The Secret of Happiness

Psalm 32

11 September 2005

Arborfield Christian Mission

Morning service


Have you ever noticed that The United States Declaration of Independence enshrines the right of everyone to life and liberty, but only the right to the pursuit of happiness? Why is it that happiness is so elusive that we have to pursue it? Sometimes it seems as if the whole world is energetically and enthusiastically running after happiness, but happiness always seems to be just beyond its grasp.

Perhaps it's just nostalgia, but it seems to me that it all used to be much simpler. Happiness was just a "Cigar called Hamlet" , wasn't it? But then smoking became unfashionable, and now to be happy we have to read books like the one I found on Amazon, Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realise Your Potential for Lasting Fulfilment.

Alternatively we could read the Bible, where the tried and tested secret of happiness was recorded a few thousand years ago. Here it is, written down by King David in Psalm 32.

Psalm 32 is traditionally classed as a so-called penitential Psalm, which sounds a bit gloomy, but that obscures the fact that its main theme is, in fact, happiness. It starts with happiness: The word translated "blessed" here is not the normal Hebrew word for blessed, but another word common in the Psalms which much more nearly means "happy" . This is not just a superficial "buzz" , but the deep foundation of contentment and joy in our lives. The Psalm ends too on the theme of joy Rejoice in the LORD and be glad, you righteous; sing, all you who are upright in heart!

We're going to look at what David has to say about finding happiness under three headings: his teaching, his experience and his advice.

David's Teaching

David begins by teaching us what he understands about happiness—and since he was God's chosen king, we'd do well to listen to him.

David tells us something that sounds very strange to our 21st century ears, and that is that to be truly happy we need to be forgiven. To be truly happy we need to be forgiven. We see this in verses one and two. Happy is he whose transgressions are forgiven; Happy is the man whose sin the Lord does not count against him.

Forgiveness of sins is the secret of happiness, because this is how we come in to a right relationship with God, who is the source of all that is good in the world. By nature we are out of relationship with God. We are people who displease God; we offend him.

But the amazing truth that David teaches us is that forgiveness from God is available!

Perhaps that is such a familiar idea to us that it loses its impact. But think about it. I find it hard enough to forgive somebody for cutting me up on my commute into work—and you do too, don't you. If we find it hard to forgive even trivial things, then how can God forgive us for persistently turning our backs on him, and making ourselves the centre of the universe?

The poet Heinrich Heine said on his deathbed "God will forgive me; it's his job" . But that's just outrageous presumption, isn't it. As people fundamentally out of relationship with a holy God we have no right to or expectation of forgiveness. Nonetheless, King David tells us that forgiveness is available.

In verses one and two, David describes for us the shear comprehensiveness of the forgiveness that is available to the believer.

In verse one his trangression is forgiven. A transgression is a breaking of God's law, an act of rebellion against God. Justice demands that it is punished, and God is nothing if not just. However, David has understood that God can forgive, even if he doesn't yet know that God would one day give his own precious Son to take that punishment for our sins.

Again in verse one his sin is covered. A sin is an offence against God, it is something offensive to him. Sin is the foul garbage of our lives: it is more offensive to God than the contents of my daughter's nappy bin are to me. Our sin needs to be buried and covered: dumped outside the city walls, in the landfill site. David understands that God can cover sin, even if he doesn't yet know that one day God would give his sinless Son to become sin for us outside the same city walls. He buries the garbage of our lives with Jesus in the tomb.

And in verse two we read of sin that the Lord does not count against him. The original word here is actually a different word for sin: it is "iniquity" , which means moral perversity, or twistedness. It is our in-built desire to do wrong rather than right. David understands that God can cancel the moral debt that it incurs. But like financial debts, moral debts can never really be cancelled: someone somewhere has to pay. David doesn't yet know that one day in the cross of Christ God will reconcile the world to himself, not counting men's sins against them. God himself will pay the debt, with his one and only son.

So David teaches us the amazing truth that forgiveness is available. He can't possibly understand how it works—but we can, since we can look back at Jesus who died for us. Christians can rightly claim to be the possessors of true happiness because Christianity is the only religion in the world which takes sin seriously and offers a satisfactory remedy for it. Only in Christ can our relationship with God be restored.

So why, then, are so many Christians so miserable so much of the time? Have you noticed that?

The answer is that we are not always very good at asking for forgiveness. Perhaps you noticed the one problem in these verses for which no remedy is given. Look at the end of verse two, happy is the man in whose spirit is no deceit. This is the key. No remedy is given for this, because the remedy is down to us.

The deceit it refers to is the same as that written about later in the Bible by a man called John. In 1 John 1 verse 8 he says, If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in usref.

Do you see? The only thing that can interfere with my forgiveness is my deceit. And my deceit is the insistence that I don't need forgiveness: if I claim to be without sin I deceive myself.

The only remedy for this deceit, and the only path to true happiness, is what John says next, 1 John 1:9, if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousnessref. Confessing our sins is the key to forgiveness.

So this is what David wants to teach us. The secret of happiness is that true forgiveness is available. But we so often fall short of happiness because we deceive ourselves into imagining that we don't need that forgiveness ourselves.

David's Experience

Theoretical teaching is all very well, but teaching grounded in experience is much more helpful. So David goes on to share his own experience with us. He tells about three of its aspects.

