
It was an ordinary evening in an ordinary household. In other words, it was an evening at the very front lines of the battlefield on which the forces of darkness and the forces of light strive day-by-day, hour-by-hour, to help human beings to mend or to lose their souls.
What is a girl to do, left alone on a night she had planned to spend reading with a pile of dishes that aren’t rightfully hers to do? It is as if she has arrived, suddenly and unexpectedly, at a Pittsburgh five-way intersection. Four paths present themselves in front of her, fanned out in a wonky ray. Which one is she to follow if her directions say, “Go straight”?
The first choice our lost soul must make is to decide whether the dishes really must be done. If there are enough cups, saucers and spoons available for tea in the morning, she may let them alone. Letting them alone makes up two of the four possible paths. The let-alone path is called Passive Resentment. “They’re her responsibility, not mine. I’ll let them pile up to the blessed ceiling before I lift a finger to do her work.” The second let-alone path is called Humility. “It will not be the end of the world for the company to see the house a bit untidy,” it says. “For the house is often a bit untidy. And it is best to let our friends know us as we really are. That way no one has to waste energy keeping up false appearances.”
But on this particular night it turns out that not only are all the tea cups and spoons dirty – the pan for baking the crumb cake is also a mess. So the question becomes which of the dish-doing paths will lead our lost soul to our desired destination? The first dish-doing path is called Bitterness. “Here I am, slaving away again,” it complains. “I’m the only one who ever does any real work around here. I hope she feels ashamed of herself when she comes home and sees I’ve let her off the hook again.” The second dish-doing path is called Compassion. “She looked to tired and strained all week,” it says. “I hope she’s getting some good rest tonight. How much the Lord has done for me that I have not deserved! How blessed it is to get to be like Him!”
Even though our lost soul must say the words of compassion with gritted teeth, it is still the sweetest, straightest path. The wise know that resentment and bitterness, however easy and sweet they may seem for the moment, never provide true rest or nourishment for the soul.
Now suppose the roommate who went out on the date comes home late and finds the dishes done. Her tired friend greets her warmly, assures her that the extra work was not a burden, but the weariness from her evening-long spiritual struggle shows in her eyes, and a small sigh escapes her as she turns away to tidy a few more things for company.
The roommate who has just returned home now finds a multiplicity of paths before her. She may feel guilty for the work she has not done. She may feel angry and defensive at what she perceives to be her roommate’s self-righteousness sighing. “Well, doesn’t she feel like a high and mighty saint for spending an hour or two in soapy water.” She may feel simple relief for the gift and peace in being forgiven and loved.
What if the path she stumbles into is that of guilt, and she goes to bed without saying good-night to her friend? Then her sister’s path is all danger again. Will she assume that her roommate is ungrateful, too happy about her date to really appreciate the work that has been done has been done? Will she choose graciousness and say to herself that perhaps her friend was just too tired to talk any more that night. Will she choose to humbly commit her friend to God and spend the final moments of her day in conversation with the Lord? Will the Spirit, perhaps, give her the gift of discernment in prayer, that all may be made right over breakfast the next day?
How sweet and pleasant it is when those who are brothers and sisters in Jesus live together in unity! But how danger-fraught the way to peace, even on the ordinariest of nights in the ordinariest of households. This is why we must never judge our brothers and sisters, even those who are dearest to our hearts, but must always commit them to the Lord who makes straight paths for all our feet. An evening’s unkindness, without repentance, can lead to a long drive on the road of Resentment or Bitterness. But how blessed are the ways of Humility and Compassion.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us poor sinners. Amen.