The Four Substitutes to God (Part II)

By Engr. Carlos Cornejo

Let us now examine how the Four God Substitutes of wealth, fame, power and pleasure according to St. Thomas Aquinas would try to fill our hearts but will fail.  First, wealth or money.  It’s the first thing everybody thinks of when they think of happiness.  Money can buy a lot.  We know from experience that we’re happier after we get the things we want, than when we didn’t have them.  That’s why we buy them.  But as they say money can’t buy happiness.  Money can buy everything money can buy, but it cannot buy spiritual things such as peace, joy, love, beauty, friendship, trust, loyalty, honor, faith.  Money can’t buy people too unless of course people sell themselves for money.  That’s why relationships give far more joy than money because people love you in return.  Money and material things can’t.

Money can indeed relive many cares.  Poverty is no fun.  But it isn’t enough.  Anesthetics can relieve pain too, but they are not enough to cure the underlying disease.  Money can take care of the many surface pains in our life but not the deeper pain.  You can buy a health insurance, but you can’t buy death, no matter how rich you are.  According to St. Thomas money can’t make us happy because money is just a means or an instrument.  It is a “means of exchange” an instrument to buy things but not an end or the end goal in itself.  But happiness is an end, meaning happiness is an ultimate goal in our lives not a means to an end.  An instrument does not mean much but only what that instrument can produce.  You don’t fall in love with a violin but with the music that a violin produces.  Therefore, happiness does not equal to money.  One theory why many rich and famous people kill themselves is that they feel that they have experienced it all, but is still not enough, whereas poor people still have many things to strive for that the rich have.   As Oscar Wilde would say: “What is worse than not getting what you want, is getting all that you want.”

Second, fame.  Many would want to have fame or popularity because it makes them Godlike.  But it doesn’t.  It’s love that makes us Godlike.  God’s Word does not say, “God is fame.”  It says, “God is love” (1 John 4:8) Fame is fleeting.  It’s much like fashion, or a fad that fades away over time.  Think of the most famous people in the world.  Do their fame last?  No, because the problem is, people are hard to please and you have to keep them pleased to constantly gain their admiration.  No famous person can forever do that.  Sooner or later celebrities’ fame will fade out and they too will fade out in age. The problem with fame is you let your happiness depend on others, not on you.  And that is a fragile way of keeping yourself happy.  How can your own personal happiness be in someone else’s mind?

Third, power.  Power is like money.  In fact, they are interchangeable.  Power can get you money and money can get you power.  Likewise, they share many same limitations.  Power is also just a means to an end.  Many people want power because it gives them control over people and things.  But it also is very addictive and can easily corrupt.  “All power tends to corrupt” as the saying goes.  That’s why there are quite a number of leaders who become dictators because they don’t want to give up their position.  But they all eventually lose it all and usually in a disgraced way.  All dictators and tyrants are overthrown with no exception.  They are like those doomsday Sayers who tell us that the end of the world is near. They always strikeout because their predictions never happen. Power can make you powerful in the same way that more wealth makes you wealthier but can’t make you happier.

Lastly, pleasure.  Pleasure is the lowest form of happiness because it’s the most temporary or the most fleeting.  It is very transitory because once the pleasurable activity stops the pleasure also stops.  That’s why it has to be repeated again and again for the pleasure to continue.  Perhaps with the exception of drugs and alcohol because the “high” feeling it produces could last at most for an hour.  But it’s just an hour or so and after that you will have to look for your next high again.  What a pitiful plight! Clearly it is not the source of true happiness because it is unstable and does not last.  Drugs, sex, gambling, alcohol are all sources of transitory pleasure that is addictive but would later on destroy the users of it.  But real happiness builds you up and makes you grow instead of destroying you.  It is likewise stable and permanent whose permanence no one can take away from you.  “Neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love (and joy) of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:39)

Power, pleasure, fame, and money guess where they all come from: God.  These things are not evil in themselves but only when we misuse them.  They give some amount of happiness but not full happiness, because they are just reflections of the ultimate source of happiness.  We humans are meant for the infinite.  When we fill our hearts with the finite things of this world, of course they will fail.  Only the Infinite God can satisfy our infinite heart.  “Seek your happiness in the Lord, and he will give you your heart’s desire.” (Psalm 37:4)