“Every person, from the first moment of his life in the womb, has an inviolable dignity, because from all eternity God willed, loved, created, and redeemed that person and destined him for eternal happiness… Christians believe that human dignity is, in the first place, the result of God’s respect for us.” -YouCat 280
One of the things I am most passionate about when speaking to young people is trying to explain to them the intrinsic value which they carry as human beings. To be made in the image of God means to bear with you a certain dignity – one which can never completely be obscured regardless of how far away we may wander from God. Inspired by a talk given by Ken Yasinski, I’ve often referenced one of my favorite scenes from Finding Nemo, the moment that Nemo is first placed into an aquarium. Nemo proceeds to swim into all four walls of the aquarium, stunned to discover that the unlimited breadth and depth of the ocean has been replaced by the tight spaces of an aquarium. As Gil, an angelfish – and the only other one in the aquarium who has been in the ocean – explains to Nemo: they were all made for something more. The same is true for us: all human beings yearn for a happiness which can only be found in God. We yearn for something that will give us the satisfaction we can’t seem to find anywhere else:
“Happiness is not in us, nor is happiness outside of us. Happiness is in God alone. And if we have found Him, then it is everywhere.” -Blaise Pascal
“You have made us for Yourself, oh Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.” -St. Augustine of Hippo
As Christians, we look to the Good News of the Gospels to find this rest and happiness we’ve been seeking. YouCat points out that “The Gospel is a promise of happiness to all people who wish to walk in God’s ways. Especially in the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12), Jesus has told us specifically that eternal blessedness is based on our following his example and seeking peace with a pure heart” (YouCat 282). These beatitudes make up a list of Jesus’ priorities: to be poor in spirit, to rejoice with those who rejoice and to weep with those who weep (Romans 12:15), to be meek, to seek righteousness, to show mercy, to be pure in heart, to be peacemakers – and to do so in spite of whatever difficulties may arise as a result. The priorities laid out for us in the beatitudes are things we are meant to strive for but at the same time, another dynamic of the dignity God has given us as human beings is free will. We can strive for the things that are blessed, or we can seek after other things. This is a fundamental right that each person carries as a result of our God-given dignity:
“God created us as free men and wills our freedom so that we might decide wholeheartedly in favor of the good, indeed for the greatest ‘good’ – in other words, for God.” -YouCat 286
If we can identify certain things as ‘goods’ which we are meant to decide wholeheartedly for, that means that there are also evils we are meant to avoid. Here, we find three guidelines to distinguish a good action from an evil one (see YouCat 291):
(1) What I do must be good; a good intention is not enough. Bank robbery is always bad, even if I commit that crime with the good intention of giving the money to poor people.
(2) Even when what I do is truly good, if I perform the action with a bad intention, it makes the whole action bad. If I walk an elderly woman home and help her around the house, then that is good. But if I do it while planning a later break-in, that makes the whole action bad.
(3) The circumstances in which someone acts can diminish his responsibility, but they cannot change at all the good or bad character of an action. Hitting one’s mother is always bad, even if the mother has perviously shown little love to the child.
And it is precisely here that a lot of people find Christianity to be frustrating. To do good (and avoid evil) seems to imply that God is limiting who we are and what we do – and those who are not ‘limited’ by the tenets and commandments of Christian faith seem to be so much freer than we are. I – and many much smarter than I – would argue that conclusion. To abandon oneself to God does not make us His puppets, but opens us up to far greater possibilities. This is no different than an athlete who dedicates him or herself to training for four years in order to peak at an Olympic competition: they don’t regret the sacrifices made in pursuit of a greater dream. Spiritually speaking, we sacrifice and learn self-discipline in pursuit of a dream far greater than we could ever have for ourselves, and so Christian living is not the boundaries of the aquarium… it is the freedom of the ocean of God’s love and grace.
What makes all the difference here is whether or not we trust the one making the rules.
An athlete trusts his or her coach, based on the coach’s credentials: study they’ve done, years of coaching, and perhaps the coach’s own experience in the sport. We choose to trust various companies like Apple or Samsung in the guidelines they set regarding the use of computers, tablets, or cell phones. If we trust in the God who is love, then His expectations that we live a life guided by the beatitudes will mean that we are simply following the directions of the one we love, discovering all that He has for us. However, if we see God as a tyrant – then no matter how reasonable the rules, there are some who will find reason to disagree. Gratefully, God has instilled in each of us a conscience, something which helps orient us towards the God who is love:
“Conscience is the inner voice in a man that moves him to do good under any circumstances and to avoid evil by all means. At the same time it is the abilitiy to distinguish one from the other. In the conscience, God speaks to man.” -YouCat 295
One of the places which God is able to speak to us is through our conscience, the innate sense of right and wrong we have within us. This conscience needs to be properly formed, as the seeds of right and wrong can be distracted – but if our consicence and character are properly formed, we are able to “freely, joyfully, and easily accomplish what is good” (YouCat 300). This formation begins with a firm faith in God – a close relationship to the one who loves us, but also continues by the practice of virtues. This means to develop virtue in ourselves with the help of God “firm dispositions, no giving ourselves over to disorderly passions, and directing our faculties of intellect and will more and more consistently toward the good” (YouCat 30). These virtues offer us the possibility of experiencing a foretaste here on earth of the life and freedom God has always wanted for us.
I know that there are many moments when each of us fall short of the God-given dignity to which we are called. These moments we call ‘sin’ – an old archery term which means to miss the mark – moments when we choose to offend against the order of things as God has set them out, or against the dignity of those around us. This doesn’t mean that we are now forever trapped in these sins: it is precisely for these moments that we have the Sacrament of Reconciliation (and we can be thankful for that!) The experience of God’s loving mercy can free us to again discover the joy and freedom for which we were initially created: a life of more guided by the Holy Spirit of God, discovering joy and happiness beyond what we could ever imagine for ourselves. As human beings created in the image and likeness of God- it is the reason we exist.