rat race

A sermon by Rev Richard Keith on Happiness in the Book of Proverbs on Sunday 22 July 2018.

Adam was walking in the garden of Eden and cried out to God, “You used to walk with me every day. Now I do not see you anymore. I’m lonely here, and it is difficult for me to remember how much you love me.”

And God said, “I will create a companion for you that will be with you forever. He will be a reflection of my love for you, so that you will love me even when you cannot see me. Regardless of how selfish or childish or unlovable you may be, this new companion will accept you as you are and will love you as I do, in spite of yourself.”

And God created a new animal to be a companion for Adam. And it was a good animal. And God was pleased. And the new animal was pleased to be with Adam and he wagged his tail.

And Adam said, “Lord, I have already named all the animals in the garden and I cannot think of a name for this new animal.”

And God said, “Because I have created this new animal to be a reflection of my love for you, his name will be a reflection of my own name, and you will call him Dog.”

And Dog lived with Adam and was a companion to him and loved him. And Adam was comforted. And God was pleased. And the Dog wagged his tail.

After a while, it came to pass that an angel came to the Lord and said, “Lord, Adam has become filled with pride. He struts about like a peacock thinking that he deserves Dog’s adoration. Dog has taught him that he is loved, but perhaps too well.”

And the Lord said, “I will create for him a companion who will be with him forever and who will see him as he is. The companion will remind him of his limitations, so he will know that he is not always worthy of adoration.”

And God created Cat to be a companion to Adam. And Cat would not obey Adam and he would not come when he was called. And when Adam looked into Cat’s eyes, he remembered that he was not the supreme being. And Adam learned humility. God was pleased. The Dog wagged his tail. And the Cat couldn’t have cared less.

I told this joke for two reasons. Firstly, because this morning we are talking about the pursuit of happiness and I wanted to cheer you up. But secondly, because American politician William Bennett once said,

Happiness is like a cat. If you try to coax it or call it, it will avoid you, it will never come. But if you pay no attention to it and go about your business, you’ll find it rubbing against your legs and jumping into your lap.

This is a brief description of what is called the pleasure paradox. The harder we try to be happy, the less happy we will be. When we focus on pleasure, when we do the things we do, when we buy the things we buy in order to be happy, when we chase after happiness with all our heart and soul, the faster it runs away from us. Happiness comes when we stop focusing on it, and focus instead on other things for their own sake. It is only when we stop thinking of ourselves, and about our own feelings, it is only when we stop pursuing happiness that happiness finds us instead.

I say this, not as an expert on being happy, but as an expert on wanting to be happy. But it is only when the wanting stops that happiness starts.

We want to be happy because so many things erode our hope, like ocean waves slowly but surely undermining the face of a cliff. Grief. Hopelessness. Hatred. Disappointment. Injustice. Strife and oppression. Proverbs chapter 13 says,

A hope deferred makes the heart sick.

Chapter 29 says,

When the righteous thrive, the people rejoice; when the wicked rule, the people groan.

Chapter 14 verse 13 is particularly sobering,

Even in laughter the heart may ache, and joy may end in grief.

Testifying that happiness can be elusive and temporary and fragile to the misfortunes of life. Life can be hard enough with a head ache or an ache in our back. But misfortune can cause heartache. An ache that cannot be fixed with medicine or by surgery, but a pain in the soul that can crush the spirit.

Unhappiness should not be underestimated. Misery can be dangerous. It makes our suffering worse. If we are sick it can make getting well take longer. And it can mess with our heads so that we don’t know what to do or how to feel.

Proverbs chapter 17 verse 22 reminds us of what is at stake.

A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.

Much is made of breast cancer and prostate cancer, but unhappiness is a cancer on the soul.

And yet Proverbs observes that many things make us happy. Justice. Good advice. Hope. Peace. Wise children. And the right word at the right time. Chapter 15 says,

A man finds joy in giving an apt reply and how good is a timely word.

We looked a few weeks ago at the power of words. Words can make us happy, because they can change the way we think. Nothing else may be different. The same problems, the same misfortunes can confront us, but changing the way we think about them can change the way we feel about them. And a positive frame of mind can be the first step towards solving our problems.

Chapter 27 says,

Perfume and incense bring joy to the heart and the pleasantness of one’s friend springs from his earnest counsel.

Good advice, of course, is a kind of timely word that we just mentioned from chapter 15. But the thing about good advice is that it doesn’t always feel pleasant at the time we hear it. Our friend may have something to say to us that we don’t want to hear. There might be some bad attitude or bad habit or wrong behaviour that we have to change but don’t want to. The pleasantness of our friend’s earnest counsel, however, is proved by the results of taking it. Like medicine it may taste bitter in our mouth, but be like honey for our souls.

