Searching for Happiness (Sermon)
God wants you to be happy. Do you believe that? God wants you to be happy. You were not created to be miserable. God did not form human beings from the dust of the ground; breathe into them the breath of life so that He could make them unhappy.
God wants you to be happy. If you don’t believe me, then listen to someone far wiser than me. Jonathan Edwards, the great preacher from the 18th century wrote:
“God created man for nothing else but happiness. He created him only that he might communicate happiness to him.”[i]
God himself is indescribably happy. He created us to experience and enjoy His happiness. Sam Storms describes the happiness for which we were designed:
“The happiness for which we are eternally destined is a state of soul in which we experience and express optimum ecstasy in God. Happiness is the whole soul resting in God and rejoicing that so beautiful and glorious a Being is ours…. [T]he ineffable and unending pleasure of blissful union with and the joyful celebration of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This is a joy of such transcendent quality that no persecution or pain or deprivation can diminish, nor wealth or success or prosperity can enhance.”[ii]
We were created for happiness, which is why the search for happiness lies at the center of every epic story. If the story is about romance, then the characters search for happiness in a relationship. They overcome all the odds to end up together where they will live happily ever after. Great adventure stories have the long lost hero return to liberate his land from oppression. The final scenes center on a free, restored kingdom where the citizens eat and drink in happiness. In love, in family, in work, in politics, all the great human narratives focus on the pursuit of happiness.
Deep in the soul of every human is a longing for happiness. I’ve never met a person who does not want to be happy. If someone were to tell me they didn’t want to be happy, I wouldn’t believe them. They may think happiness is impossible. They may believe that they will never experience happiness. But deep down they still long for happiness.
Here’s the good news. You want to be happy, and God wants you to be happy. In Psalm 1 & 2, He tells you clearly how you can be happy. The answer to the question, “How can I be happy?” has two interconnected parts. The first part is found in the Psalm 1 and the second in Psalm 2.
How can you be happy? Here’s the first part of the answer.
1. Happiness comes through studying the Word
The very first word in Psalm 1 is the world “blessed.” We might translate that “how happy.” “How happy is the man…” “How abundantly joyful is the man…” “How supremely satisfied is the man…”
Not only does Psalm 1 begin with this word, but Psalm 2 also ends with it. Psalm 2, verse 12, the very last phrase begins, “Blessed are all…” “How happy are all…” These opening two psalms are about finding the happiness for which you were created. They are directions to the happiness God intends for you.
Christians are castigated by society as those who frown on happiness. We are cast as those who are willingly miserable, who have given up all hope at happiness. Sadly our poor understanding of God’s Word has allowed this mischaracterization to stick. We have forgotten that God designed us to be happy. We have forgotten that in Jesus’ most famous sermon, He began by using the word “blessed” nine times. He was laying out a path for true happiness.
If you believe the Christian life is about being miserable, then you’re gravely mistaken. It’s not wrong to seek happiness. It’s wrong to seek happiness that doesn’t last. It’s wrong to seek happiness that’s fleeting and temporary. We should seek happiness, but we should not seek happiness in the wrong place or the wrong way.
So verse 1 tells us how to be happy. It begins, “How happy is the man who”…what?
(Psalms 1:1–2 ESV) …who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night.
Happiness comes from having your mind shaped by God’s instructions not man’s opinions. The contrast in these verses is between the divinely inspired revelation from God and the shallow, empty ideas of men.
Listen to me: The truth is that we are all constantly being shaped. Someone is constantly forming our thinking and perspective on life. If God is shaping how we think, we will find happiness. But if this world is shaping how we think, we will find only disappointment and despair.
God’s Word—this divinely breathed out book I hold in my hand—was given to us so that we might learn to see this world as it really is, as God created it, and in so doing, we might learn how to be truly happy in Him. God’s Word was given to bring us joy in God. One author asked: “Would it surprise you to discover that God’s primary agenda in the giving of his law is your optimal and most durable delight? God’s strategy in disclosing his will and ways, whether in the form of rules, prohibitions, commandments, or exhortations isn’t to muzzle human joy but to maximize it.”[iii]
That’s why the Psalmist wrote:
(Psalms 119:103 ESV) How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!
When you think about drizzling honey on something do your lips pucker up in disgust? Not for most of us. We think about drizzling honey on a soft, warm roll, and we start to salivate in anticipation. Eating that sweet roll with honey brings us joy. God’s Word is to be honey for our soul.
Reading God’s Word should not be a duty but a delight. It should not feel like slavish drudgery, but like a sweet dessert. Brothers and sisters, we should pick up God’s Word expecting to read until we are happy in God. We open God’s Word so that we can taste and see that God is good.
