Summary: True happiness comes not from seeking our own happiness but from seeking the happiness of others.
The Endless Pursuit of Happiness
I don’t know how many of you have read the American Declaration of Independence, but it says this: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” This document tells us that human beings have the right to pursue happiness—and this seems to make sense, doesn’t it? Most of us don’t want to keep others from being happy and most of resent it when it seems like others are doing this to us.
But what sticks out to me here is that happiness is something we pursue. I am responsible for my own happiness. And in our culture this is how we think, isn’t it? And of course in our culture, most people believe that happiness comes with success, good health, a family life, and money and possessions. The American Dream, which people often think of as financial success, continues to be just a dream—no amount of hard, honest work appears to pay off in the end. And even when it seems to pay off with wealth and success, there is no guarantee that we’ll be happy.
If all of this is true, then we have to ask ourselves this question: what is happiness anyway? If having all that I want—money, success, family, health—doesn’t bring lasting happiness, what does? Is it possible to be truly happy? Why do so many people find happiness elusive? To answer these questions, we have Psalm 128, a psalm about happiness, the kind of person who knows happiness, and what happiness looks like.
“The Lord bless you . . .”
Our psalm begins with the line “Happy is everyone who fears the Lord, who walks in his ways.” We can also say “blessed is everyone.” The Hebrew word that begins Psalm 128 can be translated either way. So in biblical terms, happiness and blessedness is the same thing; to be happy is to be blessed, and to be blessed is to be happy. Now when you think of the word “happy” in our culture we often think of this word in terms of what I have to do to “get” happiness. If someone asks you if you’re happy, you might feel guilty, as though you realize you’re not doing enough to get this happiness that some people say you have a right to pursue. Or maybe you feel like you have tried and no matter how much you’ve pursued happiness, it’s eluded you. Some people, of course, never stop trying; other give up and resign themselves to unhappiness, thinking there’s nothing they can do to make themselves happy. And these last people are right. There is nothing we can do.
Think of the other word, “blessed.” Most of us would admit that whatever being blessed means that none of us can bless ourselves. Our church vocabulary conditions us to think of blessing as something we do for others—be it blessing God in worship and by blessing others through our service. The word suggests that being blessed is precisely not something that I can do for myself. It sounds instead suspiciously like something done for us and to us. If this is true, and I can’t find happiness and blessedness on my own, how can I find it?