New Horizons

The Way of True Happiness: A Meditation on the First Psalm (Part I)

Geoffrey C. Smith

Psalm 1
1. 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.
2. But his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.
3. He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers.
4. Not so the wicked! They are like chaff that the wind blows away.
5. Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.
6. For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.

All rational people, at the heart of their being, desire to be happy. This desire quietly shapes our thinking, our decision making, and our overall approach to our world. Our own happiness is often the most influential factor in the choices we make throughout life, whether small or great.

True, we may not consciously articulate this desire moment by moment. Yet it is there within us, directing us to those things we believe will make us happy and away from those things we believe will not. Really, is there anyone who does not wish to be happy? Is there anyone who would intentionally seek out misery instead of happiness?

In speaking of happiness, I am not necessarily referring to the ephemeral sort of happiness that bewitches our culture—the temporary feelings of euphoria that accompany a relaxing vacation, the winning of an award, a big promotion at work, or even a wedding. Those who pursue this type of happiness may be compared to a swimmer making his way across a great ocean by swimming from island to island. He leaves one island and, after a marathon swim, makes it to the next, where he finds a small measure of rest and refreshment. At the end of his stay, he once again dives into the ocean for another test of his endurance. His only ambition is to arrive at the next island (wherever that is!), where he will once again enjoy a few moments of relaxation before returning to the water. The islands represent those fleeting moments of pleasure which, according to the prevailing view of happiness in our culture, make the extended periods of emptiness, frustration, and disappointment bearable.

It is one of the great spiritual scandals of our day that many Christians have this very worldly view of happiness. Yet what sort of happiness is revealed to God's people in the Scriptures? Well, it is certainly a deeper and far more meaningful sort of happiness, for it is the "blessedness" of those who have been saved by Jesus Christ.

Therefore, it is an enduring sort of happiness that reaches the Christian in every part of his being. It provides him with a sense of wholeness and inner harmony, because he has been reconciled to his Creator. It provides him with a sense of value and self-worth, because he has been loved by his Redeemer. A Christian isn't cynical or sour about life, because he knows it is worthwhile; he has an abiding sense of purpose and usefulness (even in hardship) because his steps are directed by a caring Providence.

Woven into and through this happiness is an ever-increasing desire for heaven, where Christ is seated in all of his splendor and glory. This is true happiness, and it is the unique possession of the Christian, who has been raised up to new life by the Holy Spirit from the grave of spiritual death. It then becomes the task of the saints to cultivate this happiness by all the means God has provided, and to pursue godly happiness vigorously with all the effort and planning we would normally invest in any endeavor we consider to be important.

In the First Psalm, our heavenly Father wisely instructs us in the pursuit of happiness and spiritual contentment. It is a wisdom psalm; its purpose is to train and instruct the saints. It employs a teaching method common in the Scriptures (think of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16): one individual is set before us as a positive example, in order that we might imitate him; then a second individual is set before us as a warning, that we might not imitate this one.

In other words, if anyone desires true happiness, he must begin by carefully observing the life of this happy man!

As we have already observed, the blessed man is the happy man. Psalm 1 teaches us that his happiness is directly related to—and to a large degree dependent upon—his manner of life. The first notable feature of the happy man is revealed by a contrast between godly and ungodly influences (vss. 1-2). The contrast is not between two forms of companionship. If it were, the second verse would parallel the first with a threefold list of righteous associates.

As it is, Christians who live in a world opposed to God cannot help but come into varying levels of contact with sinners and scoffers (see 1 Cor. 5:9-10). In spite of this, they can still resist the influence of the ungodly by shutting their ears to the prevailing philosophies, moral standards, and general values of the culture. The happy man, therefore, is careful to protect himself from ungodly influences.

In other words, the true Christian refuses to permit the cultural consensus to shape his thinking. "If the wicked continually offend God while the scoffers mock his holy law, why should I adopt their worldview or their ethics?" he asks. So he avoids like a contagious disease the predominate beliefs of the world and turns all of his attention to God, who has made himself known in his Word.

Significantly, the happy man doesn't devote himself to God's Word out of slavish duty or superstitious fear. The study of God's Word is not a miserable burden to him, but the source of great delight. He finds pleasure in God's Word, so much so that he cannot get enough of it (making it perhaps the only addiction the Lord permits!). Therefore, he meditates on it during all of his waking hours.

Now for some, the very word meditation conjures up the imagery of an Eastern religion: while spicy incense fills the air, the mysterious word om is monotonously chanted. The more secular practitioners of this form of meditation attempt to achieve a high level of relaxation by suspending their mental processes ("Turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream," was John Lennon's description).

But the Old Testament version of meditation is entirely different: the mind is fully engaged as a believer considers, ponders, wrestles with, mulls over, and generally occupies his thoughts with God's Word. To put it another way, with attention properly focused and the heart ready for scrutiny, the Christian talks to himself about the Scriptures.

The Christian practice of meditating on Scripture, though somewhat rare in our day, was considered by earlier generations of Christians to be a primary means of spiritual growth and edification. One minister compared it to a cow chewing her cud!

Recently, J. I. Packer has attempted to promote a revival of this "holy habit." In his book entitled A Quest for Godliness (Crossway Books, 1990), he describes how the practice of meditation was modeled on the sermon. Privately, alone with God's Word and Spirit, the meditating Christian would attempt: (1) to search and challenge his own heart, (2) to stir up his affections to hate sin and love righteousness, and (3) to encourage himself with God's promises (p. 24).

Packer correctly notes: "The healthy Christian is not necessarily the extrovert, ebullient Christian, but the Christian who has a sense of God's presence stamped deep on his soul, who trembles at God's Word, who lets it dwell in him richly by constant meditation upon it, and who tests and reforms his life daily in response to it" (p. 116).

The Christian must not stop here, content with the superior moral system revealed in Scripture. The happy man meditates on Scripture day and night because he discovers God himself in it! Christian meditation is not simply pondering a code of ethics (however valuable this might be). It is much more! In fact, it is vital communion with God himself. In other words, the truly happy man is happy in God! As the Psalms elsewhere say,

Blessed are they whose ways are blameless, who walk according to the law of the Lord. Blessed are they who keep his statutes and seek him with all their heart. They do nothing wrong; they walk in his ways (Ps. 119:1-3).

I desire to do your will, 0 my God; your law is within my heart (Ps. 40:8). (The Hebrew verb for "desire" is related to the noun "delight" in Psalm 1:2. How appropriate it is that these words are, ultimately, the words of Jesus Christ, who always did what was pleasing to his Father [see Heb. 10:3-10; John 8:29].)

As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, 0 God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God? (Ps. 42:1-2).

Meditation, therefore, is valuable for two reasons. First, it promotes genuine piety in a believer by providing God's rule for living his life (Ps. 119:11). Second, meditation on God's Word enriches a believer's love affair with God! In fact, the former (obedience to commands) has no meaning apart from the latter (love for God). We must not stumble over this: law-keeping, no matter how careful and exact it is, never pleases God if it does not proceed from a heart of love for God. If we forget this, we may begin treating the Bible superstitiously, as if a bare knowledge of its words were sufficient for our happiness and contentment.

The happy man loves the Scripture and meditates on it because, for the duration of his sojourn in this world, it is his only reliable source of the true knowledge of God himself. Authentic meditation, then, is not a mere religious ritual. Rather, it is an expression of intimate fellowship with the living God.

Mr. Smith is the pastor of Parkwoods OPC in Overland Park, Kansas. Reprinted from New Horizons, November 1997.

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