We have all had the experience of telling what we thought was a harmless white lie. It may have been to spare another person’s feelings or simply to avoid an uncomfortable conversation. Later on, however, it turned out that we had to tell other lies to cover our tracks or that others discovered the truth on their own. As a result, feelings were hurt or a friendship was damaged. What we thought was a harmless lie ended up causing us needless anguish.
On the other hand, we have also had the experience of doing a good deed. We may have given someone a hand with a project or listened to a friend’s problems. At the time, it seemed like a small gesture. Then, months and sometimes years later, that person reminded us of our good deed and told us how much it meant. What we thought was a trivial act of kindness turned out to touch someone profoundly.
Cardinal Nguyen Van Thuan, a former bishop of Vietnam, wrote in his memoirs: “A straight line consists of millions of little points. Likewise, a lifetime consists of millions of seconds and minutes joined together. If every single point along the line is rightly set, the line will be straight. If every minute of a life is good, that life will be holy.”
Every day of our lives—indeed, every minute of every day—we have choices to make. Those choices, no matter how insignificant they may seem, shape our character either for better or for worse. And the consequences of those actions also add up to our benefit or our detriment. As we will hear in this Sunday’s first reading from the book of Sirach: “Before man are life and death, good and evil, whichever he chooses shall be given him.” Every decision we make is important. Every course of action we take determines in what direction our life will be headed.
Jesus speaks to this in this Sunday’s Gospel passage. Sinfulness consists not just in breaking the commandments. Rather it is rooted in the decisions we make and in our thoughts and desires which, though hidden to others, are made plain to the eyes of God.
Most of us will make it through life without breaking the Fifth Commandment: “Thou shalt not kill.” But, as Jesus says, how many of us at times have wished harm on others because they have hurt us or because we are jealous of them? How many of us carry grudges and resentments over the years because we are unwilling to forgive? We may not have done any real harm to these people. But the malice that we bear in our hearts is the same sinful root—anger—from which so many despicable and reprehensible acts stem. We have made seemingly small decisions to not forgive, to bear a grudge, or to envy someone, and it has made our hearts hard with anger.
We only have to look at some of the tragic events of the past year such as the attack on the mosque in Quebec City or the shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando to see how true Jesus’ words are. When a shooting or a bombing takes place, we often learn about the history and character of the perpetrators. They did not decide one day for no reason that they would kill their fellow human beings. Rather, resentment and hate had been building up within them over years. Finally, it reached a point at which they exploded, lashing out at others for all the misfortunes and injustices they believed they had suffered. And it all began with daily decisions not to forgive, not to sympathize with others, and not to find positive ways to deal with their anger and hurt.
Jesus teaches us that not just the actions we take but the thoughts we think are the result of decisions we make. It is true that sometimes ideas pop into our heads without our knowing where they came from. However, we can choose which thoughts we will welcome and which we will dismiss. We can decide which thoughts we will entertain and which we will recognize to be foolish or harmful. We can decide which thoughts we will follow through with and which we will abandon. It requires much discipline for us to be aware of what we are thinking and to change the direction of those thoughts before they take us down the wrong road. But such discipline is vital if we are to keep God’s word and learn to love our neighbor from our heart.
The good news is that we do not need to do this alone. While no one can read our thoughts or see into our hearts, God can. His Holy Spirit scrutinizes all things as Saint Paul tells us in this Sunday’s second reading. He can make us aware of thoughts and feelings which are causing bitterness and anger to well up within us. And he can guide our minds to thoughts of joy, peace, and love. We need only commit ourselves to spending some quiet time in prayer daily asking the Spirit to guard and guide our thoughts and feelings. Then we will experience an inner transformation and inner peace because the burden of grudges and long-guarded jealousies will be lifted from us and our hearts will be free to love.
The following quote has been attributed to the American philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Watch your thoughts. They become words. Watch your words. They become deeds. Watch your deeds. They become habits. Watch your habits. They become character. Character is everything.”
Each of us has choices to make. How we choose will determine what kind of person we become and how our lives will turn out. If we are not happy with the direction our lives have taken to this point, there is always time for us to change course. The first step is to put our lives in God’s hands and give him control over the decisions we make. If we ask him to, he will transform us, beginning with the small choices we make. Then our crooked ways will be made straight and our bumpy paths made smooth.
Douglas Sousa, STL
I am blinded by anger.
I feel nothing but rage.
It is like a fire that is all-consuming, a wildfire destroying everything in its path.
Please put out this fire!
Shower your love and peace over me and quench this fury inside of me.
Remove this blindness.
Help me to see and understand the spark that ignited this fury.
Help me to seek the truth.
Was it shame, was it blame, or was it righteous anger?
Give me the courage to respond in a spirit of truth and love in this situation.
Help me to use this anger in a positive way.
Renew a spirit of peace within me.
When anger blurs my vision, help me to trust that your love and peace will always see me through.
—A Prayer to Deal with Anger, Jackie Trottman.