Do you want to be happy? I hope your answer is “yes.” The healthy answer is, “Yes.” We should all want to be happy. We should all pursue happiness most vigorously; it should be the goal of our lives. “Happy,” begins the first word of the first Psalm : “Happy.” It’s a Psalm that ancient texts don’t even give a title to. It’s a kind of preface, an introduction into the whole of the Psalms, and it begins, “Happy.”
If you know me at all, or have heard me preach before, you already know that the rest of this sermon is not going to be open encouragement to do whatever you like, live a hedonist life, reshape your life plans so that all the things you encounter lift your mood and supply you with the luxuries you’ve always wanted for yourself. I had some fun this past week looking up quotes on happiness. Here’s what some have to say: From the inimitable Ayn Rand: “Achievement of your happiness is the only moral purpose of your life, and that happiness, not pain or mindless self-indulgence, is the proof of your moral integrity since it is the proof and result of your loyalty to the achievement of your values.” Ms. Rand’s message is not the Gospel, and I won’t be preaching it! From Ernest Hemingway, “Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know.” That is pure hubris and excuse-making on Mr. Hemingway’s part and I won’t be preaching that either! From Flaubert: “To be stupid, selfish, and have good health are three requirements for happiness, though if stupidity is lacking, all is lost.” I entirely disagree with the micro and macro points of his message. And from Albert Schweitzer, “Happiness is nothing more than good health and a bad memory.” With all due respect to the good doctor, he’s quite wrong. No, our Psalm, and indeed all of the Jewish and Christian traditions, have a very different understanding of happiness, and it is that understanding that I want to reflect upon together today.
And they are encapsulated in Psalm 1. It’s a Psalm that we regularly misconstrue, simple as it seems on the surface—right? There are the happy, and there are the wicked, two big buckets, and it’s obvious which camp we should be in. In fact, this Psalm isn’t all about us humans; it’s actually all about God. It isn’t about human happiness, it’s about, in the end, the happiness of God because, ultimately, human happiness is about doing what God wants done.
There may be some here (as there are innumerable people everywhere) who are tempted at this moment to say, “No thanks. A life spent pleasing someone else and calling myself happy and lucky to do it is not what I deem healthy.” I do hear that; so many people—as individuals or communities—have been told by others that pleasing another individual or group that has power should be their idea of a life well lived. I don’t agree with that, either. But the entity whose pleasure should be our concern really is God, the God who is love, who is no overlord, whose greatest desire is our welfare, blessing and salvation. The persons and groups who would tell us that happiness subsists in pleasing them only want us to magnify their power and welfare. The opposite is true with God, who seeks only our happiness and welfare.
One of the reasons it is easy to misconstrue this Psalm is its emphasis on the necessity of our following the law. People who are not interested in religion are quick to tell me that the last thing they want in their lives is another code of morals to follow—restrictive, inhibiting, prejudiced, mean. Who would sign up for that? I would not, in all honesty. But the word “law” as it is translated in our Psalm is, in the Hebrew, “Torah” which means “instruction,” or “teaching.” The word “Torah” is related to the Hebrew word for “teacher.” To follow holy instruction, to meditate upon it day and night, means to spend our time discerning what it means to love God with our whole heart, soul, mind and strength, and how to love our neighbor as ourselves (which is how Jesus summarized the Torah). We are not meant to spend our time studying a hideous rulebook that constricts our humanity but to pray and dialogue with one another about meaningful, and challenging instructions that open up our lives—open them to the God who is love, open them to those around us, open them to massive new ways of being happy and fulfilled. No, these instructions on love of God, self and other are not for those who want to live closed lives, who cannot care for the well-being of others, who are uninterested in deep discernment about what comprises a moral life. I hope, though, that these instructions on love are for each of us. They challenge us to think about what we would do in any and every situation—to discern what is the right thing to do, to discern who is the right person to be.
Another stumbling block to some is the idea that those who follow God’s ways “prosper.” We hear that word as meaning that they have cushy, comfortable lives, full of material goods, that they become wealthy. We—I—hate to think of God as blessing faithful living by giving material wealth (and this is a message in any number of churches today). But the Hebrew word doesn’t mean “prosper” as we think of that; it means “thrive.” Thriving does not require or connote material gain. Thriving means living fully, at maximum spiritual capacity. As Irenaeus said, “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.” He did not say, “The glory of God is a human being with a lot of wealth,” and neither does Psalm 1.
A last challenge to modern interpreters of this Psalm relates to those who are called “the wicked.” They are going to perish, we read. It’s important to note that they are never to be punished. God welcomes both the wicked and the righteous into the congregation of God. It is those called the wicked who opt out. They create their own instruction, their own teaching, and they live by it. They give false advice, they advocate wrong behavior, they mislead others for their own power and gain. They are mocking and scornful and cynical toward others and toward God. How many scoffers do we know? How many who elevate themselves by putting down others? Who pass themselves off as smart, when really they are mean?
The Psalm reminds us that, before us, there is always a choice to make. Do we trust God’s instruction, God’s teaching, and want to opt in to it, or not? Do we rather create for ourselves our own set of instructions that are a toolkit for what we want, that elevate our power over those around us, and that enrich us, materially? Do we create our own Torah that tells us we have nothing to learn from others, no instruction to receive from God, that we deserve no moral demands beyond the ones we choose for ourselves? The difference, in our Psalm, between the righteous and the wicked, is between those who have God’s reign at the center of their lives, and those who do not.
What can truly make us happy is what is centered on God and our neighbors, in addition to ourselves. Happiness is not really about gratification for ourselves—and certainly not immediate gratification—but the long-term joy we get from honoring God and lifting up our fellow human beings. God’s instruction isn’t a wet blanket that crimps our lives but a beautiful source for living with integrity, committed to justice, and to care for others. In the end, the Hebrew word that is translated as “happy” actually means “blessed.” Blessed.
In our passage from John’s gospel, we see Jesus praying his heart out for us. He soon will die, and he is beseeching God to protect all whom he loves. Jesus knows that we will be challenged, even attacked by those who wish to contradict God’s ways. He prays for our safety, and for us to be happy. Not giddy—blessed. He prays that we will always tell the truth, his truth, and that God will protect us as we do. Jesus knows that we will be tempted to escape, to get away from hard lives of inhabiting the gospel. Life hurts. Sometimes it hurts very much. But escape shouldn’t make us happy, because it doesn’t mean we are blessed. In everything, we are called to stay engaged with the world, without succumbing to its values. And this we can do if we live by God’s law, and Christ’s instruction, of love. This is happiness, or blessedness. This is holiness. How lofty it sounds to say that we are called to holiness, when in fact it is a calling to a humble, daily, practice of love. Just love.
J. Clinton McCann, Commentary on Psalm 1, www.workingpreacher.org, May 17, 2015.
D. L. Bartlett & B.B. Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol.2, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008) pp. 532-537, 544-549.