The way to happiness: Following God’s commandments

I’m blessed to have had some wise people to guide me in my spiritual journey — from priests to family members to spiritual advisers. But perhaps one of the greatest guides is life itself. “When I was a child, I thought like a child … but now that I’m a man, I put away childish things, and think like a man…” (1 Cor 13:11). I thought recently about how my view of God has changed over the years — and how that’s impacted my relationship with God and others. My hope is that I’ve been able to convey that in the theology classroom.

As a young person, we tend to think of God as a ruler who imposes edicts on us to maintain His majesty over us. The older I get, the more I see that’s not completely accurate. Don’t get me wrong; God is our Heavenly Father whose commands we should respect. But His intentions for imparting those are often “hidden in plain sight.” At times, our eyes might not be mature enough to see it until they’ve experienced a thing or two.

In Matthew’s Gospel, one of the Pharisees asks Jesus: “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Jesus answers by quoting part of the Mosaic Law laid out in Deuteronomy: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” But he adds to that: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt 22:37).

At my own spiritual adviser’s request, I looked up that Deuteronomy verse. In it, God lays out His commandment — but He doesn’t stop there. “Keep these commandments … so that your days may be long. Here therefore, O Israel, and observe them diligently, so that it may go well with you.” Often, I think we tend to hear the command, but leave out the “so that your days may be long” part. We hear the rule but ignore “so that it may go well with you.”

My students and I discussed this toward the end of the year — this idea that just maybe, God wants us to put Him first because He wants us to be happy, not despite our happiness. And maybe the reason God doesn’t want us worshiping false gods isn’t because He’ll punish us — but because they will.

When I ask my students about false gods for youth today, it usually doesn’t take them long to come up with an exhaustive list of what those are. And when I ask them how those false gods leave them feeling — they all agree on an answer: empty.

I look at my own kids and like to think I know what’s best for them. And while it sounds cliché, “what father would give his child a snake if he asks for a loaf of bread?” (Luke 11:11). My kids don’t like me very much sometimes — especially when I make them do things that are uncomfortable. The catch is that I do it — and I’m sure other parents are the same — because I believe it’s good for them.

I remember a day a few years back when I was teaching girls. A student approached me — eyes filled with tears — over a concern she had about her father. She expressed fear because he was a professed agnostic, maybe even an atheist. Her concern was that he was headed toward hell unless he changed his ways. I asked her who it was that decided to send her and her siblings to a Catholic school? Without hesitation she told me: her father. She then talked to me about some difficulties her father had as a younger man, difficulties that undoubtedly affected his faith. I told her something that I hoped would make a difference. Perhaps I spoke out of line, but I assured her that any father who would sacrifice so much to see to his children’s Catholic education is far more a believer than he likes to admit — even if his struggles with God’s goodness are very real.

We sell God short sometimes in realizing how much He really does love us — as we are. We sell God short when we forget that, as Fr. John Riccardo likes to remind us: “Heaven begins now.” We sell God short if we forget that law is important, but just as important is the understanding of what’s behind it. But if we put our trust into a no-holds relationship with God, and teach our kids to do the same, we understand better that law doesn’t become so strapping — our wandering from it does.

Paul Stuligross is director of campus ministry at Orchard Lake St. Mary’s Preparatory and is a retired police officer.