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Is it selfish to deny help to family or friends? Part II of II

October 31, 2011 by  
Filed under Fr. Bartunek, Mortification, Self-Denial

Dear Father John, if Christians are called to charity, and we assume that our charity must cost us something (like time, comfort, or money), is there a time when we can justifiably deny a request without being selfish? I’m an at-home mom and my friends often ask me to babysit for their children.  I always say “Yes”, but only because it is difficult for me to do so, and I wonder if God is increasing my capacity to give.

In our last post we laid the groundwork for balance in self-giving. In this post we will dig into a few practical ideas.

Saying “No” and Saying “Yes”

With those distinctions in mind, I think we can answer your question: “Is there a time when we can justifiably deny a request without being selfish?” Absolutely! The ultimate goal is not to go around looking for things that are hard for us to do and to do as many of them as possible. The ultimate goal is give ourselves to God and our neighbor, out of love, out of a sense of what would please them and be good for them. This provides us with a hierarchy of values that enable us to discern when to say “yes” and when to say “no.”

For example, as a married woman your first arena of love is in your friendship with God himself. That friendship requires you to hold dear what God holds dear, and so you will never disobey his commands. If someone asks you to babysit on Sunday, when you know God wants you to be with him at Mass, you can say, “I am so sorry, I am not available.”

Your second arena of love is your relationship with your husband – that is your sacrament. Through that bond God promises to send his grace into your lives and, through you, into the world. If you and your husband have instituted a weekly or monthly date-night in order to help keep your communication channels healthy, you won’t be able to babysit that night – you will have to deny that request. You might actually enjoy the date-night more than the babysitting, but that doesn’t mean you are being selfish. You are actually being faithful; you are loving as God wants you to love; you are saying “no” to one very good thing in order to say “yes” to an even better thing.

Vanity Disguised as Love

In some cases, it is actually a sign of selfishness NOT to deny a request. Let’s take a radical case. Your girlfriend is having an affair. She wants to get together with her lover while her husband is at work.  She asks you to babysit her kids so she can have her tryst. Part of you may want to say yes to this request, because you don’t want to alienate this friend (who is popular and influential in your social circles). But you know that you should not encourage her in her infidelity. If you were to babysit to help cover up her adultery, would you really be showing her Christ-like love? Or would you be putting your own social status ahead of your responsibility as Christ’s follower to help people leave sin instead of dive into it?

Discerning God’s Path

The principle underlying these examples is always the same. It has to do with keeping God first in our lives, with loving him by finding and following his will for us. That is the true measure of love. Sometimes that path will be steep and painful, just like Christ’s path to Calvary. But even then, in the depths of our soul we will find a spiritual resonance, an interior peace and assurance that comes from the Holy Spirit.

If we don’t, if we only find turbulence and confusion even in our hearts, it could actually be a sign that we are making a wrong turn, that we are operating out of vanity or pride instead of Christ-like love. How can we tell the difference? Usually it is clear. When it isn’t, we need to turn to God in prayer (and it’s much easier to do that if we have already developed a healthy prayer life), and get solid advice from someone we trust, like a spiritual director. And, like all things in the spiritual life, practice makes perfect: the more we engage in Christ-like love, the more easily we discern the real thing from its distracting counterfeits.

“How” vs “How Much”

As a final comment, I would like to make an observation about St. Paul’s “Hymn to Charity,” which we find in 1 Corinthians 13. This passage summarizes the characteristics of Christ-like love (which is why it is so popular as a Reading during wedding Masses). Notice that St. Paul is much more interested in how we do things and how we treat each other than he is in how much we get done.  In our world of maniacal overachievers and merely material standards of success, that is a very, very important distinction to keep in mind. If we say yes to so many things that we end up doing them all angrily, resentfully, and bitterly, we have probably lost the balance somewhere along the line and need to pull back. It may be costly to decide to give of ourselves, but once we have made the decision, we should be able to let our trust in God banish the emotional resentment: “Each one should give as much as he has decided on his own initiative, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7).   Let’s let St. Paul have the last word:

