Bishop Arthur J. Serratelli
In 1859, the Scottish author Samuel Smiles published his famous book entitled Self-Help. The book promoted thrift in spending. It attacked materialism and laissez-faire government. And, it labeled irresponsibility the root cause of poverty. Not only did the book crown Samuel Smiles an overnight celebrity, but it also spawned a whole new industry of self-help books.
Today, self-help books have become an $11 billion industry. With the birth of the e-book and self-publishing in digital form, the self-help industry shows no signs of disappearing. Self-help books are the world’s best-sellers.
Self-help books enjoy such immense popularity because they respond to a need. Many individuals want to overcome their weaknesses and gain control of their lives. They want to achieve personal fulfillment and happiness. As St. Augustine, the ancient guru of self-help, wrote more than 1,600 years ago: “all persons want to be happy” (De beata vita: 2.10).
However, St. Augustine also taught that nothing in this world can satisfy that universal, human desire for happiness. Material wealth, popularity, fame and even health itself are fleeting. Thus, they cannot guarantee lasting happiness. Only in the love of God can we find a happiness that endures without fear of loss (cf. De beata vita: 2.11).
We are created by God and for God, and only in God will we find the truth and happiness for which we long. In fact, even in our very search for him, “God never ceases to draw [us] to himself” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 27). God takes the initiative. God reaches out to us before we look for him. It is all grace. This truth is the starting point for a successful search for happiness.
In the New Testament, the word “grace” (charis) appears 155 times. It means a generous gift, an unmerited blessing or favor freely bestowed. The very notion of grace sets the Christian faith apart from all false religions in which the deity has to be appeased, cajoled or courted for favor. It defines God’s relationship with each of us. God has chosen to save us. He has freely entered into a personal dialogue with each of us. He is offering us salvation in Christ Jesus.
Theology further explains “grace” in three ways. First, grace means the very presence of God within us. In his farewell discourse at the Last Supper, Jesus said, “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” (Jn 14:23). The Father and the Son dwell within the soul of the just person. So also does the Holy Spirit, for Jesus said to the disciples in the Upper Room, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of truth…[who]… will be in you” (Jn 14; 16-17).
Thus, grace is, first and foremost, the indwelling of God within us. Here and now we are the very temples of God. We are his dwelling on earth. If more of us lived each moment conscious of God dwelling within us, the way we relate to one another and even think of ourselves would vastly change for the better.
Second, when God dwells within us, he gives himself to us. He is the favor, the benefit, given us. He is Uncreated Grace. But, his very presence changes our souls. As the seal placed on the hot wax changes the wax itself, so God changes our souls, leaving the traces of his glory within us. We call this change sanctifying grace.
Sanctifying grace, therefore, is a habitual, supernatural disposition created in us by God to enable us to live in union with him and to act by his love (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2000). By it, we are transformed and transfigured to Christ, first in baptism and then in the other sacraments. As long as we do not commit a mortal sin, we remain in the state of grace, that is, the state of continued friendship with God.
Furthermore, throughout our lives, God helps us and inspires us with his divine assistance. These aids, inspirations or interventions whereby God helps us are called actual graces. By them, God enlightens our minds and he strengthens our wills so that either we enter into his friendship or we deepen his friendship within us. God is constantly surrounding us with his grace so that we find our true happiness in him.
Today, an understanding of the meaning of grace is desperately lacking. Thus, many people do not open their hearts to the transformative action of the most powerful force there is. They see their lives isolated from the constant drawing power of God’s love. And so, when they are confronted with an unwanted pregnancy, or the desire to cohabit, enjoying sexual intimacy outside of sacred matrimony, or when they struggle with marital fidelity or chastity, they reflexively look inward only to find the weakness of our common humanity. Then, in so many cases, they make the wrong moral choice that never brings lasting happiness.
Instead of gazing first at our weaknesses, our sins and our failures and, even before we look for ways to improve our self-image or aids to live a good life, we should fix our mind and hearts on the reality of grace. God graces us with his presence. He transforms us and justifies us, making us able to love him above all else and our neighbor as ourselves. He constantly assists us with his help to do what is right and to remain in his friendship.
The many self-help books produced by human authors have their place. But, that place is secondary to the Book written by God that teaches us of the deepest meaning of grace. In Sacred Scripture, grace is the best starting place in any search for true happiness. It is the reason why Christians can be joyful even in the midst of suffering and hardships. God loves us!