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SpiritualDirection.com / Catholic Spiritual Direction

Should I “back off” in my passion for my faith?

January 3, 2011 by  
Filed under Fr. Bartunek, Self Knowledge

Thank you, Father John, for your clarification. On the same topic, I find that some of the Christians around me seem to resent my “zeal”. They would rather I be less intense in my pursuit of holiness and living the Gospel; I make them uncomfortable. Sometimes I am tempted to dial this “divine obsession” back, just to accommodate others. But I don't think that is what God wants me to do. I think He would prefer that I am “sold out” to Him, totally giving all that I am, all that I have to Him. Do you have any thoughts about this?

Thank you for this encouraging note, and this incisive question, which I am sure is on the minds of more than a few of our readers. I do have some thoughts about it – two thoughts, in fact.

First, sometimes the people around us can help identify imbalances in our lives to which we ourselves are oblivious. We have all experienced this. Just think about friends who make unfortunate dating choices: they put themselves in relationships that wear them down instead of build them up, but they don’t seem to see it. So, if you are consistently receiving this message (that you have gone overboard in your piety) from people you know and respect (and who know and respect you), your first reaction should be to do some self-reflection: “Is my life of piety somehow turning people away from Christ?” In this context, I offer a few possible self-examination questions:

Am I able to carry on a friendly and interesting conversation with people – friends, acquaintances, strangers – about non-religious topics?

The answer should be “yes.” A mature Christian should have a lively interest in simply being human. Think about Pope John Paul II and how he so easily met people where they were at. He enjoyed skiing and soccer; he enjoyed movies and art… Pope Benedict XVI plays Mozart to relax. St. John Bosco did magic tricks for kids. St. Gianna Beretta Molla kept up on fashion trends… We too should have healthy interests and hobbies that are simply human, that aren’t directly related to our piety (though they must never interfere with our friendship with Christ). Christians should be interesting people, enjoyable to be around, welcome in any kind of setting, able to connect with people where they are at.

Do I regularly have a “hidden agenda” in my conversations with other people?

We have to be really careful here. As Christ’s ambassadors, it is up to us to bear witness to his truth and love, especially to those who do not know or accept God’s truth and love. But as we grow in our own love for God and his Church, a subtle temptation to pride can seep into our relationships. We can start thinking that we know exactly what other people need, and so we start manipulating them – saying one thing and meaning another, or trying to pressure them (instead of motivating them) into doing what’s right. This is a false kind of charity. Only God knows the whole story of a human heart. We are not Saviors; we are not Providence; we are just witnesses and messengers.

Certainly we can be creative and energetic in finding ways to communicate Christ’s message, but we need to have an absolute respect for every person, treating them like people, not like pet projects. Otherwise, we end up seeking our own glory (“success” stories) instead of God’s glory. This balance can sometimes be hard to maintain. It takes a lot of prayer and a lot of humility. We are just instruments of the Holy Spirit, junior partners: He is the one in charge. As a rule of thumb: we should make a decent and responsible effort to share with others what God has given to us, but not force it down their throats. We are to love our neighbors as ourselves, respecting them, helping them, and building them up, not belittling them or riding roughshod over them.

Do I lead a balanced life-style, in accordance with the duties of my state in life?

The touchstone of our walk with Christ is God’s will. Jesus’ own rule of life was: “I seek to do not my own will but the will of him who sent me” (John 5:30). We find God’s will in the commandments of the Bible and the Church, in the example of Christ, in the duties of our state in life, and in the inspirations of the Holy Spirit (which will never contradict the first three).

If you are a single professional, for example, you should work hard, be engaged in your parish, pursue healthy hobbies, participate in a healthy social life, and, most importantly, have a regular and substantial prayer life. If you are married with children, the commitment to your husband and kids will necessarily diminish the amount of time and energy you can dedicate to your profession, your hobbies, and your social life, but those aspects of normal human-hood should not disappear. If your life of piety consistently crowds everything else out, it may be a sign that you have a religious vocation – but not if you’re already married! Jesus was clear that “your light must shine in people's sight, so that, seeing your good works, they may give praise to your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:12). If you are spending all of your time in church, how can that happen?