This will happen more frequently the more that we do it. The Word grows sweeter the more it is ingested. Jonathan Edwards gave this word of advice:
“Endeavor to increase spiritual appetites by meditating on spiritual objects.”[iv]
Your appetite for God’s Word will grow the more you read it. Here’s why: As we read His Word, we begin to think like Him. As we meditate on His instructions, He molds us more into His likeness. The more we read His thoughts, the more our thinking will reflect His. Remember, our thinking is constantly being shaped by something!
What shapes your thinking? What shapes your perspective? Every hour of television, every article on the internet, every Facebook post, every magazine headline in the checkout lane, every grumbling comment by a co-worker, every accusation by a spouse—everything you see and hear is working to alter how you perceive this world.
Happiness comes from rejecting the counsel of the wicked, the advice of the sinful, and the fellowship of those who mock God. Happiness comes from feasting on the sweet honey of God’s revelation. It comes as we learn to delight in meditating on what God says. “To meditate” simply means to hold onto it, to not let it go easily. We roll the truth around in our minds. Our thoughts return to it. Our imaginations explore it. It doesn’t go in one ear and out the other.
What do you meditate on? What fills your mind? What do you study? Where do you thoughts run when there’s a moment of silence? Let me challenge you to be intentional about who you allow to speak into your life. Don’t allow the president of HBO to have more influence on your thinking than you allow the leader of your community group. If you were to do a spreadsheet, charting who you listen to each day, who do you think would exert the most influence on your thinking? Whose words do you meditate on?
Happiness comes through studying the Word. This is why we as a church are committed to studying God’s Word. We don’t take the Word of God lightly. We don’t take it for granted. This is why we read it publicly multiple times each week. We want you to be happy, and we understand that God has designed us to find happiness through the study of His Word.
This year we’ve encouraged you to read through the whole Bible. We did that because you have nothing better to do. I’m serious. What do you have to do this year that is more important than studying God’s Word? I know it’s hard at times. Last week I was in a class all day every day up in Wake Forest, and I fell a little behind. I’m still trying to finish Job. But if God says happiness comes through studying His Word, how foolish am I if I allow anything to keep me from studying His Word?
In my office, right now is a stepping-stone. I don’t know why it’s in my office. It just showed up one day. That seems to happen regularly. Things show up. It was made by pouring wet cement into a mold. Then a handprint and some colored glass were pushed into the cement. As the cement dried, it took on the shape of the plastic mold. Our minds are like wet cement, and the only question is what mold we’re using. Are we molding our minds to the Word of God or the advice of men?
As a church we want the Word of God to mold and shape how we think. Non-Christians should see that we think differently about life. We think differently about what’s important, about how we spend our time and money, about what makes for success. We think differently when bad things happen, and when blessings come. We will only think differently if our thinking has been shaped by prolonged exposure to the Word of God.
I love how Thomas a’ Kempis said it almost 700 years ago: “I have no rest but in a nook with the book.”[v]
The rest of psalm 1 reveals the benefits of studying God’s Word.
(Psalms 1:3–6 ESV) He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers. The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away. Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous; for the LORD knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.
The one who studies God’s Word is like a strong, fruitful, well-nourished tree. He is prosperous and successful. The contrast is chaff, the worthless part of grain that is blown away by the wind. When God has shaped your thinking, you’re like a mighty oak. When man has shaped your thinking, you’re like a dead dandelion. One puff of wind and away you go. Fruitfulness comes from studying the Word of God.
We also find safety in studying God’s Word. God knows (He cares for and watches over) the way of the righteous. In this context, the righteous are those who delight in His instruction. But the path of the wicked will lead to destruction.
Friend, this is a strong warning to you to heed what I’m saying this morning. You need to listen not because of any great wisdom or authority in me, but because this is God’s message to you. He warns you that a failure to listen to His Word will result in death and destruction. If you fail to listen and respond to His message, you will face a day of judgment. In that day of judgment, you will have no hope of standing.
There’s an old British poem, which captures the choice you face:
To every man there openeth
A Way, and Ways and a Way.
And the High Soul climbs the High way,
And the Low Soul gropes the Low,
And in between, on the misty flats,
The rest drift to and fro.
But to every man there openeth
A High way and a Low,
And every man decideth
The Way his soul shall go.[vi]
Which way will you go? Who will you listen to? Who will shape your thinking?
2. Happiness comes through studying the Word, then submitting to the King
Studying the Word of God is not an end in itself. We study the Word of God to learn about Jesus Christ. We study the Word of God to see and savor the Son of God. We study the Word of God because it tells us about a King greater than all other kings. It promises His victory. It reveals the glory of His kingdom, and it teaches us how we can relate to this majestic One.
Think of it this way: after the service you may go out to eat. You may talk to another family in the lobby and decide to head to a restaurant. You and your family will pile into the car and drive down the street, pull into the parking lot and disembark. When you enter the restaurant door, your mission is not accomplished. Meeting the other family at the restaurant isn’t the point. Eating good food is the point. Meeting at the restaurant is merely the means to a greater end.
