The solemn feast of Christmas has come and gone once again, with all its attendant accoutrement: piles of presents, stuff stuffed in stockings, enough food to feed a Roman legion, and cavity-inducing sweets in quantities sufficient to put our dentists’ kids through college. Such merry-making is pleasant while it lasts, but when the wreath is taken down, the ornaments put away, the belly no longer distended, the pleasure disappears along with them. The happiness of the holidays is so fleeting.
This reminds us of a truth often forgotten but always essential: happiness, true happiness, is not found in the possession of things. In what do we find happiness, then? Professed and practicing Christians ought to be able to answer “in God,” and some may even be able to repeat the famous phrase of St. Augustine, “Our hearts were made for thee, O Lord, and they are restless until they rest in thee.” Yet this only prompts a further question: precisely how do we reach happiness “in God”? The answer may surprise us, if we have fallen to a fallacy common in our world today. For the truth is that happiness is found, not in trinkets or candies, but in the Ten Commandments.
We are surprised by this because our society tends to separate being good or doing good from feeling good. There are several mistakes in this way of thinking. First, as alluded to above, it misidentifies in what happiness consists. Is happiness merely “feeling good”? If happiness is to be something deep and profound, then it could not be identifiable with a feeling that is fleeting and contingent. What we seek is joy and inner peace—in biblical language, blessedness or beatitude. Such states are not to be found in any fuzzy feeling or shiny thing. If they were, we would expect the rich, famous, and powerful to be content and serene; instead, we see them chronically subject to substance abuse, serial divorce, and suicide. Such behaviors may sell magazines, but they don’t bring blessedness.
Second, this way of thinking misunderstands the essence of morality and the purpose of moral laws. In some people’s minds, the morality and the moral law are an arbitrary set of rules erected by God as a mere test of our obedience, with the promise of a reward if we do as we’re told, and the pleasures of the created world are planted as traps to ensnare us or entice us away from the goal. Absent from this mindset is any notion of the inherent goodness of creation or the proper moderate enjoyment of the pleasures of this life. Missing from this conception of morality is any sense that being good is actually good for us.
Rather than a list of random rules, the moral law should be conceived instead as an owner’s manual. God created everything out of His abundant goodness, so that everything that is, is good, and an expression of God’s goodness. But different things were created to act differently and achieve different ends in God’s plan, just as the various parts of your car are made to perform different functions in its overall operation. Some things are meant to act in some ways, some in others, because that is what God has made them to do. This goes for human beings, too: God has made us to do certain things and act in certain ways. When we act in ways contrary to the way in which God has made us to act, we separate ourselves from God’s ordering of the universe and God’s will for our lives—not God’s arbitrary will, but God’s good will, for in God goodness and will are perfectly aligned: everything that God wills is good, and everything that is good God wills. And when we act against our God-given nature, things end up about as well as they would if you were to decide that you knew better and replaced your car’s battery with a gerbil on a wheel. The moral law tells us how to act in order to be happy.
And this is the great secret, the secret we already know but seem to keep from ourselves: happiness is a verb, not a noun. It is an act, not a thing to be had. We speak better when we speak of “being happy” rather than “having happiness.” It is found in living well, living according to our God-given nature. In short, and according to classical language, it is living virtuously. We call these virtues justice, temperance, courage, and prudence, along with faith, hope, and charity, but we can define them simply: giving our neighbor what is due, using things in the proper way, doing the right thing in the face of fear, and knowing the right thing to do; and believing in God, trusting in God, loving God and loving what God loves. When we act in this way, we are in harmony with ourselves, with our neighbor, and with God.
He whose birth we have just commemorated reminded us of this simple truth: “Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him.” (John 14:23) To love God is to keep His word and to do His will. When we do this, we are united with God, the one whom our hearts constantly seek. When we choose not to do this, we let go of God in favor of some passing thing. And what does it profit a man to gain all the cookies and cocoa in the world and lose his soul?