The Key to Authentic Happiness

Topical Scripture: Matthew 5:14–16

Would you choose to stay at a vacation home with no WiFi, TV, or clock? The nearest bathroom is an outhouse down four flights of outdoor stairs. It’s closed the entire month of August because it might burn down in a wildfire.

Yet three hundred people are on the waiting list to stay at Summit Prairie, a vacation home atop a tower deep in the Oregon wilderness. The Wall Street Journal tells us that Summit Prairie is not the only such option in high-priced escapism. An internet-free home in Alaska’s Denali National Park rents for $3,150 per person per night.

Or you could sample a “kudhva,” an architectural shelter perched on tripod stilts in North Cornwall, England.

Americans are on a quest for happiness. Studies indicate that our happiness has been in a steady decline for at least the last twenty years. The rebound from the Great Recession did not produce a rebound in happiness.

What is the antidote?

Martin E. P. Seligman is a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania. His bestseller, Authentic Happiness, is a fascinating answer to our question.

Dr. Seligman describes three kinds of “work orientation”: a job, a career, and a calling. A job earns you a paycheck and nothing more. A career entails a deeper personal investment in your work. But a calling is a passionate commitment to work for its own sake. According to Dr. Seligman, finding your “calling” is the key to authentic happiness.

So, what is your calling?

Know who you are

In our text, Jesus tells us: “You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14). “You” is plural, including everyone who follows Jesus. “You are”—present tense, right now. Not you will be, but you are today.

You are “the light of the world.” This is a spectacular compliment. Not because of who we are, but whose we are. You see, Jesus is the true light of the world.

He said so: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). And later, “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (John 9:5).

Now that he is no longer in the world, he has called us to reflect his light, as the moon reflects the sun.

The Bible says, “There came a man who was sent from God; his name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all men might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light” (John 1:6–8 NIV).

This is true of each of us: “You are all children of the light” (1 Thessalonians 5:5). We exist to show our Father’s light. To be his mirror. To reflect his light to our dark world. To be the moon to his sun. This is Jesus’ high and holy calling for each of us.

Know that the world needs your light

But why is this calling so significant? Why is being the “light of the world” so important and crucial that it will give our lives deep and satisfying meaning? For this simple reason: you have the only answer to the greatest need in all of humanity.

Would your life be significant and satisfying if you cured cancer or AIDS? If you found the solution to all war, abuse, neglect? If you discovered a way to end all hunger and poverty? Would you then consider your life fulfilling? We could do all this and more, but the world would still suffer in spiritual darkness. And this darkness would be its greatest problem, its worst disease, its most horrific malady.

God says so: “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12 NIV, emphasis added).

God describes humanity this way: “They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, with a continual lust for more” (Ephesians 4:18–19 NIV).

This darkness is Satanic: “The god of this age has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:4).

What is the answer to his deception and darkness? You are “the” light of the world. Not just “a” light—the only light.

The Bible is very clear on this subject. Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Scripture adds: “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12 NIV).

Because you share his faith and bear his light, you are “the” light of the world. Its only light. Your faith is our world’s only hope of eternal life through a personal relationship with our Creator and Lord.

What calling could give your life greater significance? And thus greater fulfillment, satisfaction, and “authentic happiness”?

Choose to shine for God

Here’s the catch: your light must be visible. Otherwise it does nobody any good, including yourself. Consider these facts.

You are already a witness. Jesus said, “A city on a hill cannot be hid.” “Hill” is literally mountain. Houses in Israel then and now are whitewashed. With their lights at night, a city on a mountain cannot be hidden.

Neither can your life. People see you. They know whether or not you live what you believe, whether you will say what you believe. You are a witness. Is your witness good or bad?

Your light is intended for others. “Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a basket” (Matthew 5:15a). Their lamps were small clay bowls filled with olive oil, with a floating wick. They were very hard to light. So once they were lit, at night they were covered with a basket which allowed them air while shielding their light. Jesus’ point is clear: no one lights a lamp so they can hide its light.

