Sermon 09-20-15: “The Pursuit of Happiness”

September 30, 2015

Fight Songs

Psalm 1 teaches us what we need to be truly happy in life. But it looks nothing like our “American dream”-version of happiness. Indeed, as much as I revere our Founding Fathers, they were wrong: the right to pursue happiness, at least for its own sake, is a dead end street. As C.S. Lewis said, “Aim for heaven, and you’ll get earth thrown in. Aim for earth, and you’ll get neither.” Unfortunately, too many of us have spent far too much time “aiming for earth.” Instead, this psalm tells us, the key to happiness is to fall in love with the Lord. This sermon invites us to do just that.

Sermon Text: Psalm 1:1-6

[To listen on the go, right-click to download an MP3.]

If you were a child of the ’60s or ’70s, you have no doubt seen classic live-action Disney movies such as Herbie the Love Bug, That Darn Cat, and The Shaggy D.A. And if so, you’ll know who actor Dean Jones is. Jones died two weeks ago at 84. When he was at the height of his success in the late-’60s and early-’70s, Jones had more money than he knew what to do with—and spent it on lavish homes, fast Italian sports cars, and exotic vacations. And women. Even though he was married at the time, every night he would have a different Hollywood starlet on his arm—and just as often in his bed.

Actor Dean Jones, who died earlier this month.

Actor Dean Jones, who died earlier this month.

For years, he said, he had deceived himself into believing that the Hollywood lifestyle would satisfy him, but it had only left him depressed and suicidal, especially after his wife finally divorced him and he was estranged from his children. He began to see life as a pointless exercise in futility, to be managed by copious amounts of alcohol and a parade of one-night stands.

Later, after he nearly died in a drunk-driving accident, he cried out to God: “I’ve done everything in this world I thought would make me happy and it doesn’t work. I have everything and I have nothing. I have no choice but to believe [in you, God]. If you don’t exist, then I’m a dead man.” And he surrendered his life to Christ, and he was never the same.

But I like this insight: “I’ve done everything in this world I thought would make me happy and it doesn’t work. I have everything and I have nothing.” You and I probably don’t quite have everything, but, like most Americans, we’re probably a lot closer to “everything” than to “nothing.”

But are we happy?

According to a recent survey, Americans, who are otherwise at or near the top of every world ranking in terms of freedom, prosperity, security, and health, are only the 33rd happiest people on the planet. How is that possible—with everything that we have? 

Because we’re looking for happiness in the wrong places.

The main purpose of Psalm 1, which serves as kind of a preface to the entire Book of Psalms, is to tell us what is required for us to be happy. “Blessed is the person who doesn’t do these things; blessed is the person whose delight is in the instruction of the Lord.” And the word blessed means “happy.” Whenever you see the word “blessed” in the Bible, it’s talking about happiness. But even more, it means a deep and true and lasting kind of happiness, a deep joyfulness, a deep satisfaction. It’s not just a happiness that comes and goes depending on our mood, on our circumstances, on other people, but one that endures any hardship or setback or disappointment or failure.

Our lives as Christians, the Bible tells us, ought to be characterized by this kind of happiness.

Are they? 

I think the main problem is that true and lasting happiness is not something we can achieve by pursuing it directly. Nowhere in the Bible does it say, “Blessed are those who pursue blessedness”—or “happy are those who pursue happiness.” Jesus doesn’t say, in the Beatitudes, “Happy are those who hunger and thirst for happiness, for they shall be satisfied.” No, he says, “Happy are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.”

Ugh! Pursuing righteousness sounds much harder than pursuing happiness!

Later in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus talks about happiness when he tells us not to worry: “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” See, if we’re living a life that’s worry-free, anxiety-free, then we are truly happy: that’s the flip side of the same coin: to be worry-free is to be happy. And what does Jesus say about achieving this kind of happiness: “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness”—there’s that word again—”and all these things will be added to you.”

See, as much as I love them, our Founding Fathers were wrong: The pursuit of happiness, which is enshrined in our Declaration of Independence as an “inalienable right” is actually a dead end: If you pursue happiness, you’ll never achieve it. As C.S. Lewis said so memorably: “Aim for heaven, and you’ll get earth thrown in. Aim for earth, and you’ll get neither.” We spend far too much of our time aiming for earth.

