For Christians, Advent is a penitential season. As a penitential season, it is a specially designated time to reflect on our sins and try to break free from those sins as we await the coming of the light of the world, Jesus Christ.
I would, therefore, like to meditate on perhaps one of the most widely troubling everyday moral sins we face – angry arguments with the ones we love. Arguments are such a universal problem that the secular world has spent millions of dollars on research and spilt much ink on a plethora of writings about the best conflict resolution skills for couples. If you go to Barnes and Noble, chances are you will see a whole rack of books on communication and relationships. The best of this wisdom has been collected in a very nice summary article entitled “25 Ways to Fight Fair” found on the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops website www.foryourmarriage.org. It is definitely worth the time to read.
But I would like to deepen that wisdom by contemplating how Christ handles conflicts in the Gospel and to offer a meditation on His conflict resolution skills in order to serve as an examination of conscience for our own arguments and conversations. The particular conflict that will serve as a good comparison is the Gospel scene of the woman who was caught in adultery (John 8:1-20). I will be comparing this Gospel scene with arguments between husband and wife, but the meditation can be applicable for an argument with anyone, making the necessary changes where needed. Further, this meditation will stretch over two posts. Please check back tomorrow for part two.
Let us begin our meditation with noting where Christ was coming from and where He is going in this passage. He came from the Mount of Olives and goes to the temple of Jerusalem (John 8:1). At the temple, He is stopped by Pharisees who not only want to stone to death a woman for committing adultery, but they also want to test Christ to see what he would do in such a situation.
Ultimately they wanted to see if He would contradict the law of Moses, which said to stone her to death, thereby placing Himself as higher than the sacred law. Here we can pause and ask ourselves: When a conflict emerges with our spouse where she has hurt us by sin and she is in the wrong, is our first response to be like a Pharisee and get angry and throw stones of verbal attacks or uncharitable words at our spouses? Or do we try to catch our spouse in further wrong by provoking them, like the Pharisees were attempting to catch Christ by provoking Him with this situation?
I think most of us, myself included, can say honestly that at times our anger gets the best of us and our first response after the initial feeling of anger, which is not immoral, is to “throw stones” by saying some mean, critical remark. Perhaps we may give our spouse the silent treatment or avoid him or her. Maybe we lay into them uncharitably with a moral lesson on how much they have hurt us or they shouldn’t have done it. Or the worst of all, like the Pharisees, we refuse to forgive the offender and brood over the offense for days. All of these actions following anger are a sin. These responses simply make the situation worse because one sin is now answered by another and another until all there is sin and more sin. This is hardly a solution to the argument. How can we not throw stones in our next argument? Where is the light?
Providentially, in that same passage in response to the Pharisees’ challenge, Christ gives us a very concrete way to deal with conflicts of sin – He simply “bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground” (John 8:6 and John 8:8). This may not seem like much of an answer to our problems, but let me explain the importance of this simple action, which Christ significantly did twice in the passage.
Before Christ bent down, it is probably safe to say that Christ is very righteously upset and angry at this moment, like we are initially when a spouse hurts us. Christ would probably be angry for several reasons. First, the woman really did commit a great sin that hurts not only her spouse but also Christ, because all sin is against both man and the Creator of man, God. Second, the Pharisees were also sinning against the woman by not forgiving her and trying to entrap Jesus. Third, and the worst of all, the thing that probably angered Jesus most was was the fact that the Pharisees were trying to stone and to kill this woman in the temple (John 8:2). This is the same temple where Jesus got angry and drove out the money exchangers because they turned His Father’s house into a marketplace (John 2: 13-16). If Jesus was mad at those who turned His Father’s house into a shopping mall, then how much more angry must He have felt when the Pharisees wanted to turn that same holy house into a scene of murder?
I think, therefore, we could reasonably interpret from this passage that Christ would have been very angry. But unlike our sinful responses toward our spouses because of our anger, Christ teaches us to pause and bend down. In other words, when we are angry we have to first “cool down” as the secular wisdom names it. But this cooling down is different with Christ. It is not merely walking away in order to stop our anger. Rather, Christ challenges us to something more. Something more as indicated by Christ writing in the sand. Now no one knows for sure what Christ wrote, but part of the beauty of this passage is that there could have been multiple things he has written. There have been various ancient traditions about what he may have written. Each of these possible scenarios give us valuable insights into what we should do when we are “cooling down like Christ.”
First, there is the interpretation that what Christ wrote was actually some kind of prayer to God the Father asking Him for wisdom. This instructs us that when we are angry that we ought to not simply cool off, but cool off by praying to God. By praying to God, we take time to calm down, put the situation in God’s perspective who loves us and our spouse, and ask for help to discern how to handle this situation. When we are angry, do we calm down by praying? Do we pray for the situation and our spouse when they hurt us?
Second, there is the tradition that what Christ wrote was the sins of the Pharisees, convicting them of their own sins. This would make sense because the next line after it mentions He wrote in the sand, Christ says, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her (John 8:7).” Here Christ is reminding all of us that we are sinners. It is not our spouse who is the only sinner in this relationship. Christ is indicating here that even when we have a right to be upset because a spouse has wronged us, we ought to recall our sins during conflicts in order to have the proper compassion for our spouse and to place their sin in the context that we are all sinners who can become more holy. Do we recall our sins or sinful nature when we are calming down in an argument? Do we pray for the wisdom to see how our own sin may have affected or led to the situation? Next argument, after you have prayed, try to do a brief examination of conscience when cooling down.
Third, there is the tradition that Christ was alluding to Jeremiah 17:13 which says “Those who turn away from thee [the Lord] shall be written in the earth, for they have forsaken the Lord, the fountain of living water.” In this interpretation, Christ would be clearly and boldly telling the Pharisees not only are you sinners but you have forsaken God and are like ones dead in the ground. Christ wants us to remember that we are always under the judgment of God’s love, which is the only true path to life. It does infinitely matter how you respond to sin and it is not okay to sin simply because someone has done something wrong against you. Do we allow another person’s sin to be a justification for an unkind action against them? Do we stand under God’s judgment or do we want to judge for ourselves what is evil and wrong in a particular situation? Next time when you are cooling down also remember to do God’s will in whatever action you may choose to do in response to the situation.