“But on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house” (v. 15b). People in Jesus’ day lived in one-room homes, with one small window. So they built a clay or stone ledge into one wall, and there they placed their lamps. For this was their purpose.

“In the same way, let your light shine before others” (v. 16a). “Others,” wherever they are. You are the light of the world, not of the church. Wherever you go, whatever you do. With whomever you meet. Your light was given to you, to be given to them.

Your life is your light. “Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (v. 16). How?

Be godly: “The night is nearly over, the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature” (Romans 13:12–14 NIV). Do others see godliness in you? There you are the light of the world.

Care about hurting people: “If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday” (Isaiah 58:9–10 NIV). Whose need are you meeting? There you are the light of the world.

Love your brother: “Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates his brother is still in the darkness. Whoever loves his brother lives in the light, and there is nothing in him to make him stumble. But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness; he does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded him” (1 John 2:9–11 NIV). Are you wrong with someone today? Where you love your brother, you are the light of the world.

Share your faith: “…that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life.” (Philippians 2:15–16). Who has heard of Jesus through you? There you are the light of the world.

With this result: “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (1 Peter 2:12). When we live as the light of the world, God uses us for his glory. It’s that simple.

Conclusion

You are the light of the world—its only light, right now. Shine that light by being godly, by caring for hurting people, by loving your brother, by sharing your faith.

This always works. Jesus was definite: “so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16b) is better translated, “For the purpose of showing them your good works so they will glorify your Father in heaven.”

The darker the room, the more obvious and powerful the light. And the more people are drawn to it.

I’m convinced that the sacred/secular division is one of Satan’s greatest lies. The idea that we should separate Sunday from Monday and religion from the “real world” keeps our light under a basket instead of out where the world can see it. But when we live large and bold, powerfully and courageously serving God and others, the world must see our light. And God will be glorified as a result.

John Geddie was the first Presbyterian missionary sent from Canada. He and his wife, Charlotte, and their children set sail from Nova Scotia in 1846 bound for Polynesia.

What they found was horrific. The natives lived in squalor and ignorance. When one of them died, they ate his body and then killed his wives.

John worked for three years, learning their language and sharing the gospel with them. But few were interested. When he traveled in their forests, the natives threw stones, clubs, and spears at him. But he and his family persisted.

In 1851, everything changed. Several chiefs came to faith in Christ. The churches began to overflow. His island began sending missionaries to other islands.

John died in 1872. A plaque in his memory said, “When he landed in 1848, there were no Christians here. When he left in 1872, there were no heathen.”

Authentic happiness is fulfilling your calling. Your calling is to be the light of the world.

How happy will you be this week?


The Key to True Righteousness

Topical Scripture: Matthew 5:6

I saw some interesting signs recently:

  • On a plumber’s truck: “We repair what your husband fixed.”
  • At an optometrist’s office: “If you don’t see what you’re looking for, you’ve come to the right place.”
  • Outside a muffler shop: “No appointment necessary. We heard you coming.”
  • Seen at a café: “If our food, drinks, and service aren’t up to your standards, please lower your standards.”

We’re talking about success today. What drives you? What defines success for you? If you could be anything in the world, what would you be? What should you be?

Let’s ask Jesus.

What do you want?

“Blessed are the ones hungering and thirsting,” Jesus begins in the literal Greek. Our Lord assumes that we all hunger and thirst for something. He doesn’t say, “Blessed are you if you hunger and thirst . . .” He knows that we do. And of course, he’s right.

In his day people knew physical hunger and thirst every day. People died without food or water. Droughts weren’t a nuisance for the lawn, but a threat to life itself. Crop failures didn’t mean debt, but death. While our society has passed that place, we’re no less hungry and thirsty for the things that matter to us. We’re all driven by something.

Theologian Paul Tillich was right: we each have an “ultimate concern.” Something or someone which matters more than anything else to us. There’s something in your life which means success and significance to you: Raising successful children; becoming president of your company; retiring at fifty-five; publishing bestselling books; getting into the right school, making the right grades, having the right friends; becoming a famous artist or doctor or lawyer or scientist or singer or teacher; being “happy.”