Do I still cling to friendships or hobbies that habitually put me in occasions of sin?

This is a key point. We can sometimes use the “let your light shine” commandment as an excuse to stay too heavily involved in fashionable or pleasurable social circles that are actually riddled with sinful behavior. I remember guy friends in college who used to engage in what they called “missionary dating.” They would date girls who did not share a Christian world view or Christian morals, telling themselves that by dating these girls they would help convert them. The opposite always happened.

As adults, we can fall into the same mistake. The businessman or lawyer who convinces himself that he has to go to the strip club after work in order to build a relationship with a potential client is not “letting his light shine”; he is exposing it to a wind that may blow it out. The socially active Catholic woman who keeps on lunching at the country club with groups of friends who regularly spend the whole lunch gossiping and detracting is impeding her spiritual progress and giving sin a foothold. We have to invest quality time in friendships that are healthy, and at least in some friendships in which our core Christian values (the pursuit of holiness) are shared.

On the other hand, this doesn’t mean that we are supposed to isolate ourselves from all contact with secular people. Avoiding habitual gossip sessions at the country club doesn’t mean you can’t have lunch or tennis with a friend or two who don’t share your faith or worldview. Not at all! Answering Christ’s call to be “the salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13) requires being in the world. But we have to avoid being of the world; when socializing starts causing our salt to “lose its taste,” we are doing no one a favor.

This isn’t an exhaustive list of questions, but reflecting on these may help you identify if your friends’ impatience with your piety has any merit. If you are out of balance, then you may indeed be turning people away from Christ. But if you are pretty much balanced (we are never perfectly balanced, and we constantly have to adjust in order to keep even our imperfect balance), then you simply need to keep forging ahead, trusting that your “sign of contradiction” (see Luke 2:34) will be used by God, somehow, to draw them closer to Him.

In the Face of Opposition

Second, we need to remember that whenever we are truly seeking to follow Christ, we will inevitably face misunderstanding, opposition, and even persecution. This is just the way it is. Jesus was really clear about it: “If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you do not belong to the world, because my choice of you has drawn you out of the world, that is why the world hates you” (John 15:19).

This opposition can be painful and confusing. It is more painful when it comes from those closest to us – a disdainful spouse, for example, or a fellow Catholic parishioner who resents the call to conscience that our example makes to them. We must not let this kind of opposition interfere with our quest for holiness. Rather, we have to refrain from judging these critics (we can’t see their whole heart), and keep our eye on the ball: loving God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and loving our neighbor as yourself.

Yours in Christ, Fr John Bartunek, LC, ThD

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About Fr. John Bartunek, LC

Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D, received his BA in History from Stanford University in 1990. He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a member of the Catholic Church in 1991. After college, he worked as a high school history teacher, drama director, and baseball coach. He then spent a year as a professional actor in Chicago before entering the religious Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1993. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003 and earned his doctorate in moral theology in 2010. He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" while researching the 2005 Catholic best seller, "Inside the Passion"--the only authorized, behind-the-scene explanation of the film. Fr. John has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on NBC, CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He also served as the English-language press liaison for the Vatican’s 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. His most widely known book is called: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer". His most recent books are "Spring Meditations", "Seeking First the Kingdom: 30 Meditations on How to Love God with All Your Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength", and "Answers: Catholic Advice for Your Spiritual Questions". Fr. John currently splits his time between Michigan (where he continues his writing apostolate and serves as a confessor and spiritual director at the Queen of the Family Retreat Center) and Rome, where he teaches theology at Regina Apostolorum. His online, do-it-yourself retreats are available at RCSpirituality.org, and he answers questions about the spiritual life at SpiritualDirection.com.