Studying the Word of God is the means to a greater end. The greater end is seeing the glorious King and learning to submit to Him.
Happiness will not come merely from studying the Word. If it did, the Pharisees—those 1st century, self-righteous religious leaders—would not have been miserable. They would have been deliriously happy. But they weren’t. They were chronically depressed. Though they studied the Scripture with great fervor and ridiculous amounts of self-discipline, they found no joy. They didn’t see the King! Their study didn’t point them to submission to Him.
Church, we can turn something wonderful—like reading God’s Word—into deadly legalism. If we view it as a checklist, if we make it nothing more than a religious demand, we won’t find joy. Psalm 1 tells us that we can find happiness in studying God’s Word, and Psalm 2 tells us why we find happiness in the Word. We find happiness because we find a King who will rule and reign in righteousness.
Psalm 2 shows us that the Bible is a book about a king. It shows us that we need to submit to His authority. It explains how we become a part of His kingdom. It promises fruitfulness and safety in His care. The happiness of Psalm 1 comes not from the Word, but from the King of whom the Word testifies. Here’s how one writer described the connection: “Meditation on Scripture ultimately leads to trusting in the Messiah.”[vii]
The beginning of Psalm 1 and the end of Psalm 2 together make a single statement. Happiness comes through studying the Word so that you can see the king, serve the king, and submit to the King.
The second psalm opens by showing the foolishness of rebellion against this great king.
(Psalms 2:1–4 ESV) Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and against his Anointed, saying, “Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.” He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision.
Seeking to exalt themselves, the rulers of this earth are trying to overthrow the King. They’re plotting a revolt against Him. Instead of finding joy in His service, they feel like they’re enslaved (v.3).
A rebellious attitude isn’t unique to the kings of the earth. The very first chapter of humanity’s story is stained with rebellion. God, gracious and kind, provided all of man’s needs in the Garden. There they were to enjoy Him, worship Him and experience unfettered happiness under His rule. But Adam and Eve, our far-off grandparents, chose to rebel. They plotted and raged…they took counsel together…they sought to break free from their perceived chains.
We share their DNA. Listen to how God describes each one us:
(Ephesians 2:1–3 ESV) And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.
O how foolish we are! O how foolish we are to rebel against this wise and just King! Our rebellion is silly, and our rebellion is deadly. This King will raise an iron scepter to crush those who rebel against Him.
(Psalms 2:9 ESV) You shall break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.
An iron scepter isn’t ornamental. An iron scepter—a rod of iron—is a weapon of mass destruction. An iron scepter is the choice of someone who’s going to take care of business. Friend, the wrath of God will be poured out on all those who reject the rule of Jesus Christ. This isn’t something to joke about. Don’t convince yourself that this is trivial. All those who rebel against Jesus Christ will face the full fury of the wrath of an almighty God. Repent of your rebellion and plead with Him for mercy. Don’t delay.
The kingdoms of this world will fall, but the kingdom of Jesus Christ will last forever. Powerful, earthly rulers die and are forgotten. Their power is a mirage. They don’t have power to stop the effects of age. They don’t have power to break the chains of death. Their majesty is an illusion.
In AD 360, Flavius Claudius Julianus became Caesar and declared war on Christians. One night, at one of his cruel parties, he taunted a Christian named Agaton who was about to be executed. “How is your carpenter of Nazareth?” he asked. “Is he finding work these days?” Here was Agaton’s reply: “He is perhaps taking time away from building mansions for the faithful to build a coffin for your Empire.”[viii]
Rebellion is foolish because this King is supreme.
(Psalms 2:5–9 ESV) Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying, “As for me, I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill.” I will tell of the decree: The LORD said to me, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. You shall break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”
God established this King, and He is the very Son of God. God has given all of creation to Him as an inheritance. The apostle Paul reflects on the supremacy of Jesus Christ in Colossians 1:
(Colossians 1:15–17 ESV) “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”
Jesus Christ is supreme. Supreme in glory. Supreme in majesty. Supreme in authority. Supreme in beauty. Rebellion is foolish, but submission…submission to this supreme ruler brings happiness.
(Psalms 2:10–12 ESV) Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth. Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed (How happy…how supremely satisfied) are all who take refuge in him.
If you trade your rebellion for submission, you trade despair for joy. Listen closely: You will either bend or be broken. You will either bend your knee in submission to this King, or you will be broken by this King. You will pledge allegiance, or you will suffer retribution.
We are told to “kiss the Son.” Like a servant of old would come before the king, kneel in front of him and kiss his ring, we bow in reverent service to Jesus Christ. Let me be clear: this isn’t some mechanical ritual. God demands an attitude of submission, not merely an act of submission. Judas Iscariot kissed the Son, but his kiss was an act of betrayal, not a pledge of loyalty. All Jesus requires from you is allegiance to Him.