I want to talk about a big problem in this church. In fact, it was a problem in my previous church, and the one before that. It’s been a problem in every church I’ve been a part of or a member of: And the problem is this: When we grow up in church, we go to Sunday school and Vacation Bible school, we go to youth group, we go on youth retreats, and we learn how important it is to put Jesus Christ first in our lives. But then when we turn 17 or 18, and start making plans for the next part of our lives—whether it’s going to college, or going into service, or going to vocational school, or getting a full-time job—we think to ourselves, “What do I need to do with my life in order to be happy?” How much money do I need? And in order to make that kind of money, what kind of job do I need to pursue? And in order to have that kind of job, what kind of plans do I need to make in order to be qualified for it. In other words, what can I do with my life to earn the most money, so that what? I can be happy?

Listen: Earning a lot of money is awesome! Because it enables us to give more; it gives us more opportunities to be generous. I think of one of my heroes, Tracy Fleming, who operates the Chick-fil-A in Lovejoy. He uses the money he earns in his business to pay for the two or three trips a year he makes to China to help spread the gospel of Jesus Christ—at some risk to his freedom and safety. So earning a lot of money is great—if you’re doing it in response to a call from God. But if you’re doing it merely in order to have a bigger house, a bigger car, or a vacation home—to be able to afford whatever it is you think will make you happy—then you’re doing it for the wrong reasons.

Yet, in so many words, this is what we teach our young people: being a Christian is a wonderful thing—especially after you die—but right now, in the real world, you better get what’s yours.

I guess what I’m saying is, I want our young people in high school who are thinking about the next stage of life to ask themselves: “What can I do to serve the Lord, to please the Lord, to put God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness first as I consider my future plans?”

The problem is, we’re often like the younger son in parable of the Prodigal Son: At first he couldn’t care less about his father, what his father wants; pleasing his father. The younger son wants to be happy, and he demands that his father gives him what he thinks he needs to be happy. So his father does give it to him—and he squanders it all on wine, women, and song, partying. The things that he thinks will make him happy in life very nearly kill him. But notice that when he repents—when he’s ready to return to his father—he couldn’t care less about his own happiness. He’s concerned about just surviving and the only way to do that is to make things right with his father. He’s desperate as he realizes that he needs his father to survive! And he returns, not asking to have all the privileges that come from being his father’s son, but asking to be his father’s servant, asking for nothing except the opportunity to please his father. And what does his father give him? Everything else he wanted too!

Brothers and sisters, this is what pursuing righteousness looks like: when we are prepared to go to our heavenly Father and be his humble servant, asking for and expecting nothing in return, just grateful for his forgiveness and mercy, grateful that he’s saved us from death—when we go to the Father like that, then and only then will he give us more than we could possibly dream of or hope for. But don’t count on it being what we think we need in order to be happy!

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: I realize now that a dozen years ago, when I first “answered the call” into ministry, I had some idea, which I never verbalized, that God and I had an agreement—we had made a bargain. “Yes, God, I will leave my fairly successful, happy engineering career and go into ministry, but here are the terms of the deal: I will be beloved and respected and acclaimed by my colleagues and parishioners, who will know that I’m God’s gift to ministry; my bishop and all the district superintendents will appreciate how truly wonderful I am and will put me first in line for the best appointments; and despite any temporary sacrifices I’ll make to answer this call, I’ll make all the money I need to maintain the lifestyle that I had before going into ministry. Heck, I’ll probably be made bishop before I’m 45.”

Now, I’m exaggerating slightly—but there’s no question that some sinful part of me expected God to give me happiness in return in return for the sacrifices I was making for him.

That simply doesn’t work. That’s not what “seeking first his kingdom and his righteousness” looks like! And even if I got all the acclaim, all the popularity, all the recognition, all the money that my sinful heart thinks it needs in order to be happy, I still wouldn’t be happy. Those things wouldn’t satisfy my soul. Only God knows what we need!