What drives you? What should? How can you be sure that when you climb to the top of the ladder, it’s not leaning against the wrong wall? What constitutes success with God? What makes us “blessed” by God? For what should we “hunger and thirst” this morning?

What should you want?

“Hunger and thirst after righteousness,” Jesus continues. The Greek word here reduces to the idea of uprightness, of doing what is right. But there’s more to the word than that. Unpack it with me for a moment.

First, there’s an internal sense here—personal character and morality. Not just what you do, but who you are. Dwight Moody said that your character is what you do in the dark. It’s been said that what you are when no one is looking, is what you are.

“Righteousness” here requires personal, intimate holiness. A person whose attitudes and motives are just. The word means to be the same thing in private that you are in public, to be godly in character both places, every day.

One reason to value such righteousness is that what we are in the dark is usually exposed to the light. We read daily of business leaders who lied about the bottom line, fabricated profits, misrepresented in shareholder reports, and have to “take the fifth.” But there’s no fifth amendment with God.

A friend once said to me, “Happiness depends on circumstances; blessedness depends on character.”

“Righteousness” is first internal, and second horizontal. It points to our actions with others. The word means to practice uprightness and justice with all we know. Abigail Adams, wife of our second president, once wrote to her sister Elizabeth, “To be good, and do good, is the whole duty of man.”

Such horizontal righteousness is vital to our society. President George W. Bush made this eloquent and perceptive statement about corporate dishonesty: “All investment is an act of faith, and faith is earned by integrity. In the long run, there’s no capitalism without conscience; there is no wealth without character.”

“Righteousness” is internal, then horizontal. And it is vertical as well: being right with God. Righteous in the sense of keeping God’s commandments; living by his word; fulfilling his will; confessing our sins when we commit them; being sure nothing is wrong between us and our Father; walking close to him.

Jesus makes this the key to character, the attribute for which we must “hunger and thirst” each day, the pathway to “blessing.” If you can be only one thing, be righteous.

Niccolò Paganini was in concert with a full orchestra when a string snapped. He continued, improvising his solo. But then a second string snapped, then a third. Three limp strings hanging from Paganini’s violin. He continued and finished the difficult piece with one string. Then he played an encore piece on that one string. And then he held up the violin and said to the crowd, “Paganini and one string!”

What should your “one string” be? Jesus makes the answer clear today.

How do we achieve it?

So, here’s the practical question: How do we achieve “righteousness” with ourselves, others, and God? How do we play our lives on this string?

Here’s the first step: want to be righteous.

Decide that you will be godly in character, actions, and faith if you are nothing else. Choose holiness above everything. Hunger and thirst for it.

C. S. Lewis: “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition, when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

Settle for nothing less than righteousness as the central attribute of your character. Seek it with desperation and passion. Then you can receive it from God: “they will be filled,” satisfied completely. If you hunger to be righteous, your hunger will be satisfied. But you must hunger first. You must want this food before you can have it.

Second, admit that you are not righteous without God.

Here’s what God says of us: “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God” (Romans 3:10–11). This is the biblical doctrine called “total depravity.” It means that every part of our lives is affected by sin.

The cancer has metastasized throughout the body of the patient. The patient can still read the paper, drink coffee, even go to work perhaps; but the disease is everywhere, and death is inevitable.

In the eyes of a holy God, “there is no one righteous.” Let’s see. Think about your last sin. That one sin alone is enough to keep you out of God’s perfect heaven. So admit that you cannot be righteous without the help of God.

Third, seek the righteousness of God by faith.

You cannot make yourself righteous. That’s why Jesus’ Beatitude is in the passive tense: “they will be filled.” Not “they will fill themselves,” for we cannot. This is not a call to try harder to be better. Not works righteousness. We can do better for a while, but ultimately, we’ll fall and fail again. I’ve tried. So have you.

