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The Biggest Barrier to Ultimate Happiness

By Fr. Robert J. Spitzer, S.J. , Ph.D.
Happiness is the fulfillment of a desire, which is why the things we desire most in life define the happiness we pursue. When I talk about the Four Levels of Happiness®, people “get” the first three because nearly everyone has experienced them personally.

We certainly understand the immediate gratification of pleasure (Level 1), and we relish the ego boost that comes from winning, receiving praise, or feeling superior (Level 2). We also appreciate the deep and enduring satisfaction we get when we’ve made a real contribution to others around us (Level 3). But people often draw a blank when I talk about Level 4 happiness, or the transcendent joy that flows from sensing the truth, the beauty, the goodness, and love of God.

Many people, including good Catholics, regard such joy as a gift reserved for saints or religious. In fact, this ultimate happiness is there for anyone who truly desires it. But to actually experience Level 4, there’s a trap you need to recognize and avoid. I couldn’t tell you precisely how many Catholics and other Christians fall into this trap, but I suspect it’s a very common problem.

A wager that offers limited returns

The best way to explain what I’m talking about is to remind you of Pascal’s Wager, an argument for faith put forth by the French mathematician and philosopher, Blaise Pascal. At the time, Pascal was addressing atheists and agnostics, and he wanted to convince them that their position made no sense. He was saying that if you don’t really know if God exists or not, you may as well make a wager that He does exist and live your life accordingly. If you die and find that God does exist, you really did the right thing. And if you are wrong and God doesn’t exist, you won’t know the difference anyway. Pascal’s argument was essentially pragmatic: Just make the assumption that God exists and live your life according to that assumption. You might win big, and you can’t really lose.
In fact, if you regard faith as a mere pragmatic wager, there’s a lot you can lose. In fairness to Pascal, he hoped unbelievers who took his advice would grow in their faith. But it’s also very easy to get stuck in the premise that Pascal’s wager is based on – that faith is merely a choice to believe in something we can’t know with any certainty. It’s not strange to hear people say, “I don’t know if there’s really a God or if Jesus was who people say he was, but I believe anyway.”

People who take this approach may not be familiar with Pascal, but their faith is rooted in the shallow soil of the assumption he recommended. Perhaps they were raised Catholic or Christian, and they want their kids to have a similar upbringing. Perhaps their spouse or friends are religious, and they don’t want to disappoint them or appear less upright. Perhaps they have an intellectual preference for belief over disbelief, or a cultural affinity with Catholicism. They may even have a hunch that God exists and that Jesus was His son who came to save us.
At the same time, though, they’re afflicted with a radical uncertainty that makes it nearly impossible to grow spiritually. They really don’t believe that God is present in their lives or that His presence is constant and can change the outcome of any situation. They really couldn’t tell you that God loves them and answers their prayers, or that the Holy Spirit is always there to guide and inspire them. What they have instead is a quiet and very self-contained resolution to assume that God exists and go to church. Or not go to church. Since they don’t believe that God is really present here and now, they don’t always allow religious truths to affect them. God can be reduced to an abstraction, and while an abstract assumption might lead you to change certain outward behaviors, the Spirit is barred from the things that really matter.
There are serious moral risks that flow from looking at God in this way. It allows you to cling to the idea that you are your own boss – that you’re really not responsible to a sovereign God who is present at all times. You never have to abandon your autonomy, and you certainly don’t have to strive for moral consistency. You can follow the moral law when it makes you feel good to do so and ignore it when it’s convenient to do so. Earlier, I referred to this type of shallow faith as a trap because it can be presented in ways that sound quite virtuous. For example, one can argue that uncertainty is more authentic and human – “We all have our doubts. Some are honest enough to admit them.” The choice to believe in the face of doubt can be viewed as a heroic act of the will. “I’m so virtuous, I’m willing to take an infinite leap of faith and believe in something despite my deep, profound uncertainty.”
People who take this view may really be trying to practice virtue, but they’ve been deceived. Faith that’s an act of the will and not an acceptance of God’s invitation is very self-centered. It’s a faith that’s all about me, when it should be all about Him. The devil has a real talent for making vices appear as virtues. So when we choose faith, he’d much prefer that we chose a heartless faith that precludes a real yearning for God.

To get back to the point I began with, every form of happiness starts with a desire. To experience the joy that comes from having your desire for God fulfilled, you first need to nurture that desire be seeing God as He is – and He’s no mere assumption. You can’t speak to an assumption, listen to an assumption, journey with an assumption, or know and love an assumption. But you can know God and love God, as He has loved you.