Today I want to look at what it means to be truly happy by being right with God. I’ve always been suspicious when people talk to me about having a happy day. When I was in junior high school there was a girl in my class who had severe mood swings. The first thing she would do when she came in in the mornings was to announce whether or not this was going to be a good day. She’d say, “I’m really feeling UP today, this is going to be a good day!” or she’d say, “This is going to be one of THOSE days” and her hair would be disheveled and she’d be dropping books and straightening her skirt. I knew there had to be more to happiness then the color of a 50 cent mood ring. When I was that age, happiness was being left alone by people who wanted to talk to me about their being happy.
I want to begin by saying with confidence that God did not create human beings to be depressed, broken, frail, miserable people. There have been times in my life where I believed so adamantly in my fear, doubt, and shame that nothing anyone could tell me, truth or not, was going to change me. The only thing I knew for certain was that everything I thought was true didn’t work for me. I started living a double life. The life people saw on the outside, a young man working full time in ministry, a humble servant, was not truly who I was. From about 1995 up until 2008, over all I guess a period of about 13 years, I tried to reinvent myself and start over again and again and again. No amount of “I’m sorries, let me start over” made any difference. Sometimes I really felt like I was doing good. Some days I was really up. But then I would mysteriously break off and turn my back on God in crazy ways and it was clear to everyone who knew me that I was really down.
I am so happy today to tell you that I never have to live that way again! And if in any way that’s been your experience that is not what God wants for you either. The beginning of the BLESSED life, a truly happy life, comes in being a beggar. WHAT?!! Why a beggar? Now I know, these days in our town beggars aren’t really poor they’re just all drug addicts, right? That’s what some will tell you. Whether or not begging has fallen out of favor in America, Jesus says that to begin the truly blessed life it takes being poor in spirit. Some might say, “Oh you mean HUMBLE.” But don’t jump to conclusions.
Humility is not something we all have, or easily get. Think about all the things people say about poverty.
“Poverty is a result of ignorance.”
“Poverty is the result of lack of opportunity.”
“It’s a result of the dissolution of family.”
“It’s a result of a lack of good work to do.”
Well, this is what humility is like. It is more of a state of recognition rather than some virtuous character trait. It is the recognition that compared to God, I am ignorant, without opportunity, without support, and I have no way to change this. That is what I mean by humility and being a beggar in spirit. My happiness is completely contingent upon who God is. And this is only the beginning.
The Psalmist speaks of what God does, “The works of his hands are faithful and just; all his precepts are trustworthy. They are established for ever and ever, enacted in faithfulness and uprightness. He provided redemption for his people; he ordained his covenant forever—holy and awesome is his name. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all who follow his precepts have good understanding. To him belongs eternal praise.” (Psalm 111:7-10, NIV)
With very few words, thirteen of them, Jesus tells us who we are in him and what we can be certain of. It is as though he renews the whole world by the words of his mouth. He is the Word of Life. He was there at creation, and so why not?
“Blessed are ( happy, to be envied, and spiritually prosperous—with life-joy and satisfaction in God’s favor and salvation, regardless of their outward conditions)
. . . the poor in spirit (the humble, who rate themselves insignificant)
. . . for theirs IS [WITHOUT ANY DOUBT YOU HAVE]
. . . the kingdom of heaven. [God’s Rule, his Way, his Will, here and now]
(Matthew 5:3, Amplified)
The Message by Eugene Peterson puts it this way, “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.” I like that. In my life it took complete and utter defeat for me to recognize how arrogant and selfish I was. I was willing to risk everything I really cared about in order to shake my fist in God’s face and be right. To make matters worse I hid it all under the mask of shame. Sin made me stupid that way. I knew it was my own fault that I was a wreck, so just to prove it to myself, lest I forgot, I went back out there to try some more pain.
The answer was in surrender the whole time. And not only surrender but also “the actions of love to improve my relations with others”. Some of you might hear these words and think, “I’ve heard all that recovery jargon” but it didn’t work for me. Some of you have spent years sitting in recovery meetings, and you think of that time like it was some little university for learning about yourself, but you’re wiser now. You’ve graduated from the twelve steps. Really? How’s that workin for you now that you’re on your own again? How’s that pride working for you?
