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The Pursuit of Happiness

Psalms 1

 

It was a hot sticky day in the early part of June 1776 in Philadelphia. The representatives of the thirteen colonies had been meeting together considering something of enormous import. A proposal was before them that the colonies individually state their independence from the Mother Country.

Thomas Paine, in a pamphlet entitled “Common Sense,” had said it made no more sense for America to continue to have allegiance to Britain than for a young person to continue living with their family into old age. “Common Sense” dictated that a change needed to be made. That was the consensus as far as the representatives of the Congress were concerned. So they voted on this proposal and twelve of the thirteen voted in favor; New York did not vote.

They then asked five men -- Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Roger Sherman and Robert Livingston -- to spend time drafting a specific declaration of independence. The five men met together and determined that the most suitable person to do it was Thomas Jefferson, even though he was the youngest member of the five. In fact, Jefferson was the youngest member of the Congress but a brilliant young man.

He went to his lodgings, got his little writing desk, put it on his knee, and set to work. He obviously drew a lot from work he had already done on the Constitution of his home state of Virginia. It is very obvious that much of his thinking was derived from his extensive reading on the Roman Republic and also on the writings of the scholar John Locke.

Jefferson came up with his initial draft and sent it round by messenger to the lodging of his good friend, Benjamin Franklin, who also consulted with John Adams. Adams read it and felt that he certainly couldn’t match the literary skills of Jefferson, so he didn’t make any recommendations at all, although he did say, that he had some reservations about George III being called a tyrant. Adams certainly agreed that George III had his problems but tyranny was not one of them, but he didn’t say anything about it.

Benjamin Franklin, who made his money in printing and publishing, however, went through the documents with more care and made a number of suggestions, all of which Jefferson accepted. The draft declaration was then taken to the Congress, and they did what committees tend to do -- they started going over it, and they made many, many changes to what Jefferson had written. Jefferson was not particularly happy about this. Ben Franklin recognized that he wasn’t very happy about it, and took time out to tell him a very funny story, which I’d like very much to tell you but I don’t have time. It’s rather nice to know that even at that particular time Franklin, at least, had a sense of humor -- even if Jefferson couldn’t see the humor in his work of art being cut and pasted as it was.

In the end the document was passed after various things had been taken out -- chief of which was the section in which Jefferson made a scathing indictment of slavery. Franklin and Adams and the other two men absolutely agreed with Jefferson on this, but South Carolina absolutely, adamantly refused to vote if that was left in, so this passage was taken out. Interesting, isn’t it, that Jefferson -- who bought slaves, who owned slaves, who worked slaves, who made money out of slaves, who bred slaves, and did other things with slaves, which we won’t mention -- he wrote this scathing indictment of slavery, but then Jefferson was a man of monumental contradictions. So the vote was taken and unanimously the thirteen colonies made their Declaration of Independence.

Included in that Declaration of Independence was a critical statement, and it is this: That our Creator has endowed us, His creatures, with certain inalienable rights. Now we’ve got to understand what that meant in the mind of Jefferson. Jefferson was not a member of a church. He was never a professing Christian. Interestingly enough, he did read his New Testament in the original language every morning, but it was his own version of the New Testament from which he had excised all statements concerning the miraculous. The reason for that is he was a Deist. A Deist believes in a Creator God who is no longer involved in His creation; therefore, any idea of a miraculous divine intervention is totally ruled out by the Deist. So Jefferson, when he spoke about a Creator God, was thinking in terms of a God who created the world, who set it in motion, but was no longer actively involved in it.

So the world had to be run by human beings without divine intervention. However, this is what he said: that the Creator had endowed His creatures with certain inalienable rights, such as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I understand that in one of the original drafts that Jefferson wrote, before he went to Franklin and Adams, he didn’t say “the pursuit of happiness.” He said “the pursuit of possessions, and that’s a rather interesting thing that comes of enlightenment thinking.

Now, I’m very interested in this point. I think it phenomenal that this country had in its foundational document a statement concerning the Creator and His relationship to His creatures. I think it’s absolutely fascinating that this nation -- right from the very beginning -- believed that the Creator has communicated to these creatures that they have “certain inalienable rights” including the pursuit of happiness, and if that is the case, that raises a huge question in my mind. Why are there so many unhappy people? Why are there so many unhappy people in America where we have unprecedented opportunities to pursue happiness? That is a profoundly significant question, and I’d like to address it with you this morning.

Many aren’t sure what happiness is

I want to suggest to you, first of all, that one of the reasons that many people are free to pursue happiness but don’t find it is that they’re not sure what the “happiness” is they are pursuing. Because they’re not sure what it is, it will be very difficult for them to know what it is they’re chasing after.

