God-is-Love means that we have been made capable of giving and receiving real happiness
What is the source of human happiness?
To give flesh to this question, allow me to tell you of a stark contrast I once came across. I passed through Nairobi in Kenya on my way to give a course deeper inland. I was staying with English friends of mine who owned a magnificent house in the richer outskirts of the city.
My hostess, whom I will call Liz, was anything but a happy person. She complained bitterly to me about her husband (“He is always away on business”), about her grown-up daughter (“She never bothers to write”), about her health, about mosquitoes and a thousand other aspects of life. She told me all this while we were sipping cool beer and relaxing in armchairs on her spacious verandah with its breath taking view of a colourful African garden. Later that evening we had supper in her colonial-style dining room where a black cook served a four-course meal that would have given credit to any upper-class hotel.
That same week the parish priest of Showry Moyo, one of the slum quarters of Nairobi, introduced me to Mamma Lucy, the head of a small Christian community. The contrast could not have been greater. Her `house’ was just one bare room, furnished with a low bed and a rickety chair. Her `kitchen’ consisted of an assortment of battered tins surrounding a kerosene cooking pit. But her face radiated happiness. Every now and then a warm smile creased her grooved features and made her eyes twinkle.
Mamma Lucy took me on a walk through her slum. In her broken English she told me about the men and women who belonged to her community. Unemployment was the scourge for men, prostitution for girls. Disease was endemic, with no proper sanitation and few medical facilities. Wherever Lucy entered she ignited a spark of excitement and happiness – as in one shed shared by three unwed mothers and the eight children they had between them! “People love her”, the parish priest told me, “because she is always there when there is someone in need.”
Don’t think for a moment that I believe that the poor are happier than the rich, or Africans happier than Europeans. The contrast between Liz and Mamma Lucy rather shows what all of us instinctively know: that happiness does not reside in what we own; it resides in us. A UNESCO report has recently exposed three major causes that divide human beings into haves and have-nots: wealth, race and sex. As a poor black woman Mamma Lucy should be firmly classified as belonging to the world’s most underprivileged. Yet, she was a happy person.
What then makes for happiness and what for unhappiness?
The gift of friendship
The only thing that can really fulfil us as a human being is the affirmation of our personality by another person. If someone else accepts us the way we are and offers us love and friendship, so that we in turn can offer genuine love and friendship to that person, then we know ourselves affirmed as a human being and we enjoy all the goodness that arises from our friendship.
Affirmation as the root of human happiness has been extensively documented by A.A.A.TERRUWE, Neurosis in the light of Rational Psychology, New York 1968; Geef Mij Je Hand, Lochem 1972.).
Modern society makes us unhappy by presenting the wrong goals to us. Capitalism tells us we need money; of course we do, but it is not the key to happiness, witness the human failure of so many millionaires. Competition forces us to become achievers; but hard work is no more than an escape for so many successful unhappy executives. The media hold out fame; but without inner substance fame is a soap bubble that does not last. Popular culture sees happiness in satisfying the appetites through food, drink and sex; omitting to warn us that the enjoyment of such pleasures can only really fulfil us when we have been granted our self-worth.
We can make ourselves rich, famous, successful and pampered – but we cannot make ourselves happy. Happiness is a gift that we need to be given by others. The gift is usually extended to us, on terms of greater or lesser generosity, by our parents. Even here things often go wrong. What matters to the child is not just the physical care for our health and the opportunities of growth and education, but the personal love received and being accepted for what one is. Good parents who are really happy with the child, give it one of the most precious gifts in life: the genuine feeling of self worth and the ability to give a generous response of love in return.
Once the capability of friendship has been awakened in us – and all of us possess it to a lesser or greater degree, we can find love and friendship with other people. Meeting our marriage partner will be a high point in this growth and sharing of ourself. Having our own children opens another succession of chances to give and receive love. Our colleagues at work, the neighbours who live next door, people who share our concerns: all offer opportunities to develop real friendship, and, therefore, true happiness.
The reach of affirmation
In the past, people’s world remained limited to their own clan or town. In the present time our horizons have widened enormously. The society we live in is cosmopolitan. It includes people of many different races and social classes. We also belong to larger political units. Through the media and through international institutions we somehow relate to people on the furthest parts of the globe. Here again we meet chances to affirm other human beings and to be affirmed by them, even if the channels are less direct than personal contact.