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  • Smiley007

    Thank you Father,
    Personally I find that the more a person develops as a complete person on all levels (physically, mentally, spiritually and emotionally) the more it will upset people. The religious seem to get away with being complete (or it is expected of them as they are dressed for the part), but for the lay man or woman we are expected to be ‘normal’. God forbid we don’t watch certain Tv shows but prefer a good novel suddenly we are weird, and we have not yet entered the realm of religion. I agree with you when you say if the people who we respect (especially if they are catholic) say we are over dong it we probably are, if our non catholic friends say we over do it, its harder to discern what their motive is.
    I am learning that these days deep silence is far far better, if a situation is not to spiritual liking or goes against what one believes, just leaving the room silently makes a far louder statement than anything else. Much like St Thomas More.

  • FrancesAnne

    Again, Thank You….for the clarity your answers are bringing to my walk with Our Lord…

  • Father John – wow – does this ever speak to where I am ! My heart has been so on fire for the past three years that I have to be careful not to be overwhelming to those around me, or to be obsessive. I don’t intend to hide my light under a bushel, but I also don’t want to burn down the barn! I find that, if I followed my own impulses, every conversation would turn to faith in some way. People ask me “what’s new?” and I want to share with them all that I am learning and discerning and how I’m growing in God’s love and mercy and grace. But I know sometimes what they want to have is more worldly discussion, and I try to be cognizant of that. It takes effort, except for with a few sisters in Christ who are as excited to talk about the way the Lord is moving in their lives as I am!

    So, Thank you for the very practical questions/parameters. They will be very helpful.

    @ Smiley – I appreciate your comment as well. I have friends who throw parties several times a year, and somehow the conversation in the kitchen gets bawdier as the evening progresses. *(Which I never USED to mind…) About a year ago, I had been standing there listening to the conversation, feeling increasingly uncomfortable. As I made to slip out of the room, (Unobtrusively, I thought), someone laughed and said “Oops – we’ve lost Cathleen!” I chuckled goodnaturedly, waved, and left the room. I was self-conscious, though, that people might have thought I was judging their actions given that I would see many of them at Mass the next day. That wasn’t my intention.
    Interestingly enough, someone who had been in the room approached me later on asking questions about being Catholic, and expressing interest in perhaps attending RCIA.

    Enough! See – burning down the barn again! 🙂

  • Guest

    Thank you Father for your advice on this question. True, if a Catholic friend advises you to moderate your spiritual commitments, they may be seeing something you are not aware of. But at, times, I have found these criticisms from one or two members of our Eucharistic Apostolate of Divine Mercy to be somehow based on envy or jealousy. It appears to me as such because the person who is quick to criticize us seems to resent our position as cradle Catholics while she converted to Catholicism as an adult. Even while leading Prayers during the Holy Hour Adoration, or when having a general discussion about the Faith, she tends to use the Protestant-type of prayers and reasonings, respectively. While having general discussions or contributing to the Lessons of the day, she tends to be over-critical of other’s input. In such instances, I have found Smiley007’s advice of keeping quiet or just moving away from the conversation far much better than to try, no matter how well-meaning I may be, to defend my situation.

  • Libby Brennan

    Thank you, Father, for such an informative and balanced teaching. It was very timely for me to read your advice and will, I hope, help me to “centre” myself in a more healthy way in my walk with Christ.

  • wendy

    Thank you Fr. Bartunek for this post. The most opposition I have received about growing in holiness was from my very own sister who I would describe as a “cafeteria Catholic”. I have never heard a word about my increased efforts to grow closer to Christ from my solid Catholic friends. They “get it”, my sister does not. I think she fears that my new found love and desire to grow in holiness threatens our relationship in some way. She doesn’t like that I’ve changed. She wants the “old” sister back and things to return to the way they used to be. Won’t happen, I’m afraid.

  • Pre74700

    For a while there I was really into being humble after experiencing a painful divorce and a reconversion to the Lord and so I aproached a well dressed fashionable looking young woman I saw at the laundry mat who had wandered in from a block of flats next door as she seemed vague and distracted.As she talked I learned that she was left all day for days alone in their flat by her lover for whom she had just left her threechildren and husband.he was a reporter who had passed through her country town,She was distraught and so I spent time with her and told her she should pray about it .She looked at me not unkindly but a bit dazed ‘She said “You are nice but you are very simple arn’t you” ? I had to bite my tongue as I wanted to retort “Not as simple as you to leave a good husband and chldren for a user who is obviously tired of you.” But I didn’t I took it on the chin. I did not feel kindly towards her at all and especially as she was the sort of female I cannot stand just like my mother was,and just another perfidious person like my ex,
    I honestly wasn’t too chuffed with the whole thing of being humble for Christ.But I did it and she left thinking I was a nice well meaning simpleton but at least she had someone to talk to in a crisis as she was obviously just beginning to realize she was shacked up with a louse.and had lost her family in the process,

