18 November 2009

Sacrifical Service vs. Being a Doormat

How do we distinguish between "serving sacrificially" and "being subservient"?  Or, as one commenter puts it:  what's the difference between rendering sacrificial service and "being a doormat"?

I've only been in ordained ministry for five years, but this question has been asked of me many times. . .and only by women.  It's likely I just need more experience, or maybe the women I've ministered to have been somehow particularly abused by a distorted notion of sacrifice.  Either way, the question is a good one.

First, a few general observations. . .

+ All Christians are called to be servants.  This means, minimally, that we are to be of good use to others, including family, friends, neighbors, and strangers.  The OT prophets were especially emphatic about being hospitable to foreigners.  Why?  They are away from home, away from the day-to-day support they normally have among their own.  In other words, they are critically vulnerable and in the most need of immediate help.

+ Anyone can be a servant.  There is no religious test for being of good use to others.  Atheists are perfectly capable of being of good service, even sacrificially so.  However, Christians are not called to be servants just for the sake of service.  We serve b/c we lay claim to being followers of Christ who served all mankind in his life, death, and resurrection.  We serve for the greater glory of God.  Christian service is what it is precisely b/c it is done in order to give thanks and praise to God. 

+ When we serve others sacrificially, we serve in order to make them and ourselves holy.  If my service is about making me look good in the parish, or to boost my public image before an election, or pad my resume for a tough job search, then the service cannot be sacrificial, even if tremendous good results from my work.  The intention (willed direction) of my work must be to do nothing else but show God's love and mercy to the world.  Any good service we render can be considered sacrificial if it is done for God's greater glory.  This is made plain in the Little Way of St. Therese and Brother Lawrence.  Washing dishes with your all your heart and mind focused on Christ can be a sacrifice. 

+ The danger for Americans is to measure sacrifice in terms of "what is lost" and "what is gained" rather than in the quality of devotion invested in the work.  Bill Smith can write a $25 billion check to a city's food bank and effectively feed millions of people.  Sue Jones can work a Saturday afternoon at the Catholic Charities thrift store and help several families stretch their meager household budget.  Smith "sacrifices" billions of dollars.  Jones "sacrifices" an afternoon.  Most Americans would say that Smith has sacrificed more than Jones.  Not necessarily.  Jones wills that her work bring greater and greater glory to God.  She intents her work as a demonstration of Christ's love and mercy for the least of his.  Smith writes a check b/c its a good tax write-off and it will get his picture in the paper before this year's mayoral election. 

Now, having said all that, here's a very basic distinction between sacrifice and servitude:  any good work done for the greater glory of God alone is sacrificial; work done for any reason other than this is may be servile. 

But how do I discern which is which?

1).  Why am I doing this work?
2).  Is this work good?
3).  Am I perfecting my gifts?

The first question challenges you to consider your reasons for undertaking the work.  Here you have to plumb your heart and mind and honestly assess your motives.  Am I doing this to build a good reputation?  Am I doing this for attention?  Is this work merely a duty that I must perform?  Will others I am a bad person if I don't do it?  Your only reason for giving sacrificial service is to give glory to God.

The second question challenges you to consider the work itself.  Is the object of the work good, meaning is the end goal of the work good.  Recently, a Dominican sister's work at an abortion clinic was made public.  No doubt she feels that her work is good.  But the object--the final end--of her work is to help women abort their children.  There is very little good in this.  Also, when helping others in person it's a good idea to consider the largest possible picture.  While I served in Houston, we were frequently hit up by homeless folks for money at the priory.  Helping the homeless is a paramount Christian concern.  But giving cash to them is not the way to help them.  They see cash donations as a form of help.  But there's no reason for us to see it this way.  Handing a homeless person a few dollars is a cheap and easy way to feel good about one's charity.  It's certainly easier than spending a Saturday at the homeless shelter serving lunch!  Just b/c the person who needs your help thinks that doing X is helpful doesn't make it helpful. 

