Instructions for Life

The_Pursuit_of_Happiness.png“All that is gold does not glitter,

Not all those who wander are lost;

The old that is strong does not wither,

Deep roots are not reached by the frost.”

~ J.R.R. Tolkien


We began our investigation two weeks ago into the question of lasting happiness. The young may find this silly as the promises of happiness are everywhere, but the rest of us know that a fulfilled life is not so easy as we once believed.

To escape the false promises of our own time, we are looking for wisdom in the ancient book of Psalms. The very first Psalm cuts straight to the issue of happiness with the word “blessed.” Take a moment to think about what this word means. What sort of images does it conjure in your imagination?

“Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked,
Nor stand in the path of sinners,
Nor sit in the seat of scoffers!”

Straightaway we have our first piece of advice, and it comes in the form of a caution. “IfWhen It Comes to Happiness you are looking for blessedness,” it implies, “first, you must remember to avoid the following.” Now, what sort of advice is this? What about “follow your heart” or “find your true self”? The ancient lesson here, as valid now as it was then, is this:

When it comes to happiness, avoiding bad decisions is just as important as making good ones. 

Imagine your parents handing you a map as a child. “You are here,” they say as they point to a dot. “Where am I going?” you ask. “That is up to you” they reply. “Just work hard, and follow your dreams.”

This is the circumstance in which many find themselves today. With few, if any, directions and no finish line. So we wander from one thing to another, following - along with our friends - into the relational and financial traps with which nobody warned us. Before long, we are consumed with the wreckage of life, instead of what we had once dreamed of achieving. Could not the whole mess have been avoided if we had been given some instructions to follow? 

It is with good reason the Psalms begin with a warning. Let us remember this warning is not to keep us from happiness; its intention is the opposite of that. “All that is gold does not glitter.”

The Psalm continues:

“But his delight is in the law of the Lord; and in His law he meditates day and night.
He will be like a tree firmly planted by streams of water,
Which yields its fruit in season
And its leaf does not wither;
And in whatever he does, he prospers.
The wicked are not so,
But they are like chaff which the wind drives away.”

The second piece of advice given is to “delight in the law of the Lord.” This is after avoiding the path of unhappiness discussed last week. The law cannot be just a set of restrictive rules and regulations – who would “delight” in that? The Hebrew word here, towrah, is also translated “instruction.”  Could this be the instruction we were looking for?

Notice the contrast between the two types:

The blessed man delights in the Lord’s instruction. He is like a tree firmly planted by streams of water. The circumstances do not matter. Rain or not, he has the sustenance he needs to survive. He produces fruit when the time comes, remains healthy throughout, and prospers in all that he does.  

What is the alternative? The other man is like chaff (the empty grain shells which are separated by threshing), driven wherever the wind takes him. No roots. No lasting sustenance. No fruit. No instruction.

The contrast is purposefully stark. The question is, to which of the two extremes do you lean?

Let us get back briefly to this issue of the “law of the Lord,” or instruction if you like. The Ten Commandments are perhaps the most well-known summary of the Lord’s life instructions, but the law was summed up even more succinctly by Jesus himself.

When asked by a law expert “Which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus claimed the first and greatest commandment was to love God, and the second was to love your neighbor as yourself. According to Jesus, “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments (Matthew 22:40).”

This is what makes the law of the Lord something we can delight in. It teaches us how to have deep and loving relationships and to avoid the traps of self-centeredness and isolation.  

Love God and love your neighbor is a tall order, so this week let us just take the a step:

  • Spend some time thinking about ways in which you have been unloving
  • Decide to stop doing some of those things.

Perhaps you might even find yourself feeling a bit happier.


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Keywords: Instructions for Life