Love is always patient and kind; love is never jealous; love is not boastful or conceited, it is never rude and never seeks its own advantage, it does not take offense or store up grievances. Love does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but finds its joy in the truth. It is always ready to make allowances, to trust, to hope and to endure whatever comes. Love never comes to an end. (1 Corinthians 13:4-8)

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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, and he answers questions about the spiritual life at

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  • judeen

     Loving thy neighbor.. is not always saying yes.. for this can be a addiction or even being owned by it..
     many parents baby sit their grand kids out of obligation , love , help guilt.. so on. yet they start to enable their parents. by not growing up and start to take care of their kids and family .. destroying the family structure.
      other people will ask and use guilt trip, obligations, manipulations.. so on to control the out come.. this is wrong a power struggle and control which is very wrong and owns whole families and friends..
        love is given out of the kindness to another , and nothing asked back . had a women tell me I will do this for you and you can not pay me back so pass it on… do for someone a kindness and ask them to pass it to someone else… it was very wise.. Gods goodness keeps on going

  • Michelle

    I know that for me, and other of my well meaning friends, it is difficult to say NO when someone asks for a favor or makes a request. But I do believe there is a healthy balance in learning to say no at times. I would think that if a request interferes with our main priorities – which so happen to be God’s will for us at the time – then I would feel comfortable in saying no. But realizing that is it is not out of selfishness that I am saying NO, but rather out of a sense of responsibility towards those in my care. When I have been approached to help in a ministry I have learned from wiser friends to never give a response up front, but rather tell that person that I will pray about it and then get back to them. And I thank them for thinking of me.  

    • LizEst

      This is a very wise way to be, Michelle. Thank you for giving many the right words to express what is in their hearts…but might otherwise come out incorrectly.

      God bless you!

  • Avilalover

    I love this site. Thank you to the writers for so wisely touching upon the subject of holiness, through practical application in every day life, as related in the timeless Scriptrures and other writings.
    Another trap eluded to in the post is to say yes with good intent, but then to suffer from internal pride by backpatting onesself for being so giving. and then to try to cover this up with false humility.  St. Paul’s passage really keeps it all in line.  

  • Becky Ward

    I was raised with a very strong sense of ‘service’……..we served God in serving others. Thus I was involved with 4-H, soccer, scouting, being a room mother for school, and various ministries for my parish and at work. 
    But I had no real prayer life… was not something I had seen as an example growing up, and I didn’t understand what it really was or how important it was until God took drastic measures to show me! 🙂
    It’s still a challenge for me…’s hard to let go of measuring things in tangible ways…….but I am much happier and have found a wonderful sense of peace in putting God first.
    I really like the suggestion to not say “Yes.” to requests without giving ourselves time to pray first.

  • Guest

    A splendid Post this one. I directly speaks to my heart. Thank you for this very sound advice.

  • Marjorie Campbell

    What a great Part II. Thank you! It actually brought tears to my eyes hoping that many of the wonderful, stressed out women I know would really think about their priorities and consider whether NOT saying “no” reflects selfishness of sorts. I recall the first confession I made when I told Father “I have sinned in vanity because I have put pleasing others ahead of my God and my husband and my family.” I felt the most amazing grace flow through me … as if a wiring problem had been repaired. I found the book Boundaries, by Drs. Cloud and Townsend an extremely helpful supportive guide … it was recommended to by a priest who totally got the problem and I will give thanks for that fellow all of my life!

  • TxMom826

    I am on the adoration sub list at my church. Sometimes people call me to sub late at night during times that I usually spend with my husband or when our kids are asleep, and even when I am usually asleep. I really don’t feel comfortable driving at night by myself either. I always feel so selfish and lazy when I say no to spending time with Christ at these odd hours…like it is inconvenient for me to go. Are these “acceptable” reasons to say no? I often stuggle with saying no to our Lord even though I more often than not turn the caller down unless it is “convenient” for me.

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