The third question challenges you to consider whether or not any particular service you might render also serves to perfect your unique gifts.  1 John tells us that when we use our gifts in the service of others, God's love is perfected in us.  When God's love is perfected in us, we go on to serve more and more in and for His glory.  I have no gifts in the area of logistics or planning.  It would be a mistake for me to serve as a coordinator of relief services in a natural disaster.  However, I function very well in a crisis.  When something traumatic happens I become very calm and hyper-focused (a very unusual state for me!). This gift helped me work with psychiatric patients in a hospital setting.  That job was one crisis after another.  

So, serving as a doormat might mean that you are serving out of fear, misguided duty, guilt, or a need to please in order to receive approval.  None of these is sacrificial.  You might be serving someone who has defined "help" as doing what he/she wants you do even if they help they want isn't what they actually need in the long run.  This kind of work might result in some good, but it will not likely be the best you can offer them.  Remember:  sometimes the best medicine hurts.  You might be serving others by trying to make use of gifts you do not have.  There's no grace for you to call on in these cases, no help from your own nature that gives you the means to do and be the best you can do and be. 

If the service you are doing makes you feel like a doormat, makes you think of yourself as being taken advantage of, then follow these thoughts and feelings and stop.  You aren't doing yourself or others much good.  Be open to expanding your gifts but know your limits.  The Church has many members precisely b/c none of us can everything well. 

Hope this helps!


  1. Laura8:08 AM

    Overall Father, I would agree with what you have written, and I thank you for the clarity and general applicability of the advice.

    There is one comment I would make though that may make it difficult for many women to follow, and which I think gets to the heart of why so many have asked you this question (and why no men have).

    How do you apply this advice when you sense that your sense of grievance or "being taken advantage of" is warped by the culture. Most women my age (early 30s) have grown up during the age of the feminist. Many of us had mothers who worked outside of the home and, in trying to embrace an idea of marriage and motherhood more in keeping with sacrificial love than indulgent self-fulfillment, are trying to grasp what it means to pour out the self for love of Christ.

    Part of what gets in the way is what we have be trained, by our families and the culture at large, to expect out of marriage and so can't tell if we are feeling used because a) we are, or b) we have warped expectations of our "job".

    A concrete example would be packing a lunch. Many women, guided by the zeitgeist, would say to their husbands "you're a grown man, pack your own lunch." And this might be a reasonable request in a double income household, but appears much less so once the wife is at home. For my own part, I find such a simple act to be one of great love and service (especially since I hate getting up early) that has helped my own spiritual growth, but I am constantly getting signals from my mother and mother-in-law that this is an unreasonable demand on my time. And on the mornings where I feel particularly groggy, I want to agree. The devil on my shoulder says "he's a grown man", while the angel says "it's a small thing that saves time and money and shows your love more than words can".

    But many of us can't tell if that voice whispering inside is temptation to sloth and resentment, or a just sense of being used.

    So the question becomes, how do I discern if my feelings and thoughts are being guided by vice or virtue when it comes to not wanting to serve. For most women, it is less that we make ourselves doormats than that we fear being servants and can't tell how much that fear is caused by our sinfulness than any just cause.

  2. I don't doubt this is something women in particular struggle with. Whereas an older generation may have been encouraged not to be "selfish", the younger one (which I have firsthand knowledge of :)) is constantly being warned that they need to be "strong" women in order to counteract sexist attitudes, policies, etc, and to avoid being taken advantage of. Being a "strong" woman in this secular context often means making a personal set of priorities and making sure you put yourself first. I at least find that this is such an ingrained lesson that the contradiction is still difficult even though I know (and am committed to practice) the priorities of Christian life. -- Just my interpretation.