For many people, happiness is dependent on their happenings, and if their happenings are happening to happen the way they happen to want their happenings to happen, they are happy! But if their happenings don’t happen to happen the way they happen to want their happenings to happen, they are unhappy. Do you get my drift? I’ll give it to you again. Many people feel that their happiness is directly related to their happenings, and if their happenings happen to happen the way they happen to want their happenings to happen, they are happy. But if their happenings don’t happen to happen the way they happen to want their happenings to happen they are unhappy! Is that true? I believe it is true.

There are some people who have an Oklahoma kind of happiness. “Oklahoma” is a musical. One song from the musical says, “Oh, what a wonderful morning, Oh, what a beautiful day. I’ve got a wonderful feeling everything’s going my way.” Happiness!

Now this kind of approach to happiness means that people spend an inordinate amount of time, money and energy trying to manipulate their happenings, so they happen to happen the way they want their happenings to happen. But the sad reality is this: There comes a time when you realize that all your skills, and all your time, and all your energy, and all your money cannot manipulate your happenings so they happen to happen they way you happen to want your happenings to happen -- and unhappiness is an inevitability!

So why is it within a nation where we are granted by our Creator the inalienable rights to pursue happiness, that there are so many unhappy people? I submit to you, it is because, first of all, they don’t really understand what happiness is.

Now there is a second reason.

Many look for happiness in the wrong places

I believe one of the reasons that there are so many unhappy people is that while they have the freedom to pursue happiness, they also have the freedom to pursue it where it isn’t, and if you pursue it where it isn’t, you won’t find it!

Let me give you an illustration. I first arrived in America, it must be forty years ago now -- I don’t remember the exact date but I do remember it was New Year’s Day. I remember very well being parked in the Read House Hotel in the center of Chattanooga, Tennessee. I remember going to my room, and thinking it was a sauna, because it was heated to 70 degrees. I’d never been in a room heated to seventy degrees in my life before. I tried desperately to open the windows, I couldn’t do it, and I sat there sweltering. Seventy degrees! It doesn’t read seventy degrees in a heat wave in England! However, I decided to console myself in this uncomfortable situation, by switching on the television. I switched on the television and I saw the most amazing picture, the like of which I had never seen before.

It seemed to be the rear view of five very big men in tight yellow pants bent over at an ungainly angle, and I thought: why would they have a camera on that? Standing behind these men was a man also wearing tight yellow pants, and a cute little yellow hat, and he was upset about something, and he was shouting at somebody, and then I realized what was upsetting him. These big men, who were bending over in an ungainly posture, had got his ball. So they gave it to him, and I thought, what a spoiled brat he was because the minute they gave it to him, he gave it to another little man wearing tight yellow pants and a pretty yellow hat.

He started running like a frightened rabbit and then I saw why -- because there were a lot of other big men in tight red pants, and they went after this little man. The men in the yellow pants were satisfied to stop him, and a big fight broke out and they buried this little man and it was all over in five seconds. Then these great big men got up and they stood in a circle, you won’t believe this, and they held hands. I’d never seen men hold hands before, and they prayed. This is encouraging, but their prayer didn’t work because they didn’t take their hats off. They went straight back to doing what they were doing, and it was so incredibly boring. I mean just one time after another they kept doing this, so in the end I switched channels. I thought: this is ridiculous! You know, it was the first day of January, so on every channel, the same thing going on at every channel. I thought, well, this is clearly an unreached people group I’ve come to reach here in America.

So I went back to the original thing to see what was going on, and the same old thing was going on. They got his ball, they gave it to him, he gave it to the little man. The little man ran like a frightened rabbit, and these big guys piled onto him. But then the most amazing thing happened: this guy, this spoiled brat, he had another ball somewhere, and after he had given one to that little man who ran with it, he threw it down the field to another man with a pretty, little yellow hat on, and he caught it and ran right down to the end of the field and everybody got excited. He stood there, just stood there and he didn’t know what to do, but the crowd did. They shouted to him: TOUCH DOWN, TOUCH DOWN! He had a hat on and he couldn’t hear them, and so he held it up and he never did touch it down, it was so sad.

Then his legs gave way from him, and he started and I thought, this is a weird nation because a man then said, “this was football” He actually said it was football, but they hadn’t put a foot near the ball. Later on, I discovered that occasionally they do, when they’ve run out of other ideas. Then they bring someone from Europe to kick it for them!

So I thought you’d be interested, children, in hearing that explanation of the game called American Football from the eyes of a Brit who is arriving in America. But I did tell the story for another reason, and it is this: Those men were faked out; he didn’t give the ball to the running back. He kept it, but the defense thought the running back got it, and they chased after the man without the ball. You are perfectly free to pursue happiness and you have an inalienable right to pursue it where it ‘ain't!’ And there’s the problem!