Instead, accept this fact: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Christ is our righteousness. He will impart to us his Spirit, his holiness, his character. This is the exchanged life. Believe that Christ lives in your heart, by faith. Ask him to make himself real through your character, your personality. Ask him to help you exhibit the righteousness of God.

Give him time to do so. Meet him in Scripture, so he can transform your mind. Meet him in prayer, so he can transform your spirit. Meet him in worship, so he can transform your soul. Let the carpenter work with the wood, molding and shaping it into his own image. And believe that he is.

So, where do you need to be righteous this morning? Where are you grappling with sin or temptation—with yourself, with others, with God? Identify that issue right now. Hunger and thirst for the righteousness of God. Admit to him that you cannot make yourself righteous. Be sure that you’ve made Christ your Savior and Lord. Ask him for his character, his holiness, his power, his righteousness. Spend time with him, allowing him to transform you into his image. And you will be “blessed” indeed.

Conclusion

Our culture says good enough is good enough. So long as you’re as moral as the rest of us, you’re as moral as you need to be. Don’t stand out—don’t be different. Go along to get along.

Jesus says that if you want to live your best life, you must hunger and thirst for the righteousness only God can give. You must settle for nothing less than his character, his integrity, his Spirit powerfully working in and through your life. You must seek to be so much like Jesus that others see Jesus in you.

Can God do this?

A group of American ministers once visited England to hear some of her famous preachers. On a Sunday morning they attended the renowned City Temple. Some two thousand people filled the building, and the pastor’s forceful personality dominated the service. His voice was powerful, his message biblical, and the Americans left saying, “What a wonderful preacher is [name]!”

That night they heard Charles Spurgeon at the Metropolitan Tabernacle. The building was much larger and the congregation more than twice the size. Spurgeon’s voice and oratory were the finest they had ever heard.

But the Americans soon forgot all about the building, the congregation, and the voice. They even overlooked their intention to compare the two preachers. When the service was over, they found themselves saying only, “What a wonderful Savior is Jesus Christ!”

What will people say about you this week?


What Thomas Jefferson Got Wrong: The Best Way to Serve the Nation We Love

Topical Scripture: 2 Chronicles 7:13-14

Americans celebrated our Independence Day this week by spending more than a billion dollars on fireworks. In addition, more than sixteen thousand fireworks displays were held across the country. Forty-seven million of us traveled at least fifty miles from our home this weekend. July Fourth is one of the biggest days of the year for our nation, and deservedly so.

What a contrast from the way it all began.

My wife, Janet and I toured Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, last year. One day, we made our way to what is called Declaration House. Here we stood behind a plexiglass wall looking into a nondescript room with chairs, a fireplace, and a wooden brown armoire.

Thomas Jefferson stayed at this site for about a hundred days in 1776. It was here that he wrote three drafts of the Virginia Constitution, produced committee reports, authored a position paper, and maintained personal correspondence.

And it was here that he completed the Declaration of Independence.

The house where he stayed for those fateful days was torn down in 1883 but reconstructed by the National Park Service for America’s bicentennial in 1976. As a result, we were looking at a replica of Jefferson’s actual work space. It was deeply moving to stand at the site where a document that changed history was authored.

“When Thomas Jefferson dined alone”

Thomas Jefferson was one of the most brilliant men America has ever known. I have read four biographies about him and remain deeply impressed with his genius.

When I visited Monticello, the home in Virginia he designed, I was struck by the technological sophistication of his architectural brilliance. Jefferson served our country as the author of our Declaration of Independence and Virginia’s Statute for Religious Freedom. He was secretary of state under President Washington, vice president under John Adams, and president of the United States. He was also the father of the University of Virginia.

He could speak English, French, Italian, and Latin, and could read Greek and Spanish. John F. Kennedy famously told a dinner gathering of Nobel Prize winners that the event represented “the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”

However, he also enslaved more than six hundred people over the course of his life. Years after his wife’s death, he fathered at least six children by his slave, Sally Hemings. In fact, as he worked to finish his Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia, he was accompanied by his enslaved servant, Bob Hemings.