  • suzi

    Thank you Father,
    I am a convert of 18 years and am surrounded by non Catholics except for my children. My prayer time is private. My husband who is of no faith once asked that I don’t “ram”: religion down his throat. I pray every day for the salvation of their souls. This is a suffering for me and I offer it to God on a daily basis. I keep my faith to myself and am not outspoken of it unless asked. But the Good Lord always comes through for me. I attend daily Mass, All my children are baptized Catholic and attend daily Mass. This article gave me a lot of re assurance.
    Thank you for this site and thank you for “The Better Part”. These are the 2 instruments along with The Bible that I use daily to grow in faith.
    God Bless you and all that you do
    Suzi

  • Anonymous

    Thank you, Father, for a very balanced, mature, respectful, gentle and as always, inspirational response. I was particularly moved by your thoughts on responding within our state of life. Your insights seem to be quite in line with what I perceive as true spiritual direction; guideposts, lights shining in the darkness, companions on the journey.

  • Elaine thomas

    this is such a wonderful website. I am sorry I have not been aware of it in the past.

  • Superjoani

    I think it is important to remember that many people have been overtly or subtly abused in the name of God or religion. I refer to all kinds of unkind or neglectful behavior that we all see going on in our parishes. We may be touching on the deepest pains when we emulate a relationship with God and should take care to avoid further wounding others. Most people want, desire, seek God, even when they don’t know they are doing so. My repeated experience is that when people perceive an authentic relationship with God (and they do, without your having to say anything), they take note and observe you for a while. Sometimes they don’t even know why. Sometimes they look for faults or inconsistencies which they most surely will find, but which you respond to with humility. They may sniff around with questions, or hint at a problem and appear relieved when you say something simple like, “I’ll pray for you, ok?” Then may follow further discussion if and when they want to bring it up. I think many people are secretly afraid to look for Jesus in the churches because they do not expect to be welcomed. Often unkind remarks reflect the wounds or fears of the speaker.

  • Penguintrble

    I found this post extremely helpful in leading a life of balance while remaining close to God. Thank you

  • Janine Derscheid

    i struggle with living my faith and being in theworld..and then i get so worried that i say too much or not enought to others. thank you Father.. this helps me

  • Thank you for this article. I feel more drawn to my faith than ever before, and have wondered if this was “ok”. You clarified things for me. I do go about my daily life, work in a secular world, have hobbies not related to my faith, making jewelry, knitting, patio gardening. You article encourages me to keep going in my path to God. The end struck me deeply, I have a husband who “disdains” my efforts. I have to hide most of my prayer life from him, and do pray for him. Thank you.

  • Becky Ward

    I’ve learned from a couple different sources that when we get serious about the work becoming holy, part of the persecution we will receive is from those who are nearest and dearest to us. This is because as long as everyone in the group adheres to the same values and has the same moral ‘code’, so to speak, all is well. But when one of the group steps onto the path of perfection, even if they never say a word, the rest of the group notices and they are forced to examine thier own behaviors and beliefs………someting that we all know can be pretty uncomfortable………….but OH!! so worth it!!

  • Jan8790

    Probably. The best way to handle this-it is well known that when one is on fire for the Lord, it is difficult to keep the tongue still. One can speak of the Love of the Lord, just to let others know that He exists and is there knocking on the door. But then, one can still speak of ways that the Lord worked in their life that day. This is not forcing anyone to believe in Jesus. An example-your favorite sports team lost the game-simple state “I guess Jesus didn’t want my team to win this week. Perhaps the sins of the community were too much for them to win.” And this article reminds me that I have been too quiet about the Lord and shall start speaking up again.

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