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Thou Shalt Not Be Unhappy: Living the Ninth and Tenth Commandments

We are seekers of happiness. And God’s commandments are our most trustworthy guides. But wait. Don’t we normally think more commandments mean less happiness and fewer commandments mean more happiness? Don’t we picture laws and commands as hindrances to happiness, not pathways to happiness? The Ten Commandments tutor us in the ways of happiness by moving us toward God, our most excellent and exquisite good, and by teaching us how to rightly seek and love everything else in the light of God. 

The Ninth and Tenth Commandments call our attention to mistaken paths to happiness. Rather earthy and straightforward, and perhaps embarrassingly honest, they remind us we will not find bliss by feverishly coveting things that do not belong to us, whether it’s a neighbor’s spouse, wealth, material possessions, “or anything that belongs to [our] neighbor” (Exodus 20:17). Did God have to be so forthright about the more sordid possibilities of human behavior? We may be seekers of happiness, but we are also seekers who commonly go astray.

The Ninth and Tenth Commandments recognize that desires are part of our nature. But they also remind us that misguided desires can not only dominate and control us but can harm us—and others—in ways we often only discover belatedly. We cannot live without desires and longings. But we have to be honest about what and how we desire because our desires shape our character and direct our lives. If we are not to end up strangers to happiness, we need to heed what these last two commandments can teach us about learning to desire good things in the right way.

Through fantasy we nurture desires we should avoid and picture ourselves in relationships and situations that, far from assuring the happiness we imagine, can only end badly. In this respect, the Ninth Commandment bids us to know ourselves well and to be honest about the misguided stirrings of our hearts. It counsels us to be alert to the dangers of unhealthy curiosity. Do our musings take us out of our commitments or root us more deeply in them? Do they help us see our spouse, families, friends, and communities more graciously and compassionately, or do they lure us away from them in ways that render us deceived and unfaithful?

When we are restless and dissatisfied, instead of seeking refuge in fantasy, we should probe our discontent to discern what is missing in our lives and what will really bring us peace. And we should not be afraid to ask some potentially difficult questions: Do we need a better relationship with God? Do we need to be more aware of, and honest about, our own shortcomings and imperfections instead of being experts in the shortcomings of those we’ve promised to love?

Excerpted from Living the Ten Commandments as a Catholic Today, © 2009 (Liguori Publications, 818493). Related: The Ten Commandments: Timeless Challenges for Today, © 2000 by Mitch Finley (Liguori Publications, 806636).

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Published inReflections