I want to turn to some explanation for this from Scripture, so let’s turn to Psalm 1. That, incidentally, was the longest introduction to a sermon you’re likely to hear until next time I come! Psalm 1, listen to this: “Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers. But his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree transplanted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatsoever he does prospers.”

You say, “I don’t see the connection between the ‘pursuit of happiness and Psalm 1?” All right, look at the very first word of Psalms 1. It is the word, “Blessed.” Actually it is not only the introductory word for the first psalm; it is the introductory word for the whole book of 150 psalms. It’s about “Blessedness!” The words blessed or blest or blessing are terms that we tend to use quite a lot in ecclesiastical circles, but what does it mean? When you say, “I was blessed,” when you say, “God bless you!” what actually do we have in mind? The word “blessed” that is used here means literally happy and fulfilled because of a sense of life being intrinsically right. Happy and fulfilled because you have a sense that life is intrinsically right. So “blessedness” is a word that describes happiness from a biblical point of view.

I want you to notice that immediately in verse one, the psalm starts out by showing us where we are free to pursue happiness, but we won’t find it. “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked.” You won’t find happiness there. “Nor stands in the way of sinners.” You won’t find happiness there. “Nor sits in the seat of the scoffers.” You won’t find happiness there. You say, “Oh, don’t give me that, I know lots of people who are happy doing all that kind of stuff.” Let’s examine those three things.

“Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the advice of the ungodly or the wicked.” The word means literally those who are living lives that are morally wrong. If it is true, as the Declaration of Independence states, “that the Creator has endowed his creatures with inalienable rights,” does not common sense demand that the Creator has also endowed His creatures with an understanding of how life should be lived? Is that not common sense? Is that not totally logical?

Now here’s the problem: if it is true that the Creator has not only endowed the creatures with inalienable rights, but in addition has given them instructions as to how they are to live life, what happens if people reject His way of living life? What if they are ignorant of His way of living life? What if they think they know better than the Creator? The answer is: According to the Creator, they’re living lives that are morally wrong.

Is it possible for those people who are living lives morally wrong, then, to preach their morally wrong principles? Is it possible that they could preach a morally wrong Gospel? Is it possible that they could convey to people, unprotected people, a morally wrong lifestyle? If that is true, is it possible that other people might take their advice; they might buy into their way of life? The answer to all those questions is “Yes!”

It is possible. In fact, it’s happening all around, and the problem is this: If we recognize there is a Creator and we are His creatures, and we know that we’re not living according to His principles, it is inevitable that we will have feelings of guilt and shame. If we have feelings of guilt and shame, guilt and shame do not produce happiness, and there’s part of the problem. We are free to pursue happiness in areas of morally wrong thinking and living, but you’d be chasing a man without the ball.

“Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stands in the way of sinners.” The word “sinners” here, is a very interesting word. It means somebody who is constantly missing the mark, somebody who is continually coming short. If it is true that the Creator has granted to His creatures certain inalienable rights, is it not reasonable to assume that He has also endowed us with certain responsibilities, or did He just give us rights and forget about responsibilities?

I would suggest that there is absolutely no way that people’s rights can be met unless people understand they have the responsibility to meet other people’s rights. You can’t have rights without responsibilities. Therefore to suggest that the Creator endowed us with rights, but said nothing about responsibilities, is nonsense.

But what happens if He has outlined to us our responsibilities and He’s given them to us as a target, and He says, “There you are -- that’s what you do today, you fulfill your responsibilities to God and to man this day.” What happens if we don’t do it? The word for that is “falling short.” The word for that is “sin!” If you fall short long enough, you begin to get a pervasive sense of failure, because you know deep down in your heart, you are not what you ought to be. If you’re living with a pervasive sense of coming short, I promise you, that is not the breeding ground of happiness.

We see some reasons why there are so many unhappy people, and here’s a third reason:

Many miss happiness because they live with guilt

“Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked or stands in the way of sinners nor sits in the seat of the mockers.” You know what happens if you live with guilt? You cannot find an answer to it, you try to chloroform your conscience by various activities, you rationalize your actions in trying to chloroform your conscience, you begin to find that you are continually coming short in certain areas, but you’re finding that becoming short has now almost become addictive. You become cynical about life, and you become cynical about people, you become cynical about God, and you finish up a skeptic about people and life and God, and just decide “I’ll do it my way!” I won’t worry about anything grand and noble and transcendent I’ll just carve out my little piece here, and let the world go wherever it’s going!”