There is no way to be proud and blessed at the same time. If you’ve got it all together, you don’t need God or anybody else to make you think any different. All I know is that the kingdom of heaven is for beggars like me. People who know that without God’s Will and his people they would be living the words of Ozzy Osbourn’s song “Crazy Train”: “mental wounds not healing/ who and what’s to blame/ going off the rails on the crazy train”.
Like I said before, this is only the beginning, but we’ve got to start somewhere. If you can recognize that you’re not God and you play his role very poorly, then you can start seeing his image in other people. The blessed reign of God is for us poor sinners. Paul describes what it looks like, “Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty (snobbish, high-minded, exclusive), but readily adjust yourself to [people, things] and give yourselves to humble tasks. Never overestimate yourself or be wise in your own conceits.” (Rom. 12:16, Amplified)
Whenever I hear someone thinking aloud to themselves about how they will control another person, saying something like, “I’m just going to put duct tape over her mouth”, I realize how psychotic I myself can be. It unnerves me when politicians devise ways of controlling populations they consider problems, (consider the barricades around this building) but then I sometimes sit and think about what I’m going to do if so and so does this and that to me again.
There is no way to live in harmony with one another while at the same time thinking you have the right to slack off from chores, mouth off at people who bother you, give the cold shoulder, and hold resentment in your heart. All of these are ways of being haughty, even though we might think we’re just protecting our personal space.
Here are some of the crazy things I say to myself:
“If I don’t mouth off at people they’ll just walk all over me.”
“I can’t let what he said stand. I’ve got to stop him from hurting this other person.”
And let me tell you what God has been teaching me in response. I am no good at doing God’s work for him. Does God ever put his finger over my mouth in mid sentence to keep me from saying something foolish? No. He just lets me make my own mistakes. Very often I can only recognize what a sinner I am, by the stupid things I say. And God’s mercy draws me back to him. Yes, words hurt, but people don’t change if they can’t recognize their own mistakes.
Dorothy Day had these words for those seeking true poverty of spirit: “I can only say we should not be looking to the romantic, outer aspects of poverty, the sack cloth, the bare feet, the unshaven look, but give ourselves generously, at each moment of our time, our listening, whatever we possess of talents, or books or understanding, with patience and with love, and we would begin to be truly self-sacrificing and poor.” You and I are truly blessed that God considers us worthy to be servants in his kingdom. Our time, our talents, our patience with love, are his gifts!
This world thinks that the real reason for work is for self actualization. We can see work instead as a way of sharing our lives with others. You might say, “Well that’s all well and good in church or as a volunteer serving a meal, but I have terrible coworkers at the plant where I get my paycheck.” If you are a blessed beggar, it doesn’t matter what you do or where! No situation or person can take away who you are in Christ. The kingdom of heaven is yours!
I’ve heard that the gospel is simply like one beggar telling another one where to find bread. I love that! Some people think that coming to faith is about having an emotional experience where you cry until your nose runs all over your clothes. Others think it’s a high unlike any they could get doing drugs. For some religion is about having someone else tell you what to do with every move you make. None of that is true! We begin in faith when we simply recognize who we are and where what we’re truly longing for is found.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote this poem in prison titled “Christians and Heathens”.
“People go to God in their need,
plead for help, ask for happiness and bread,
for deliverance from sickness, guilt, and death.
So do we all, all of us, Christian and heathen.
People go to God in his need,
find him poor, abused, homeless, without bread,
see him entangled in sin, weakness, and death.
Christians stand by God in his suffering.
God goes to all people in their need,
satisfies them body and soul with his bread,
dies for Christian and heathen on the cross of death,
and forgives them both.”
(Letters and Papers from Prison, DBW 8, pg. 460, 2010.)
When we are at the end our rope, we finally stoop low enough to learn that God is present with us in our confusion. God is present for those who have given up trying to learn what life is all about. I have a very good friend who feels so hurt and confused by religion in all its forms that he’s not sure what he can believe anymore. I believe God is for him right where he is now. Some people hate everything related to the word Jesus, but God has still not abandoned them yet. I love God for that. I’m a guy who had to surrender all he thought he knew about God, all my righteous talk, in order to finally be at the end of my rope. And the kingdom of heaven is for the beggars who can’t wrap their heads around God’s grace too. They simply say, “I don’t understand, but I need it. Help me.”
Yours in Christ,
Rev. Chris Rice