Only those who love rightly see rightly – Richard Rohr

I may be wrong, but it seems that someone who is motivated to be ‘right’ will frequently misunderstand someone who is motivated to be ‘loving’. At least that’s the pattern I’ve observed from spending time on both sides of the right/loving coin. I’m not trying to create a false dichotomy, but I think the starting point matters. Our default is more likely “I’m right” than “I’m loving”.

When I’ve interpreted the teachings of Jesus through my rightness lens, I often miss the point, just like first century religious leaders did. I can get stuck on details I think are more important based on my cultural presuppositions. I can try to locate the thing that the other person ‘obviously’ doesn’t understand as I do, and point it out to them. I can act like a more accurate interpretation of the Golden Rule matters more than actually loving the other person as I would want to be loved. Thankfully, Jesus keeps nudging me towards a more loving and holistic posture, even though I can be a slow learner. When I don’t pay attention to the relational nuances, I’m more likely to be wrong. When I don’t love clearly, I don’t see clearly.

I’ve also observed that if I’m leaning into my sense of rightness, then I’m not able to express authentic empathy. Maybe this is an overstatement, but I don’t think these contrasting motivations can coexist – I can only be emotionally tethered to one at a time. Empathy sits with the other, and does not presume or judge or evaluate the perceived rightness of the other (which, by extension, only reveals what I think is right about myself). Rightness keeps the attention on me and my ego. The default of “I’m right” requires less effort and is a more comforting place to be.

It’s rather common to view Jesus’ ministry through a lens that focuses on his right teachings, his right choices, and his right behavior. A straightforward and simple reading of the Gospels may lead us to think of our life’s journey as one that follows the right way so we can go to the right eternal destination by saying the right prayer and obeying the right truth. These grooves are well-worn and his words are easily cherry-picked to affirm our sense of rightness instead of challenging it.

I’ve been wondering if it would be more helpful to consider the Incarnation of Jesus as the Great Empathy. The Incarnation was an event freely offered to reveal the depths of love for creation thru kinship, not a trumpet-blast of rightness. His teachings were layered in authentic empathy – to heal the sick, to welcome the stranger, to invite the religious outcasts, to reveal the liberation available through kin-dom living. He moved into the neighborhood, not just to show us how to live and love more fully, but to save us from ourselves and our deeply grooved default settings that lean towards self-rightness. It’s the same self-rightness we tend to rely on when we don’t think to love rightly. And we miss the point again.

I’d expect to see more empathy in Christian circles if loving others was preferred to rightness. Instead, a bias towards diagnosing the sins of others and contending for the gospel (which, by the way, is more about my interpretation than yours) is more evident. Maybe we’re off target about what faith means. Maybe our faith is betraying us. Maybe the words we claim to believe haven’t yet animated the values we claim to hold. Maybe we’re looking at our intentions instead of our fruit. Maybe we’re missing the point because we value rightness more than love. Maybe we don’t see clearly because we aren’t loving clearly. Maybe we haven’t deeply experienced the amazing and wonderful life energy that’s present when loving rightly.

The warning of self-deception is precise – we may claim to do the right things, but being known by Jesus is better (Matt 7:21-23). I believe that being known by him means that he sees his character reflected in us – the same spirit that animated the Incarnation and chose empathy. Sadly, throughout history, many people who did horrible things were unshakably convinced that they were doing the right thing, if not the will of God. Maybe we should pause when we’re convinced we’re right, and discern the spirits. Proclaiming my rightness while condemning others or not treating them with dignity is anathema to the animating spirit of Jesus.

I want to react with more love than I often do, but the grooves of my rightness have been reinforced for decades. It’s an act of faith to follow through on my belief that it’s better to be kind than right. And I’m convinced that then, and only then, will I see rightly.

Only those who love rightly see rightly – Richard Rohr

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