Here’s the best part. He’s not a ruthless tyrant. He’s not a petty dictator. When we pledge allegiance to Him, we find happiness. Verse 12 says we find “refuge in Him.” We’re ushered into His kingdom, and He protects His people. We’re enlisted in His army, and He never loses. Submitting to Jesus Christ means casting off the chains of sin and finding freedom in forgiveness. Don’t equate submission to Jesus Christ with slavery and despair. Submission to a King who reigns supreme over all creation brings joy and gladness.
I have 3 boys and so the subject of kings and kingdoms comes up a lot. Their favorite stories are about kings who defeat evil and rescue those who are innocent. The current story they love is The Lord of the Rings. In fact the other day, Caed (who is 3 years old) told us that he was (and I quote): “Aragorn, son of Arathorn, rightful heir to the throne of Gondor.” They love this tale of a great king who defeats the forces of evil and establishes a kingdom filled with joy and happiness.
That’s the story of Psalm 2. Jesus is the great King who conquered the forces of evil and established a kingdom where His people will one day live happily ever after. Psalm 1 tells us that we find this story in the Scriptures. The Scriptures tell us about our King. They assure us of His victory. They give us hope for the future. The Scriptures impress upon our hearts this reality:
(Colossians 1:13 ESV) He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son,
I recently finished reading The Lord of the Rings. My son Jack, who’s 9, finished reading them so I was shamed into reading them as well. These truths about our King are reflected in the climactic scenes of that book.
Even if you’re unfamiliar with the story, picture this with me. The reign of Sauron, the evil king, has spread. The whole world is covered with death and darkness. Your king and an army that is way too small have ridden out to oppose the dark forces. The future of middle-earth hangs in the balance. Is there any hope? Is there any possibility of future happiness? Listen to what Tolkien wrote:
"And the Shadow departed, and the Sun was unveiled, and light leaped forth; and the waters …shone like silver, and in all the houses of the City men sang for the joy that welled up in their hearts from what source they could not tell. And before the Sun had fallen far from the noon out of the East there came a great Eagle flying, and he bore tidings beyond hope from the Lords of the West, crying: Sing now…for the Realm of Sauron is ended for ever, and the Dark Tower is thrown down. Sing and rejoice, ye people of the Tower of Guard, for your watch hath not been in vain, and the Black Gate is broken, and your King hath passed through, and he is victorious. Sing and be glad, all ye children of the West, for your King shall come again, and he shall dwell among you all the days of your life. And the Tree that was withered shall be renewed, and he shall plant it in the high places, and the City shall be blessed. Sing all ye people! And the people sang in all the ways of the City."[ix]
This is why we submit to the King. We submit because He has dispelled death and darkness! We submit because He has rescued us who were captives to sin! We submit because He has brought us into His kingdom! We submit because the powers of evil have been defeated! We submit because our king will dwell with us forever. We submit because one day we will live happily ever after. We submit because of the unrivaled supremacy of Jesus Christ our King.
Normally I’d end right here, but today I want to make one final application. It flows from all that we’ve read and discussed this morning. There is a king who has defeated sin and death, and He invites rebels to lay down their pitiful weapons and enter His great kingdom. If they do, they will not find harm, but happiness…not punishment, but pleasure.
Brothers and sisters, a message like this demands to be shared. We have this good news. We get to tell those who are held captive by sin about the King who died to liberate them. We get to declare that this King has conquered death and reigns forevermore. We get to tell them about the refuge that can be found in the kingdom of Jesus Christ.
This is our mission! This is our calling! We are ambassadors of this King, pleading with rebels to give up their hopeless revolution and find happiness in a kingdom of love. Let’s get busy. Like the heralds of old who would sprint to a city declaring the news of victory in battle, let’s sprint from house to house, from business to business, from person to person declaring the news of victory. Jesus Christ has won the battle. He invites them throw down their arms and pledge allegiance to Him. How happy are those who find refuge in this King!
This sermon was originally preached at Redeemer Community Church in 2012.
[i] Jonathan Edwards, quoted in Sam Storms, More Precious than Gold: 50 Daily Meditations on the Psalms (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009), 22.
[ii] Ibid., 22-23.
[iii] Ibid., 26.
[iv] Ibid., p.27.
[v] Quoted in Charles Spurgeon, The Treasury of David, vol.1 (McLean, VA: Macdonald Publishing), 6.
[vi] John Oxenham, quoted in Steve Lawson, Psalm 1-75, Holman Old Testament Commentary, Vol. 11 (Nashville: Holman Reference, 2003), 13.
[vii] John H. Sailhamer, NIV Compact Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 315.
[viii] Lawson, Psalms, 25.
[ix] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, One Volume, Collector’s Edition, Kindle Edition, location 21203.