You know a song is more than ordinary when it speaks to people of all ages, goes viral on Youtube, and steals the show from pop-media icons at professional sporting events. The song that was never supposed to be released as a single has taken on a life of its own because of its message as much as its melody.
“Clap along, if you feel like happiness is the truth. / Clap along, if you know what happiness is to you.” The song is “Happy,” by Pharrell Williams. It could have accompanied the procession as Jesus led the crowd up the mountain at the beginning of his ministry, when he laid out a new way for how to live a full and abundant – and happy – life.
Like Moses went up a mountain to give people the Ten Commandments to guide their living, Jesus goes up a mountain to deliver a new law of life. And while the first law came in thunder and lightning and thick darkness, Jesus begins the new law with a list of blessings. The Greek word is makarios, “happy.”
Jesus begins his most popular sermon with a list of eight conditions in which God blesses us, eight conditions of life in which we can have the happiness only God can give. We know the list as the Beatitudes, and today I want to look at the first of them. “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matt.5:3), or as other translations put it, God blesses those “who realize their need of him”; “who recognize they are spiritually helpless”; “who depend only on him”; “who know they have great spiritual needs.”
The mythical giant Antaeus was invincible in combat as long as he remained in touch with his mother, Earth. Hercules was able to defeat him by holding him aloft so he lost contact with Earth. We need to recognize our need for staying in touch with God, like Antaeus needed to stay in touch with Earth. We need to remember our roots in God, through which we draw life and blessing and eternal happiness.
I believe God wants to bless me and make me happy, not superficially but deeply happy. I believe God intends blessing and happiness for you, too. If I’m not feeling blessed, if I’m not feeling deeply happy, the problem is not with God; it’s with me. How do I cultivate a dependence upon God that channels blessings and happiness through me? Here are three key ways to depend upon God that my faith and living have taught me.
First, I depend on God’s wisdom, not mine. When I think I know what’s best for my life, and act on it without consulting God, it usually leads to trouble or disappointment. God invites me to give up my ways of thinking that lead to brokenness and unhappiness. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts,” God says, “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts” (Isa. 55:8-9).
God has a better way, rules for living that are not meant to be restrictive or punitive. They’re meant to guide us toward blessing and happiness, and I need to depend on the divine wisdom behind those guides for living. And I’ve discovered what people of deep wisdom have known for generations, that there are two infallible ways for doing that. I need to pray, and I need to study the scriptures.
Prayer is not simply making requests to God, hoping God will grant those requests. Prayer is listening to God in the context of life that prompts those requests and responding in a vital relationship. Prayer is lowering our defenses; removing the cultural filters that limit what gets into our consciousness; opening ourselves more deeply than we’re comfortable with; and allowing a largely unknown God to enter our lives on God’s terms, not ours.
I can’t do that by myself. My defenses and blindness prevent it. So I need others to pray with me, others who are willing to be self-exposed and vulnerable with me, with whom I can be mutually accountable for deep honesty and unfettered responsiveness. In addition to the time I spend in prayer in my room in secret (Matt. 6:6), it’s important to pray in a small group of trusted friends.
And I need, as John Wesley put it, to diligently search the scriptures and other sacred writings to assimilate God’s word and let its meaning spread into every part of me and every aspect of my living. Like prayer, I need to do it in the solitude of my room and in the company of others. It’s not important how much of the scriptures I get through; what’s important is how much the scriptures get through me, and I need the mutual insight and accountability of shared study for that.
Second, I depend on God’s strength, not mine. Hudson Taylor was a nineteenth-century missionary to China, a spiritual giant and one of the most famous Christians of his age. In his later years his health failed, and he became very weak. In a letter to a friend, he wrote: “I am so weak I can no longer work. I am so weak I can no longer study. I am so weak I can no longer read my Bible. I cannot even pray. I can only lie still in the arms of God like a little child in trust.”
When Saint Paul prayed about some affliction that tormented and depressed him, he heard God reply, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” “Therefore,” Paul wrote, “whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:9-10).
There’s nothing like being appointed the spiritual leader of a congregation to make you feel weak, especially when ninety percent of the congregation knows better how their leader ought to function. I’m not smart enough, not diligent enough, not hard-working enough, not faithful enough, not strong enough to do this job. No one is. I have to depend on God’s strength instead of my own. When I am most dependent upon God, then I am strong enough.
That’s the paradox. The weaker you are, the more you have to depend on God. And the more you depend on God, the stronger you get, so you can do anything life requires. You will mount up with wings like eagles, you shall run and not be weary, you shall walk and not faint (Isa. 40:31).
Third, I depend on God’s timing, not mine. The older I get, the more I understand that “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven. God has made everything suitable for its time” (Eccles. 3:1, 11). An older translation reads, “God has made everything beautiful in its time.”
Once when I made a career move from one publishing house to another, I was stymied about which of two job offers to take, and I didn’t feel ready to make a good decision. So I committed myself and my decision to God, and I made the commitment to be open to God wherever my decision would lead. God was quiet about it for nearly three years.
Then it happened. I didn’t come to the decision to go to seminary as much as the decision to go to seminary came to me. I came to my senses and realized it was where God had led me. God had been laying the groundwork all that time, and I didn’t know a thing about it. The time was right – not time by the calendar or by my life’s plan, but the ripeness of time in God’s scheme, when the new thing in my life was to be born.
God is never in a hurry. A thousand years in God’s mind are like a tick of the clock. While we’re going on with our lives, God is working, watching, seeing how and when you will trust God. We’re wondering, “When, Lord? When is it going to happen?” And God is saying, “Don’t judge the outcome by the present moment. What I’m doing in your life? – you can trust me with this.”
Do you want God’s blessing? Do you want the eternal happiness God promises? Remember your roots in the God of all ages and seasons and peoples. Depend upon God totally, so you can say with Mary, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). The kingdom of heaven will be yours.