There are, of course, some inappropriate ways that people look for happiness. The book of Proverbs mentions: delighting in wickedness, over indulging in alcohol, visiting prostitutes, gloating over an enemy’s downfall, sharing one’s own opinion, and foolishness. Proverbs chapter 18 says,

A fool finds no pleasure in understanding, but delights in airing his own opinions.

Chapter 24 warns,

Do no gloat when your enemy falls, when he stumbles, do not let your heart rejoice, or the Lord will see and disapprove and turn his wrath away from him.

Certainly, there is pleasure to be found in indulging in sin. If it didn’t make us feel good, no one would want to do it. But the pleasure of sin is like the warming effects of brandy.

Saint Bernard dogs were used in the 17 and 1800s to rescue people in the Swiss Alps caught in avalanches. In popular culture the dogs are thought to have carried barrels of brandy around their necks. The brandy was thought to have warmed the people who were suffering from hypothermia. And brandy does make you feel warm. And giving brandy to someone suffering from hypothermia, from dangerous levels of cold, would make them feel warm right up until the moment they suddenly froze to death.

You see, we feel cold when we are cold because the body stops sending blood to our extremities, to our hands and feet and to the face to protect ourselves from losing heat. We feel cold, but the body is trying to keep what heat it has. Drinking alcohol like brandy, however, opens up the blood vessels, sending the heat carrying blood back to the hands, feet and face. This results in a lovely warm feeling as well as catastrophic heat loss. Giving brandy to a person caught in an avalanche would make them feel good for five minutes and then they would die.

This is what the pleasures of sin are like. They make us feel good for a moment, but they lead us away from God who is our Creator and our Father in heaven, who is the only true source of lasting happiness and life. They feel like the spice of life, but they are actually the entrée to death. It should not surprise us, then, that the book of Proverbs teaches that the greatest happiness comes from wisdom. From hearing wisdom. From learning wisdom. From applying wisdom to our lives. Proverbs chapter 3 says,

Blessed is the man who finds wisdom, the man who gains understanding, for she is more profitable than silver and yields better returns than gold. She is more precious than rubies; nothing you desire can compare with her. Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honour. Her ways are pleasant ways, and all her paths are peace. She is a tree of life to those who embrace her; those who lay hold of her will be blessed.

In chapter 8 wisdom itself says,

Now then, my sons, listen to me; blessed are those who keep my ways. Listen to my instruction and be wise; do not ignore it. Blessed is the man who listens to me, watching daily at my doors, waiting at my doorway. For whoever finds me finds life and receives favour from the LORD. But whoever fails to find me harms himself; all who hate me love death.

Sin is life denying. Sin is life destroying. Wisdom is life affirming. Wisdom is life creating, because by wisdom God made all things, and by wisdom we find the pathway to knowing God, to loving him and to serving him. Wisdom is a tree of life. Not a winter weed that is here today and gone tomorrow. But a tree that produces a harvest of blessing every season year after year.

For this reason, Proverbs chapter 24 says,

Eat honey, my son, for it is good; honey from the comb is sweet to your taste. Know also that wisdom is sweet to your soul; if you find it, there is a future hope for you, and your hope will not be cut off.

This is perhaps the greatest blessing of wisdom. It gives a hope, an assurance of future happiness that cannot be undermined by present misfortune or suffering. Because wisdom reveals to us the will of the eternal God, who is the beginning and the end. The creator and judge of all things. Who made the world for a purpose, and whose purpose will stand forever.

So who is it who is really happy? Who is it who is truly blessed? It is not those who chase after pleasure, who look for it in a brothel or in the bottom of a bottle. It is not those who cheer for their favourite team and bask in their victory in the grand final. It is not those who experience success in family or in business. Who is happy? Who is blessed?

The Lord Jesus said,

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

The sad thing is that it is often our own selfishness that stands between us and our happiness. We fill our lives with so many good things and we look around and ask ourselves, “Am I happy yet?” and it is the first step to being miserable. The surprising thing is that it is not until we lose ourselves in something more important than ourselves, in something that really matters in something that will last forever that we will be happy. True happiness is found in the true and living God. Those who trust him, who fear him, who serve him are blessed, though they may not have a lot of money. They may not have a big family or be elected to hold office in politics. They may not own their own business, or have a cupboard full of trophies. But they know the true and living God. In his service they find true freedom. And in the cross of his Son they find true life. They may never pursue it, but true and lasting happiness will find them.