Some years ago I was visiting some friends, and their teenage son opened the refrigerator to get himself a snack—but he couldn’t find anything he wanted, so he just stood there with the door open, staring inside. His father was annoyed that he was letting all the cold air out of the refrigerator, and I joked that he must have thought that if he kept looking long enough, something good would magically appear. Many of us have had that same experience, looking in the refrigerator or cupboard for something to eat or drink without knowing exactly what we wanted, but knowing it wasn’t any of the things we could see inside. There are also those times when people do want a particular thing, especially in terms of a dream or goal, but upon achieving it, find it doesn’t satisfy them as much as they expected. For instance, early in the 20th century there was a young boxer named Jack Dempsey whose dream was to become the heavyweight champion of the world. In 1919, at the age of 24, he accomplished this impressive goal—but the night after winning the boxing title, Jack awakened in his hotel room at 2 a.m., feeling very empty inside. He later said, “Success didn’t taste the way I thought it would. I’d won a world’s championship. So what?” (Link, Illustrated Sunday Homilies, Year B, Series II, p. 88).
This is the time of year when many young people are getting ready to go off to college for the first time. A popular high school teacher once said, “There’s nothing more beautiful than watching young people preparing to go off to college to begin an exciting new life. And that’s the way it should be. It’s an exciting time for them. The world is out there, just waiting for them to enjoy everything it has to offer. But the day will come when those same young people will discover that what the world has to offer will leave them more hungry and more thirsty than they were before” (Link, op. cit.). So it is with everything this world has to offer; the satisfactions it gives are temporary. It’s part of our human nature to need and want and search for something deeper and lasting—and that’s why God sent His Son into the world. Only Jesus can save us, and only He can satisfy the deepest yearnings of our hearts.
Some of the best advice ever given is contained in St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians: rather than living with our minds empty, we’re told to “be renewed in the spirit of [our] minds and put on the new self.” This simply means living by God’s standards, not the world’s, and recognizing that because God created us, He alone truly understands what we need. This is why Jesus told the people not to worry about perishable food, but to seek spiritual food which remains unto life eternal. God will help us with our physical needs; the appearance of manna in the desert, and Our Lord’s miraculous multiplication of the loaves, demonstrate this.
However, Jesus was stating that these things are not ends in themselves; they merely point to the much more important spiritual food which He alone can provide. Those who ate manna in the desert were soon hungry again; those who receive Jesus into their hearts are satisfied forever.
The 19th century author Henry David Thoreau once wrote, “The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation.” If it’s true that many people try to put up a good front, but are actually very unhappy, we have to ask why that is. I can think of three reasons. First, some people don’t believe in God or a life after death, and have only this life to look forward to—and so they’ll inevitably be disappointed. The truth, of course, is that God exists and that He offers us eternal happiness in heaven. A second reason why some people are unhappy is that, while they believe in God, they see Him only as a Judge or a Taskmaster. Religion will never be very satisfying or fulfilling if it’s merely experienced as a set of rules and obligations. The truth is that faith is meant to be an adventure, a mystery, and a spiritual love affair, allowing us to filled with the Holy Spirit of love as we relate to God as our Father and to Jesus as our Friend. A third reason some people are unhappy is that, even though they believe in God and value their faith, they still want to remain in control of their lives, giving God only part of their time and attention while keeping the rest for themselves. However, God alone is wise enough and powerful enough to arrange and direct our lives, ordering everything for our benefit; if we try to do this on our own, we will fail.
The truth is that happiness can only come by choosing what God wants instead of what we want, that freedom can only be obtained by surrendering to God, and that inner peace can only be achieved by taking up our cross each day. If we’re unhappy or unsatisfied, it might be because we’re trying to fill the emptiness in our hearts with things that were never intended to be used for that purpose. All the good and legitimate blessings this world has to offer can never take the place of God—and so it’s a mistake and a tragedy to settle for anything less than Him.
If that’s what we’ve been doing, we can change this simply by praying with humility and sincerity, saying something like, “Dear Jesus, I need You and I want You more than anything else. I give You my life and I accept whatever You give me in return. Fill me with Your love and show me the way that leads to Your Kingdom.” Our Lord cannot fail to respond to a prayer like this. If we’re already moving in the right direction, He will bless us and confirm and deepen our faith; if we’re going in the wrong direction, His grace will lovingly correct us. If we look long enough in a refrigerator, we might find something that temporarily satisfies us—but when it comes to the hunger and thirst we experience in our hearts, Jesus alone is the answer.