Victor Hugo on the greatest happiness

The greatest happiness of life is the conviction that we are loved—loved for ourselves, or rather, loved in spite of ourselves.

-Victor Hugo

So, would our happiness be greatest when the one who loves us is the greatest being? This greatest being would have the most thorough knowledge of who we really are, in all our pettiness, fragility, and folly. Also, this sort of love “in spite of ourselves” implies that the greatest happiness only comes when we are brave enough to admit our un-loveliness in the first place. Look at the love of God—if we were so lovely in and of ourselves, why, when God became vulnerable to us in Jesus Christ, did we kill him? Don’t we rather perceive that the love of God comes to us not because we are lovely, but precisely because we are not?

Hugo knew that. His penitent hero, Valjean, lived it when he prays at the moment of his death, “Forgive me all my trespasses, and take me to your glory.”

Valjean knew that God loved him not because he had come to lead a life of integrity and self-sacrifice, but because God had taken the ever-prior position of love and forgiveness toward him, precisely in spite of his failures and folly. What if Valjean had prayed, “I’m pretty sure I’ve lived a good enough life, so take me to your glory”? What a very sad thought—yet this is how we often bend toward self-salvation. This is the bent of all other religious and spiritual volition across time other than what we see in the heart of the one true God, revealed in the redemptive history of Biblical scripture. Here is this God, who makes covenant with unlovely people, makes Himself vulnerable to them only to be killed by them, and makes lovers out of forgiven sinners. Empirically speaking, as we look around at our very shambled humanity, isn’t this the path to our greatest happiness? Isn’t this an honest assessment of who we are and how we need love to come and find us?

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