True happiness

(The second of two posts on Psalm 1.)  I want to be happy.  I can say the same for most of the people I know.  And I sense that I could be happier than I am right at this moment.  But that’s not because I’m particularly un-happy.  It’s just that what we generally call “happiness” seems to be elusive, a moving target.

Think of all the images of happy people given to us by Madison Avenue.  Some of them have to do with the pleasure of being with friends–with the not-too-subtle suggestion that we’d enjoy that even more with the right beer to liven up the party.  Family time can be improved with the right breakfast cereal or microwaveable dinner.  Oh, and don’t forget the sheer delight of enjoying desserts that are “sinfully rich” but low in calories.  The streets of heaven, apparently, will not be paved with gold as previously advertised, but with the kind of chocolate that won’t make you fat.

One thing you won’t see: pictures of people who are happy because they’re righteous in God’s eyes.  Of all the things we might think of that would make us happy, righteousness doesn’t usually make the list.  Certainly not the top ten.

As I suggested in the last post, Psalm 1, the poem that sets the stage for the entire collection, puts a choice in front of us: will we walk in the way of the righteous, or of the wicked?  The implication is that there is a way that is right in God’s sight, an unpopular idea in a world that prefers moral relativism.

And the corollary to that idea is this: true happiness is found only in following that way.  Here again is the first half of the psalm, this time in the NIV:

Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers, but whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law day and night.  That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither—whatever they do prospers.  (Psalm 1:1-3, NIV)

“Blessed.”  It’s not a word we use much; it sounds too archaic, too preachy.  That’s why some contemporary translations speak of happiness (CEB) or joy (NLT) instead.  Eugene Peterson even renders it “How well God must like you”–which suggests rightly that blessedness has to do with God’s favor (though I confess that Peterson’s way of putting it sounds a tad sarcastic to my ears).

But the CEB doesn’t just speak of happiness, it speaks of true happiness–the real McCoy, the happiness that comes from aligning ourselves with the truth, with the way things really are rather than the way we might like them to be.

Or perhaps it would be better to say “the way things should be” in a world not twisted by sin.  The stark and simple faith of Psalm 1 has to sit in creative tension with a wealth of psalms that cry out to God precisely because it is the wicked, and not the righteous, who seem to thrive.

In that way, the psalm may be read as an invitation to faithfulness, motivated by the image of flourishing fruitfulness–a tree, deeply and firmly rooted by an abundant source of life-giving water, bearing fruit for the hungry and providing shade for the weary.

That faithfulness is nourished by meditation on God’s law.  Our contemporary understanding of “law” doesn’t quite capture what the psalmist means here; Torah has the more general sense of being wise instruction for anyone who wishes to follow God’s path.  Thus, Robert Alter translates the description of the righteous person this way: “But the Lord’s teaching is his desire, and His teaching he murmurs day and night.”  Those who choose God’s ways take delight in his instruction, repeating it day and night until it works its way deeply into the soul’s imagination.

I believe that God wants me to be happy.  But he wants me to be truly happy, happy his way.  This is not some thinly conceived “prosperity gospel,” but the far more radical and countercultural idea that true happiness is found only in a life lived according to his precepts.

It will take spiritual discipline to nurture that faith.