I believe the contradictions embodied by Thomas Jefferson and reflected in our nation across more than two centuries are rooted in a single word enshrined in his Declaration.

“The pursuit of Happiness”

The most famous sentence in the Declaration of Independence states: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

These were truly revolutionary words.

In a time when many nations, including Great Britain, believed that a person’s life, liberty, and happiness were subordinated to the will of the monarch and authority of the state, Jefferson claimed that these were “unalienable Rights.” And he stated that these “truths” were “self-evident,” not derived from the government.

But imagine the difference in our nation if he had chosen “holiness” instead of “happiness.”

“Religion and morality are indispensable supports”

In our third century past the adoption of Jefferson’s declaration, our culture has moved dramatically away from the Judeo-Christian worldview upon which our democracy was founded.

In his Farewell Address (September 19, 1796), President Washington told the nation: “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and morality are indispensable supports.” John Adams claimed that “the general principles on which the fathers achieved independence were the general principles of Christianity.”

Even Thomas Jefferson, whose faith commitments have been the subject of much controversy, insisted: “Injustice in government undermines the foundations of a society. A nation, therefore, must take measures to encourage its members along the paths of justice and morality.”

Today, however, “the pursuit of happiness” defines for many the right to “life” and “liberty.”

If we must choose between happiness and life with regard to the unborn, many choose happiness and endorse abortion. If we must choose between happiness and liberty with regard to the conflict between sexual freedom and religious freedom, many choose the first and deny the second.

If we must choose between belief in our Creator and our personal happiness, many choose the latter and deny the former. Banners posted recently in Ft. Worth by an atheist group announced, “IN NO GOD WE TRUST.” Unfortunately, they speak for many today.

“The majority who participate”

I love America and thank God for the privilege of living in my country. When posting our flag outside our Dallas home this week in honor of July 4, I was filled with gratitude for the sacrifices made by so many on behalf of our nation. As I watched the Fourth of July parades and festivities, I joined millions of others in celebrating our country.

However, I also believe that the greatest way I can serve our nation is by helping to meet her greatest need. And I am convinced that America’s greatest need is for a spiritual and moral awakening that would lead us to choose holiness over happiness.

I also know that holiness starts with me. And with you. We can claim today our Father’s promise: “If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land” (2 Chronicles 7:14).

To “humble ourselves” is to admit how desperately we need God’s power, direction, forgiveness, and blessing in our lives and nation. Psalm 33:12 declares: “Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD.”

To “pray” is to intercede for our nation consistently and passionately.

To “seek my face” is to move from praying for others to praying for ourselves. It is to meet God in worship, prayer, confession, and submission to his Spirit.

To “turn from their wicked ways” is to see ourselves in the light of God’s holiness and respond accordingly. It is to refuse all that displeases and dishonors our Lord.

When we do these things, our Father will “hear from heaven,” guaranteed. He will then “forgive their sin,” separating our sin from us as far as the east is from the west, burying it in the depths of the sea, and remembering it no more. And then, finally, he will “heal their land.” What starts with us will touch out nation.

Conclusion

Thomas Jefferson noted: “We in America do not have government by the majority. We have government by the majority who participate.”

For the good of our souls and our nation, let’s participate in a true awakening of holiness in America, to the glory of God. This is the greatest and most urgent service we can render this nation we love.

In 1921, a soldier who had died in France during World War I was interred at Arlington National Cemetery. A massive marble tomb was placed on the site of the original grave in 1932. An inscription on the walls of the tomb reads, “Here rest in honored glory an American soldier known but to God.”

On Memorial Day 1958 two other unknown soldiers, one from World War II and one from the Korean War, were also buried in the tomb. On Memorial Day 1984 a soldier from the Vietnam War was interred, though he was later identified through DNA testing and buried by his family.

The poet W. H. Auden, thinking of these unknown soldiers, asked pointedly, “To save your world, you asked this man to die; Would this man, could he see you now, ask why?” Freedom is never free. It cost more than one million American men and women their lives. It cost Jesus his cross.

What price will you pay?