    This is a great explanation though; thanks :)

  3. Thanks for this essay today, Fr. Philip -- I really needed to hear it.

    As for why this question comes up only with females, I have a very un-PC opinion on this after observing my friends, family, people at work, and myself. [Full disclosure: I am a female, neither rabidly feminist or uber-conservative.] Females' natural impulse is toward sacrifice -- sacrifice of her body to bring new life to the world, sacrifice of her personal ambitions for the growth of her family, sacrifice of her behind-the-scenes efforts so that others may shine. Just look at Our Lady -- what is the first thing she does after being confronted with the astonishing news of the Angel Gabriel? Wallow in her plight? Analyze the physical impossibility of the whole proposition? Get to work on decorating her nursery? No, she learns of her cousin in need and goes to her, and it's the most natural thing to her (and by extension, women in general).

    But today's enlightened woman has been conditioned to 'know' that she can "have it all" -- family, career, marriage, and be perfectly content with all of them simultaneously, and be lauded by society for her efforts. Admittedly, on the surface many women appear that they are doing just that and are perfectly happy with their situation, but I believe at great psychologic cost -- hence the numbers of women going part-time or even leaving entirely very lucrative careers for their families. I have not yet spoken with a woman who regretted such a decision to sacrifice her career to be present for her family. The converse is almost never the case, in my experience. Modern society abhors the notion that a woman must sacrifice for either her family or her career -- society abhors the notion of sacrifice at all, really. But unless a woman is sacrificing herself for SOMETHING, she is not being true to her nature. The doormat phenomenon plays into a woman's psychology when the devil on her left shoulder reminds her that society says sacrifice is incompatible with the modern enlightened woman she is ...

    So after the perfect mate has been found, the perfect number of children borne (2.1? 3.3? certainly no more than 4! *gasp*), the perfect advanced degrees achieved, and the perfect career pinnacle reached, why do so many women lack a sense of true peace at her core? Have we all been fed a lie? A half-truth (usually even worse than a lie)? Have we been force-fed the notion that we as women don't have to sacrifice anything in order to get what we want, and when we get what we want anyway but apart from a spirit of sacrifice, we ask "but I did everything by the book -- why am I still unhappy??"


  4. In the Catholic tradition of "both/and," one can render sacrificial service while being a doormat.

    But there aren't too many Rhineland mystics these days.

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  7. Amen, Monica Edith! I love the questions because as a woman, mom and wife I do often wonder "doormat or love?'

  8. Laura,

    Speaking from experience, in a two working person household, a wife might still make her husband's lunch (or he hers) for many of the reasons you cite. Just as not every working woman is self-indulgent, not every woman who does something for her husband that he could do for himself is a doormat. Your marriage is your marriage, not anyone else's.

    My principle has long been that you and your spouse must prayerfully decide how best to care for what God has entrusted to you: each other, the bond of marriage which is a sacramental sign to the community and children, if you have been so blessed. You may decide that one of you stays home (the choice of several of my sisters-in-law), or that both of you work -- but flexibly so that children more often than not are in the care of a parent (our choice). Things may change, and so the details must change (I was widowed at a young age so I can surely tell you that things can change in a eye blink) but the constant is to be sure that you care for the essentials above.

    Any arrangement that demands you serve yourself first is suspect. And by extension so is any where husbands expect service because they consider themselves the center of the universe - or the head of the household.

    Good luck!

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  10. Submitted by Marion, but somehow lost in the ether:

    "To me, a doormat is one who crafts for herself the role of providing for the needs of another able-bodied adult (or of children who are near-adult), while it is agreed that her own needs are not worth bothering about . . . either by the person on the receiving end of the doormat's services or by the doormat herself. These unmet needs would include not only those of nutrition, clothing, shelter, health care, proper rest and recreation commensurate with those that the head of the family enjoys, but also time and resources to perform her work, time and opportunity to explore and develop the entire range of her gifts and talents, time and resources to maintain her relationships with family and friends both as a couple and as an individual.

    "During times of crisis, such as illness or accident, or job loss, or other problems in the home, someone going with unmet needs may be necessary. But to have it be a part of the general job description that one person in the family is singled out for their needs to go unmet, while it is expected that everyone else's are taken care of, that to me is doormat-hood."