The Quest for Happiness

Yesterday I listened to a podcast of a psychologist’s lecture to the people at Google. Google is in the business of giving people choices. Thousands upon thousands of hits per second, for every search term you type in. What psychology has found is that happiness does not increase in proportion to choice. In fact the opposite. Too many choices often lead to paralysis, people making no choice at all or being unsatisfied with the choice they made, because they gave up so many other “good” choices. Of course, having no choices is bad, but having too many choices can be just as bad. Happiness is to have choices, but not too many.

Today’s psalm seems to be about just that conundrum. Happiness  verses choices. Psalm 1 is one of the wisdom psalms. Psalm means song, and there are 150 of them in the Bible. (Two of them were actually cut in half to make the number round, e.g. 42 and 43 are really one.). The psalms are like the hymn book of the Bible. They contain songs of praise (e.g. 103, “Bless the Lord, O my soul”), and prayers for help or of complaint (e.g. 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me”). There are also psalms of instruction, or wisdom (e.g. Psalm 1), which often take the form of contrasting two paths, or two kinds of people, e.g. the righteous and the wicked. All the psalms are poetry, that is they are written in a structured verse form.

Psalm 1 is very clearly structured: It begins with three parallel lines describing the “happy person” (NRSV uses the gender neutral plural “they”).

Happy are those
    who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
    or sit in the seat of scoffers;

In Hebrew poetry there is often repetition or progression of ideas or expressions. Here it is “follow – take – sit”, as well as “wicked – sinners – scoffers”. Each consecutive line strengthens the previous one. The same thing happens in verse 3. After contrasting the righteous person as someone who delights in the law of the Lord, rather than the advice of the wicked, it describes them as

    planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
    and their leaves do not wither.

Again, there is a threefold description: “planted by streams of water – yielding fruit – leaves not withering.” Switching from tree-metaphor to real life, the fourth line states: “In all that they do, they prosper.”

The Psalms are found in the center of the Bible and have always formed a very central place in the church’s devotional and worship life. The line in verse 2 of Psalm 1 says that the righteous “meditate on his law day and night”. In the middle ages monks used to recite all 150 psalms daily, literally meditating on them day and night! The law of the LORD here may refer to the Torah in the strict sense of the first five books of the Bible, or in the wider sense of all of scripture, including the Psalms. Jews and Christians have usually taken it to mean the latter. Many Christians still pray the psalms, using one or several of them daily. I like the idea of taking time with scripture, not rushing through it. Meditation to me means to ponder the meaning, putting some effort into understanding a word, a verse, or a passage, doing a little research, but also some soul searching. Perhaps  we could begin with today’s psalm.

Who have I taken advice from and was it good advice?  Did it make me happy?

Where have I been mislead, and where have I misled others?

How often have I sat with the scoffers, like an armchair politician, degrading others with unkind thoughts or words?

What gives me delight, happiness, blessing, life, and purpose?

What are the real, important choices among all the trivial ones I make today?


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Heart Burn

My name is Markus Wilhelm. I`m a pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada. I live in Edmonton, Alberta, and serve Glory Lutheran Church in Sherwood Park. I was asked a few months ago what, in a sentence, my greatest hope is for our congregation. I spontaneously answered, I hope we will become well acquainted with the Bible. I grew up eight kilometers from Wittenberg, where Martin Luther worked most of his life. My family emigrated to Canada in 1979, ten years before the Iron Curtain fell. Theology runs in the family, going back several generations on both my father's and my mother's side. After attending college in Canada, I studied theology in Tuebingen, and was ordained in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada in 1992. I have served in congregations in British Columbia and Alberta.

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