God loves a cheerful giver. (2 Cor 9:7)
God calls us to a life of service for our own good. This was true under the order of original holiness and justice. It remains true despite our subjection to original sin. It continues to be true under the economy of the Redemption, in which we are called to share in God’s own life.
To put it simply, original holiness is the state of friendship with God that he intended for us to be in. Original justice is the state of friendship God intended for us to be in with ourselves, with others, and with material creation.
Under the regime of original justice, every person would be, so to speak, both the prince and the good steward.
The prince is a person in the kingdom with exalted status, and everyone recognizes this and serves him. The good steward, although a servant, is entrusted with real authority to give out the goods of the kingdom entrusted to him. This is how God intended us both to receive good things from others and to give good things to others.
Under the regime of original sin, our worth is not recognized and we don’t give our gifts. Every other person can become a source of fear and suspicion to us.
Under the economy of the Redemption, our vocation to be a gift to others is restored, and God gives us grace to do so, but it is still hard. Recall that Vatican II’s Gaudium et spes §24 made the claim that every person’s most fundamental vocation, moral responsibility, and source of fulfillment is authentic self-giving.
The “climax” of that passage is this: “man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.”
Our vocation is to be both prince (at least fully in heaven) and steward (certainly on earth). Two virtues are essential to a good steward: cheerfulness and self-giving. A cheerful life of service is the perfection of the “steward” side of human nature. The rest of this essay will focus on the virtue of cheerfulness in the context of service.
The virtue of cheerfulness helps us live lives of service. Cheerfulness is the habitual display of a happy demeanor, despite inward or outward circumstances.
Some marks of the cheerful man are that he . . .
- Sees the glass as half full, not half empty.
- Smiles a lot.
- Speaks many more positive than negative words.
- Tends to look for the bright side of negative situations.
- Often lifts people’s morale.
- Can handle not getting what he wants or expects.
- Often counts his blessings and is grateful for the good things he receives.
- Can get out of a bad mood he finds himself in.
- Doesn’t expect bad things to happen.
- Doesn’t mind a difficult challenge.
- Can sacrifice his own preferences for a good reason.
For most people, cheerfulness is not a virtue but an effect which is caused by possessing and enjoying good things. We are cheerful when we are expecting, enjoying, or have enjoyed good things.
However, in the context of service, we are interested in the cheerfulness that is an act of the will. Rather than being an effect of temperament or circumstances, the virtue of cheerfulness causes happiness in oneself and others.
Cheerfulness is the decision, and the acts which follow from this decision, to behave in a cheerful manner. This means smiling, saying positive things, and lightening the atmosphere for those around us. This idea was captured in the Broadway song, “Put on a happy face.” Etymologically, “cheer” means “face.” Early on, the word “good” needed to precede “cheer” for the expression to mean what we mean today by cheerfulness: putting on a happy face.
The vice opposed to cheerfulness
Surprisingly, the absence of good cheer is not any one thing (as the absence of courage is simply cowardice). The defect of cheerlessness can be filled with a wide variety of negative displays: one can be deadpan, morose, sad, impatient, angry, grumpy, bored, irritable, sullen, crabby, or lugubrious. Oscar the Grouch of Sesame Street is one famous example of a lack of cheerfulness. So is Newman, the disgruntled postman from Seinfeld. While these are comic characters, there is really nothing funny about a negative wife, a morose husband, a cranky toddler, a moody teenager, a grumpy boss, or a spiteful coworker. Neither is it fun to be one of those persons.
Obstacles to cheerfulness
The goal in all ordinary circumstances—and in some extraordinary ones—is to be a cheerful person. What stands in the way? Why can’t we just decide to be cheerful and . . . be cheerful?
One obstacle to cheerfulness is the belief that we have a right to happiness, a state we should enjoy every moment of our lives. Whether or not we possess this right, we live in an unjust world, so this expectation is unrealistic. On the other hand, if we don’t expect everything to make us happy, we are more likely to be cheered up by the good that does come our way.
A second obstacle is the expectation of instant gratification. Our electronic culture feeds the sense that we should have what we want now. Once we get into the habit of waiting for good things, the waiting itself can give a kind of happiness. When we understand and experience that “good things come to those who wait,” the waiting is no longer an obstacle to cheerfulness.
Another obstacle in the way of cheerfulness is little contradictions. You plan something and the world does not cooperate. This can make us angry. The answer? As children of God, we can offer up these pinpricks, bruises, and even serious wounds in union with Christ’s innocent suffering for the redemption of the world.
Another obstacle to cheerfulness is mental difficulties brought on by our imagination, ego, sensuality, or wounded pride. These are all in our heads yet real. This is a case in which serving others actually heals us. By getting out of our heads and doing something for someone out there, we get over our mental funk.
A final obstacle to cheerfulness is real suffering, the unavoidable ills we suffer in life. We experience fatigue, heavy responsibility, financial hardship, awareness of one’s own and other’s imperfections, the monotony of everyday life, the evils committed by others, and illness and injury and the specter of death. Frankly, this is why we are Christians. Christ has overcome every evil for us so we can enjoy everlasting happiness. This is fundamentally why we should be cheerful and happy. A good God has given us the gift of life. He has redeemed us from sin and gives us the means to be friends with him, with ourselves, with other person, and with this universe.
God loves a cheerful giver. We are here to serve others cheerfully. We can help make other people happy and their life easier and more pleasant by our cheerful service. An essential for any effective teacher is to create a cheerful classroom. A cheerful home is a place people like to return to. A cheerful workplace is one which is also more productive. In the same way, good morale is essential in the military.
One of the most effective ways we can become more cheerful (and grateful) is to count our blessings every day. Mentally recall everything you can think of that you are thankful for. Make a list.
Is cheerfulness compatible with suffering? The answer is yes. It is possible to display cheerfulness and really be happy in the midst of many kinds of trouble.
I hope this sheds a little light on the mysterious and challenging sentence from Vatican II and which Pope John Paul II loved repeating:
Man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.
God loves a cheerful giver.
© 2014. Kevin Aldrich. All rights reserved.