If there’s a very painful relationship in our lives, the question of ending it is often the one that people ask, or is on their minds. Here is an outline of a process to figure out if we’re supposed to end it.
First, examine your conscience with four questions: Is this truly an important issue (e.g., they’re consistently demeaning me in spite of correction), or am I getting upset over petty things? Is it really time to set a limit, or am I just being impatient? Have I tried prior steps like understanding them, reaching out, changing myself, or do I lack the will to heal the relationship? Have I sought help from other people?
Next, if trying to fix the problems doesn’t work, then set partial limits on activities with them.
Finally, if that doesn’t work, then it might be right to end the relationship (Dr. Gregory Popcak, God Help Me! These People Are Driving Me Nuts, 91-108).
However, before we get there, please listen carefully, as I’m not advocating ending relationships frivolously. Jesus is teaching us how to love in hard relationships, and He gives four steps in the Gospel to love those who hurt us, and to improve and rescue relationships: “If your brother or sister sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If he or she listens to you, you have regained your brother or sister. But if the person does not listen, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the person refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if that person refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Mt 18:15-17). Notice that we’re talking about grave sins here because of the word ‘regain,’ meaning that someone is spiritually lost, and because of the extent to which the Church is involved.
So the first step is private correction. It’s about winning someone we love, which is why Jesus refers to the sinner as ‘brother or sister’ twice. To ‘point out the fault’ means to ‘expose’ or ‘uncover’ it, which is really hard for us because we have been trained by the world to be nice. One of our biggest problems is that we believe we’re not supposed to judge people, and so we put up with abuse when we’re not supposed to! When Jesus said not to judge, He meant not to judge rashly and without taking our own sins into account. Jesus wants us to judge fairly. If we really love someone, we will point out their faults in helpful ways. We may be our own worst enemy if we ignore people’s sins too long, and then we explode, and wonder how much we can take.
Dr. Gregory Popcak, Catholic counsellor, wrote this excellent book that I hope we all buy: God Help Me! These People Are Driving Me Nuts!
His foundational point is that we must resist the temptation to concentrate all of our energy on changing others. Jesus wants us to change first, by learning to point out people’s sins with love.
Instead of saying to our loved ones, ‘Why do you always do that!?’ or, ‘I can’t count on you for anything,’ we start calmly asking questions like these, What are you hoping to gain by speaking to me that way? When you slammed the door, I thought you were upset that I asked for your help—were you? When you raised your voice at me in front of them, I felt humiliated, but that’s typical of you because you’re so selfish—did you mean to do that? (52-53).
And watch your emotional temperature (72). On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being you’re disengaged as when we fall asleep during homilies, and 10 being you’re taking a rifle to a clock tower, you cannot lovingly correct someone if you’re beyond a 6. So, the first step is to change ourselves, by learning to speak calmly and about facts.
Now sometimes this doesn’t help. So, second, Jesus says, ‘take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses.’ Here, He’s quoting the Old Testament law concerning accusations, which demands others to corroborate what we see.
Yet, if witnesses don’t help, the principle of asking for help remains. Go for counselling. ‘But, Fr. Justin, my husband won’t go.’ Go by yourself. You need to grow. In marriages where one person is 90% to blame, the other person can still work on his or her 10%, for example. Many of us who love Jesus have hidden faults, and we need someone to help correct ourselves first.
Sometimes, it may be enough just to tell two or three virtuous people that we’re struggling in a relationship, to expose our situation and get prayer support. The devil wants to keep our struggles quiet. God wants to bring things to the light.
In the third step, ‘If the person refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church’ ‘the church’ here refers to telling the local congregation, according to St. John Chrysostom and St. Jerome (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Matthew 14-28, 76-77)! So, just contact the office, and we’ll put the names and sins into the announcements for Mass.
What the saints are envisioning here is a group of Christian disciples who will lovingly help a brother or sister to say, ‘This is very serious. This is a grave sin that’s endangering your salvation.’ Ricky, our Director of Community, says that, since Life Groups are about helping us grow together in the Christian life, they should aim to get to a level of maturity where there’s no gossip, but that the Life Group holds each other accountable to following Jesus’ teachings.
The fourth step, setting limits on the relationship, is best explained with an example. Daphne’s mother-in-law had belittled her since even before she got married: 14 years of comments about her appearance, being a stay-at-home mom, and behind-the-back criticism to Daphne’s husband. After numerous attempts by Daphne to improve herself, get help, and reach out, the relationship only worsened.
So, she and her husband decided to set limits: She only invited the mother-in-law over on special occasions, and only visited her house rarely, and only for 30 minutes or so. But she kept some contact because her mother-in-law was still a good grandmother and loved her grandchildren. She said, “I will at the very least be civil to her because she is kind to my children and loves my husband very much.” Do you hear the rationality in her plan?
This takes us back to our Lord’s words: ‘If that person refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.’ Gentiles were non-Jews, so this person is no longer part of our community, and tax collectors were extortioners of the Jewish people, so they have to be avoided. However, Jesus came to save them too, so we must still love those whose relationship with us has ended! There must be no bitterness. (Next week, we’ll talk about bitterness and forgiveness.)
Remember that this is how God treats us. God is perfect and never hurts us. But we hurt Him. In spite of being blameless, He changes Himself: He comes to us as a man, teaches us, tries to win us back, and, when we still reject Him, He dies for us, and rises to give us eternal life.
So, God’s love is unconditional but His friendship is not. Jesus says, “You are my friends if you do what I command you” (Jn 15:14)—that is a condition. Jesus says to us, “I love you more than you could ever know, but if you want to be in a relationship with Me, then you need to act in a certain way toward Me. If you do not, you will withdraw from Me, and, if you continue to act offensively toward Me, you may lose My friendship entirely.” That means hell for us. Jesus doesn’t want this to happen, but gives us free choice.
This is how we must love. We can say to people: “I will always try to love you. But being in a relationship with me requires a certain level of behaviour on your part. If you can manage that, then you can be my friend, etc. If you cannot, I won’t act offensively toward you, but I won’t stand between you and the door either. One day, however, by God’s grace, I hope and pray that we can be great friends again” (Popcak, 104-105).