As human beings we have always possessed a social dimension, since we are social by our very nature. Today, however, not accidentally but structurally, the advent of the international community extends and intensifies this dimension. The international community too has human value and is therefore, the medium and the object of love. Human love also walks along `tedious’ paths: the systems of distributive justice and administrative structures (see: M.D.CHENU, ‘Les masses pauvres’, in Église et Pauvreté, ed. G.COTTIER et al., Paris 1965,p.174).
In other words, by politically supporting the cause of underdogs in a faraway country, or by collecting funds to support an irrigation project for a Third World village, we affirm other human beings, and are being affirmed through their increased well-being and response.
But is there any substance in this game of mutual affirmation? Are the love and friendship we receive and offer more than just an emotional illusion, a trick of nature to reconcile us with our fate? When other people show us love, does it mean that we are really lovable, or is it no more than the correct social response in a troop of intellectual apes?
The substance in affirmation
It is here that the belief that God is Love makes a fundamental difference. It means that the mutual love given and received by human beings reflects a deeper Reality that lies at the root of all life and all evolution.
Yes, everyone of us is fundamentally lovable because God has made us so. The love shown us by other human beings is a reflection of God’s love for us.
In Scripture we read:
God is Love.
Whoever loves, knows God.
Whoever does not love, does not know God.
1 John 3,7-8
The text does not only tell us that we are in contact with God whenever we give or receive love; it tells us that our experience of love is in line with the whole purpose of the Universe.
We are used to paying with metal coins and paper. When we handle a £10 note, we somehow take for granted that is worth £10. But how do we know? What gives us the trust to accept a slip of paper that costs no more that 5 pence, as a token worth £10? The only reason is the fact that the Bank of England guarantees to pay the value of the banknote in gold if we were to require this; and the fact that the same Bank has tons of gold in its vaults to back up the promise. We all know what can happen to money when it devalues!
The revelation that God is Love, backs up all the paper money of human loving with an incredible permanent value. In a mechanistic universe, human loving would still be worthwhile. But it would not go beyond the comfort given to us by intellectual prisoners, trapped like us in a dark world of blind forces. In a universe in which love is the manifestation of what Ultimate Reality is all about, love receives a deeper, higher and more permanent quality.
Scientists have not been able to explain fully the phenomenon of self-sacrifice. Yes, animals are often programmed to give up their own food, or even their own life, for the sake of offspring or kin. The preservation of the species is a deeply ingrained social instinct. Such an instinct certainly plays its part in examples of selfless love displayed by men and women. However, it does not explain it all.
Love is stronger than death
In 1980 Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador strongly condemned the unjust practices of the totalitarian government of his country. He appealed to the army and the police who were involved in the indiscriminate killings – twelve thousand people in the course of that year alone!
- “Dear brothers and sisters, you belong to our people, yet you kill your own brothers, the farmers. God’s law which says: `Thou shalt not kill’, ranks higher than the order of any human leader who makes you kill. “
- “No soldier is bound to execute an order that contradicts the Law of God. No one is obliged to implement a code that is immoral. It is time for you to own up to your own responsibility, to obey your own conscience rather than a sinful command.”
- “In the name of God, in the name of our suffering people whose cries rise up to heaven every day with greater exasperation, I appeal to you, I beg you, I order you in the name of God: stop your killings!”
On March 24th of that year a murder squad burst into the cathedral while Romero was preaching. They shot him with bullets from four submachine guns. The Archbishop, who was a quiet unassuming man, had been warned by friends that such an attack was imminent. `Why should I hide myself’, he countered, `when my poor people can’t?’
Jesus said: “No one has greater love than he who lays down his life for his friends” (see: John 15,13). Indeed, giving up one’s own life for the sake of others is the highest affirmation one can give of the value these others have. Does such a sacrifice make a person happy? Yes, it does, in spite of all the pain, confusion, humiliation the actual death may imply.
Archbishop Romero died a happy man because he gave his all for his people. And his generous act had real value because it was backed up by God, the Ultimate Reality who is Love.
The text in this chapter is from How to Make Sense of God by John Wijngaards, Sheed & Ward, Kansas City 1995. Tom Adcock designed the cartoons. The Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada awarded the book a prize on 25 May 1996.
View the following film on the meaning of God as Love