Speaking of which, I grew up “directionally challenged.” I was lousy with directions. Even last week, I had to get an emissions inspection. I pulled into a particular gas station, thinking that this was the one that offered emissions inspections. And the attendant said, “No, we don’t do that here, but if you take the next right, go two blocks and then turn left, and take the second exit off the roundabout, and you’ll see a garage at the end of street on your right”—and he may as well have been saying, “Blah-blah-blah,” because I couldn’t hold all these directions in my mind. I drove off thinking, “I think he said to turn right up here. After that, it’s a blur.” And God forbid somebody say, “Go west on this road.” And I’m like, “Let me go outside and see where the sun is in the sky—I hope it’s not overcast so I can see where the sun is!” My point is, I don’t know directions! I’m not good with directions! And I’m sure I’ve spent more time in my life being lost than most of you.

So you can imagine what a blessing it is to have GPS on my phone! Oh my goodness, I love Google Maps. What would I do without it? In fact, I feel as if I couldn’t live without it!

Listen: We are all as lost and hopeless to find happiness on our own as I am to find my way from point A to point B on my own. I know I need an app to get me there! I depend on it; I lean on it; I rely on it. I wouldn’t get in my car without it. Yet most of us are quite confident we know exactly what we need for happiness without the “app” that God has given us, which is his holy Word, the Bible.

What does the psalmist say? “His delight”—the man who’s truly happy—“his delight is in the law of the Lord”—not just the “Thou shalts” and the “Thou shalt nots,” but it means God’s instructions, all of scripture. “His delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he mediates day and night.”

So you want to be happy? Start there. Put God’s Word, the Bible, at the center of your life.

I said this in my Bible study last Sunday afternoon. Once you get in the habit of reading, meditating on, studying the Bible every day, something remarkable happens: When you don’t do it one morning—maybe you think you’re too busy—when you don’t do it, you miss it. You start to hunger for it. And what you’re missing and what you’re hungering for is listening to your heavenly Father speak to you. The Bible is the main way that we hear God speak to us. It’s not like reading any other book—a miraculous thing happens. God the Holy Spirit meets us here, in these pages.

Also, notice this verse says that the happy person’s delight is in God’s Word. You can’t fake delight. You know what “delight” is? It’s like falling in love—falling in love—with God, falling in love with Jesus Christ.

I fell in love with my wife, Lisa, when I was in college my first time around. And when I did, my life, my lifestyle, changed drastically! For example, before Lisa, I would hang out with my circle of four or five friends nearly every weekend—I mean, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. This was very important to me. The most important thing in my life, truth be told. And, oh my goodness, when I met and fell in love with Lisa—see you later, friends! All that changed! Suddenly, I wasn’t hanging out with my friends the way I used to.

I can laugh about it now, but at the time, these friends were mad at me. They were hurt. Because they had no idea what it meant to fall in love with someone. You would do anything for the person you’re in love with. It doesn’t matter who you are, or what you think is important in life, or what your other priorities are—when you fall in love the person you’re in love with moves to the top of the priority list. You need to change careers for the sake of the person you love? Done. You need to move across the country for the sake of the person you love? Done. You need to move to another part of the world for the sake of the person you love? Done. You need to sacrifice your lifelong dreams and plans for the sake of the person you love? Done. And guess what? It’s not even hard to do these things… If you’re truly in love.

Like the old Foreigner song says: “I would climb any mountain. Sail across the stormy sea. If that’s what it takes me, baby. To show you how much you mean to me.”

If we’re in love with Jesus, that’s what our attitude should be. “What can I do for you today, Lord? I’ll gladly do it.” You want me to go on this mission trip? Done. You want me to step outside my comfort zone and serve you in this church? Done. You want me to witness to my friends and invite them to church? Done. You want me to tithe? Done. You want me to give up these sinful behaviors and trust in you more and more? Done.” These things aren’t hard… not really. Not if we’re in love with Jesus.

This is why, for example, in Revelation Chapter 2, when Jesus writes the letter to the church at Ephesus, he says, “But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.”

Oh, brothers and sisters, has this happened to you? Some of you remember the way you used to love Jesus—you were in love with him… at first. You would do anything he asked. But somehow life got in the way. Life crowded Jesus out. Other things became a higher priority. And you lost the love you had at first… He’s inviting you to come back home. [Invitation]

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