If there is a motto for America, it is simply this: Pursue happiness. It’s sometimes rephrased as “follow your heart” or “follow your dreams,” but the idea is the same. Meaning and direction for life come from within and particularly from our desires.
How different then from American culture — how foreign, how odd, how holy — is it to base a life off of God’s desires for us instead of our own desires. How alien to base a life off of God’s commands and not our own impulses.
Psalm 119 is our greatest expression of a desire to desire differently. It immerses our personal human longings in the longings of God. It resolutely reorients our lives to God’s words, God’s commands, God’s precepts, God’s statutes. It is emphatically unAmerican.
Today, I’d like to spend a little time in the eight verses in Psalm 119 which start with the Hebrew letter he (pronounced “hey”), verses 33-40, to let them reorient our lives toward God and the way he has laid out for us.
Teach me, Lord, the way of your decrees,
that I may follow it to the end.
What God has for us is a way, a path, a road. It only makes sense by following it to its end, just as it would make no sense to drive halfway to your house. Yes, there might be nice scenery along the way, but a part-way journey has no meaning. It gets us nowhere.
Kinda listening to God. Kinda being taught by him. Kinda following his decrees. That leads to a kinda life, not a full life. And the goal of God’s decrees is life to the full.
Give me understanding, so that I may keep your law
and obey it with all my heart.
The mind and the heart find unity in obedience, not in throwing off restraints. But over and over again in every kind of movie and novel and song, we’re trained in the way of rebellion. Raised in a country founded on throwing off the rule of a faraway king, it’s not wonder we’re so well-versed at throwing off the rule of the great King.
But throwing off God’s Kingship merely leads to a fragmented life. For none of us is ruled by a single internal passion, but when we give in to one of them, we find there a legion others with voices and commands of their own. Only by obeying the single voice of the One God do we regain a unity to ourselves.
Direct me in the path of your commands,
for there I find delight.
Contrary to popular opinion, the path of God’s commands isn’t devoid of pleasure. And yet advertisers have tapped into this thought that God hates pleasure by referring to an exquisite dessert as “sinfully delicious.”
On the contrary, we discover the path of God’s commands is actually where we find delight. This road isn’t just a trudge. God isn’t a kill-joy. He is the Father of Delights. He invented pleasure. All good gifts come from his hands. It’s when we grab and steal pleasures that are outside of God’s best for us that we end up with a hangover and an empty heart. Those sinfully delicious desserts taste good going down, but their pleasures never last (though the extra inch on the waistline is remarkably lasting).
Turn my heart toward your statutes
and not toward selfish gain.
My heart always bends toward the selfish. But living the Me-centered life is living the smallest life possible, for it crushes everything down to Me-size. God’s statutes always pull me out of myself, turning me outward to God and others in love. And the love-shaped life is a God-sized life. In includes the whole world and more.
Turn my eyes away from worthless things;
preserve my life according to your word.
The things that dazzle my eyes and lure my heart, calling me to pursue them, always disappoint. Always. None fulfills its implied promise to satisfy. Instead, each grasp for the thing I covet leads me into some form of slavery and death. God’s statutes preserve my life.
Fulfill your promise to your servant,
so that you may be feared.
God says, “Lean toward me that I might lean toward you.”
The fear of the Lord isn’t being afraid of God. It’s leaning toward God. It’s considering God in any and every situation. It’s seeing the world through God glasses.
When we lean toward God, we find him right there, leaning toward us.
Take away the disgrace I dread,
for your laws are good.
There is no disgrace, no shame for those who live according to God’s laws. His laws are good and lead to the good life — a life that we ourselves experience as good and a life where goodness is extended to others. This good life ensures a good reputation.
This good life according to God’s laws is a life without secrets, a life without hiding. It has nothing in the closet to keep hidden, no shame it fears being exposed. It is one, true, congruent life that is the same inside and out.
How I long for your precepts!
In your righteousness preserve my life.
Living this different kind of life says to God, “As I grab ahold of you, grab ahold of me. As I give myself in love for you, give yourself in love for me — and in that love, save me!”
A life lived like this, according to Psalm 119, doesn’t make a person proud by what he or she has accomplished. Rather, it makes a person humble. This isn’t the life I’ve figured out, the life I’ve crafted for myself. This is the life I’ve received. This is the life God figured out and crafted. I just get to enjoy the gift.
Pursuing happiness is an endless and frustrating pursuit. For happiness is never achieved. Never. But the pursuit of God and the following of his good ways is a fulfilling pursuit. For God is here with us every step of the way, always within reach. Always.
And beyond the hollow happinesses our culture tells us to pursue, our God offers real, deep, and eternal joy. What our culture calls slavery turns out to be a beautiful freedom.