The 4 substitutes for God

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It seems that we humans were created with a hunger and thirst for something greater than ourselves. We anxiously crave more. Some people call it a “God hole’ that can only be fulfilled by God. Even Bertrand Russell, a British philosopher, logician, and atheist said: “The center of me is always and eternally a terrible pain – a curious wild pain – a searching for something beyond what the world contains, something transfigured and infinite, the beatific vision – God. I do not find it, I do not think it is to be found, but the love of it is my life … it fills every passion I have. It is the actual spring of life in me” (Bertrand Russell, 1916, Letter to Constance Malleson, The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell).

We crave and we long for God, but many of us try to satisfy the hunger with empty substitute gods. Father Robert Baron eloquently explained this in his book and series Catholicism:

One of the most fundamental problems in the spiritual order is that we sense within ourselves the hunger for God, but we attempt to satisfy it with some created good that is less than God. Thomas Aquinas said that the four typical substitutes for God are wealth, pleasure, power, and honor. Sensing the void within, we attempt to fill it up with some combination of these four things, but only by emptying out the self in love can we make the space for God to fill us. The classical tradition referred to this errant desire as “concupiscence,” but I believe that we could neatly express the same idea with the more contemporary term “addiction.” When we try to satisfy the hunger for God with something less than God, we will naturally be frustrated, and then in our frustration, we will convince ourselves that we need more of that finite good, so we will struggle to achieve it, only to find ourselves again, necessarily, dissatisfied. At this point, a sort of spiritual panic sets in, and we can find ourselves turning obsessively around this creaturely good that can never in principle make us happy.
— Father Robert Baron

These four substitutes create in us an addiction for them because they always leave us wanting more. In a dramatic representation of this we can easily come up with many examples of people that had achieved much, but went down in sex or money scandals, or even for lying about their past in order to receive greater honor. All of us are subject to these temptations. Wealth, pleasure, power, and honor. Even when Jesus was tempted in the desert, he was tempted with food (pleasure), wealth, power and the honor of been saved by angels. Father Baron says that mediating on the Beatitudes can further help us understand how to manage these cravings.

Jesus said “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven” (Mt 5:3)

Father Baron asked us to think of this as “How blessed are you if you are not attached to material things, if you have not placed the goods wealth can buy at the center of your concern."

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Mt 5:4)

We can think of this as “How lucky you are if you are not addicted to good feelings.” Of course, physical, emotional, and physiologic pleasures are great, but the addiction to them could totally preoccupy our being, leaving no room for God. Detached from them we can follow the will of God, even if that path requires suffering.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” (Mt 5:5)

We can think of this as “How lucky are you if you are not attached to the finite good of earthly power.”

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt 5:10)

Father Baron says that we can think of this as “How lucky are you if you are not attached to honor and hence, are able to follow the will of God even when that path involves being ignored, dishonored, and even persecuted.” We desire to be liked.

We need to pray for the grace of God to help us detach from these substitutes and focus all of our being to love God and seek to know and do His will. We need to empty ourselves of these distractions. Only God can fulfill this thirst.

I am the bread of life. He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst (John 6:35).