Happiness in the Psalms

King David, Westminster Psalter

King David, Westminster Psalter

The next line of our Psalm proclaims, “Your goodness is before my eyes.” This goodness is the key to everything else.

It is what we must above all keep before our eyes. Thus the longer line is, “Examine me, Lord, and test me; explore my kidneys and my heart, for your goodness is before my eyes.” What we are ultimately “tested” on is our correspondence to God’s goodness.

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God is, of course, good, supremely good. To say that he is the source of all that is good is true, but falls short, because every other good shares only an infinitely tiny share in his goodness. Whatever it is that makes those things good, he possesses infinitely more.

This truth points two directions. On the one hand, it means God is far better. There is some truth in thinking of our life as a kind of competition between God and other goods, a constant temptation to let other goods replace his supreme goodness.

But on the other hand, by itself, that formulation misses what it means to call God the ultimate good; it does not keep his goodness before our eyes. God’s goodness doesn’t conquer other goodnesses, doesn’t take them away, or make us hate them. God’s goodness fulfills all of those other goods, and so ultimately affirms them. God’s goodness is before our eyes precisely in the goodness of everything else we experience.

To say God is good is to say that he fulfills our real desires.

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This is the framework for thinking about happiness. God is our happiness. All other happiness finds its fulfillment in God.

That sounds a little frivolous; there are some Christian authors who vigorously oppose talk about happiness, because it sounds too light. There is truth in what they say. The happiness that God gives us – you can call it “joy,” if it makes you feel better – is so infinitely deeper than all other happiness that it seems frivolous to compare them.

And to attain that happiness, indeed, requires setting aside lesser happinesses. To say that God is happiness doesn’t mean you can just watch cartoons all morning. To the contrary, it means God is so good that he’s worth dying on the cross for.

Nonetheless, to give up on the idea of God making us happy would mean giving up, too, on God’s goodness. To say he is good doesn’t mean that he replaces the good. It means he fulfills it. It means that whatever it is that makes cartoons (or steaks, or beautiful summer days, or friendship) so wonderful is precisely what he gives us.

We must keep this goodness before our eyes. We must recognize that all those goodnesses are precisely what God is – but he is infinitely more.

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I heard a kind of riddle recently. A devout man said, “God made T-bone steaks for Christians. To enjoy them truly is to enjoy them the way a Christian enjoys them.”

To say he made them for Christians does not mean we can set our faith aside in enjoying them. It means – somehow: this is a kind of riddle! – we can only truly enjoy them by seeing how our love of God illuminates that enjoyment.

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The happiness that God brings is the ultimate backdrop against which we must understand everything else in the Psalms.

Why do we do battle? Truly, for nothing but happiness. The good king is not a tyrant, who makes us do what is good for him but not good for us. The good king rules us for our own good. He calls us to battle to achieve not his happiness, but ours.

God is supremely happy. Nothing can hurt him. But much can hurt us. That’s why we have to struggle: to achieve the true good, to reach that which alone can satisfy the high dignity of the human person.

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Happiness is the reason we care about justice. Justice is no more nor less than seeing the goodness of things as God made them: neither undervaluing nor overvaluing the things of this world, but keeping God’s goodness before our eyes in all things.

Justice is a realism that takes us out of ourselves and into the world that God gives us. It is simply treating things right.

But the reason for justice is to discover God’s goodness behind the goodness of this world.

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And our happiness in God’s goodness is what makes our kidneys (and heart) important: because ultimately, all that matters is to have our whole being focused on his goodness, to find our happiness in him.

Think of a couple areas in your life in which you fail to see God as good.

Click here for the rest of the series on praying with the Psalms.

eric.m.johnston

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