That innate skeptical selfishness never produces happiness, because I’ll promise you something, you’ll never find a happy cynic. So what do we conclude here? We conclude here that the reason that so many people are unhappy is that they are not defining unhappiness correctly, they think it is the result of manipulated happenings that they cannot manipulate. Or it is because they are living with guilt or feelings of coming short, or they’ve become skeptical about life, about people, about society, about government, about education, about politics, but more important than anything else, about God. That’s not where happiness is found. That’s the end of verse one!

The first word in Psalms 1:2 is a wonderfully critical little word, “But.” What does the “but” say? In marked contrast to the man who was walking in the counsel of the wicked, or standing in the way of sinners, or sitting in the seat of the scornful, we have a man here whose delight is in the teaching of the Lord. Now there is the fundamental difference. His delight is the teaching of the Lord.

What does that mean? It means this that this man believes that there is a Creator, who endowed His creatures with certain inalienable rights, like life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But he also understands that this Creator has endowed him with instructions as to how life should be lived, and he studies it assiduously, and he believes it wholeheartedly, and he embraces it enthusiastically, and he lives in the good of it dynamically. It becomes the inner disposition of his life.

And what is this teaching? His teaching is this: you came from God, you survive through God, you will return to God, you are accountable unto God! You have come short of His standards, and you will face God as your judge, and give an account of the life that you have lived, and you will have no answer to His judgment. But He loves you, and has sent Christ into the world to save you, to take away the guilt, to forgive your sin, to empower you to live in newness of life, to write His Law in your heart by His Spirit, to take away the stony heart of skepticism and cynicism, and give you the warm pulsating heart of love for and delight in God and the things of God, and your daily disposition to life is: How can I please Him? Not, how can I please myself and manipulate my happenings, so they happen to happen the way I happen to want my happenings to happen.

The next verse is descriptive of this happy man. “He is like a tree transplanted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season, whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers.” All I can do is outline it for you. “The tree transplanted by streams of water,” means he lives a life of inner sufficiency. He has lived his life in the barrenness of that which is morally wrong, with feelings of guilt and coming short and bordering on skepticism and cynicism. But he hears about the Lord and how he needs to embrace the Lord and His truth, and he asks the Lord to transplant him out of the desert and put him down by streams of living water.

There he discovers inner sufficiency -- listen to this -- irrespective of his happenings. For his happiness does not come from the outside; his blessedness comes from the inside. A life of inner sufficiency, he is like a tree placed by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season. His life is all about regular productivity of things that really matter, of things that really count, of substance, and transcendent worth. “His leaf does not wither. There is a reliability about his life. He’s not up and down with his happenings.

There is a consistency, and I’ll tell you why. Because the end of the Psalm says, “The Lord watches over the way of the righteous,” and what governs his life is this overriding consideration that having committed his life to the Lord, the Lord has committed Himself to directing his path, and there’s a life of quiet tranquility. Whatever He does prospers. Be careful with that word “prosper,” because when we hear prosperity, we think money in the bank. That is not the meaning of the word here; it means the word “progress.” In other words, his life is going on from strength to strength. It is developing, it is maturing, it is a growing life, and that, of course, is talking about significant prosperity.

Do you get the picture here?

Our Creator has endowed us with certain inalienable rights, such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but there’s a lot of unhappiness. The reason for it, I believe, is that people do not understand what true happiness is. They think they can find it in lifestyles which are morally wrong. They think they can feel fulfilled when all the time they know they’re not being what their Creator called them to be. They are settling into an attitude of “who cares in the end?”

What they could be doing is turning right around, and saying, “Lord, I want you to be Lord of my life! I want you to be Savior of my life. I want to live my life according to your precepts, and I want to live my life in your power. I want to live life fulfilling your purpose. I want to live my life and bring you pleasure.” Scripture says, “There’s a happy man.”

Let’s pray together: “Lord, we bow quietly in your presence, having sat under the ministry of your Word, and we know its searching power, and we know how it challenges our thinking. We know when the Spirit of God takes the Word home to our hearts, and pricks our conscience, enlightens our mind, touches our desires, and tells us this makes sense. We have a longing in our hearts to know more of what You are saying.

So our prayer is quite simple, ‘Lord, rescue us from the lifestyles that we gravitate toward because of the gravitational pull of our culture, so much of which is fundamentally wrong, and help us to have a love for your truth. Help us to have a desire to follow in the way everlasting.’ Forgive us our sin; wash away our guilt. Take away our hardness of heart. Give us new desires, new longings in the power of your Spirit, to change us from within. This is our prayer in the Name of Jesus our Lord. Amen!”

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Stuart Briscoe is Minister at Large of Elmbrook Church in Brookfield, Wisconsin. He is a Contributing Editor to Preaching.

 

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