The misery of concealed sin

First, in verses 3 and 4 we see the misery of concealed sin.

When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer.ref

Ever since Adam and Eve hid from God in the garden of Eden our first reaction to sin has been to hide it from God. It's the same when my wife is cross me: so often my first reply is "but I haven't done anything wrong!" , but it is rarely, if ever, true. Actually, the instinct to hide our wrongdoing is built into us at a very early age.

A little while ago there was a television programme about child development presented by Robert Winston (Lord Winston). One of the tests he did explored this instinct. In the test a child, aged about 3 if I recall correctly, was sat down at a table with a big chocolate cake on it, and warned sternly by their parent not to touch it or eat any. Then the parent left the room.

Obviously this is a temptation beyond any three-year old's ability to bear, so each and every one of them tucked into the cake. What was interesting was what happened when the parent returned. They were told to ask "did you touch the cake?" . The child would be sitting there with chocolate smeared all over his face, chocolate all over his hands. The cake in crumbs over the table. "Did you touch the cake?" "No!" . Every time the same answer, "No!" .

It's comical, but isn't that just how we are with God? We are reluctant to admit that we've done wrong before God—it just goes against the grain—and we are even more reluctant to say sorry. And so our relationship with God is broken.

This is what David experienced in verses three and four. He knew of some sin in his life—we're not told what—but he kept silent. And it was thoroughly miserable! He was used to enjoying an intimacy with God, but now instead of finding that God's arms embraced him, he found God's hand against him, pushing him away, heavy upon him.

David's bones wasted away: his misery was so overwhelming he couldn't eat. His strength was sapped as in the heat of summer, something we can all understand after the summer we've had. Although he was silent about his sin, he was not completely silent: he was groaning all day long. A friend of mine suffered the breakdown of a long marriage a little while ago, and this could have been a description of him at the time. He was in the depths of despair. Broken relationships can have a devastating effect on us, and even lead to physical symptoms. And David is experiencing the misery of being out of relationship with his God. It is a picture of hell itself.

The relief of confessed sin

In verse 5 David tells us about the relief of confessed sin.

At last David remembers his three-fold understanding of forgiveness. And he comes back to God. In verse five he makes a comprehensive, three-fold confession: he acknowledges his sin, he uncovers his iniquity that God may cover it for him, and he confesses his transgressions. And in doing so he finds a simple, immediate and comprehensive forgiveness, and a perfectly restored relationship. There is no reluctance on God's part to forgive sin, only reluctance on ours to confess it.

He doesn't tell us the detailed form of confession he used, and I doubt that it was elaborate, but a few things are important to notice.

First his confession was primarily to God, the Lord, who is always the one most offended by our sin.

Second, his confession was specific. He needed to confess not only his general unworthiness and unholiness, but also his specific acts of offense against God. He confesses not only his sin and iniquity but each of his individual transgressions—in the plural—as well.

Third, he did not have to earn his forgiveness: there was no penance to be done. David confessed and he was forgiven. There is nothing we can do to make up to God for our sin, which is why Jesus died for us on the cross. If we take the cross seriously, all we need to do is to accept God's forgiveness and be thankful

The joy of forgiven sin

So now, in verses 7 and 8, David can tell us about the joy of forgiven sin.

Now David can enjoy again his relationship with God. And what a difference it makes!

In verse 7 he can again experience God's protecting arms around him, rather than his hand pushing him away.

You are my hiding-place; you will protect me from trouble and surround me with songs of deliverance.ref

Verse 8 is God speaking to David himself, and promising to restore David to intimacy with him. I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you and watch over you.ref

David can once again enjoy the depth of relationship with God. His sin is dealt with: it is forgiven and covered and paid for. These particular sins need never again come between David and his God.

David's Advice

So, we've looked at David's teaching and David's experience. Now let's look at the advice he gives.

We find him addressing the reader in three places, verse 6, verse 9 and verse 11.

His first piece of advice about our sins is to confess them urgently. Verse 6, Therefore, let everyone who is godly pray to you while you may be found.ref

We must not take forgiveness for granted! Forgiveness is available now, but it will not always be so. One day the judgement will come, and for those deliberately harbouring unconfessed sin and rebellion against God it will be too late.

But there is another sense in which God might become unfindable for us. In the book of Hebrews, chapter 3 we are warned See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin's deceitfulnessref

It's that deceit again. The point is that unconfessed sin can have a hardening effect on us. The longer we are out of relationship with God the less we are inclined to come to him. And the more we will turn to the world's numerous but ineffective remedies for our misery.

So David challenges us to confess urgently: while God may be found; before we become a lost cause.

The second piece of advice that David gives us is in verse 9: confess willingly. Do not be like the horse or the mule, which have no understanding but must be controlled by bit and bridle or they will not come to youref. In other words, don't be stubborn! "Don't be like me!" , David says.

David wants to spare us the agony of unconfession that he went through. God disciplined David with the misery of a broken relationship in order to bring him back to the right path. So he says to us, "Don't wait for the discipline, come willingly to God" .


So David's teaching is that forgiveness is available. David's experience is that we desperately need that forgiveness if we are ever to find true happiness. David's advice, therefore, is to confess to God the things that come between us and him, to do it urgently and to do it willingly.

Now, there may be those here today who have never confessed their sins to God. You've never said sorry to God, and meant it, for going your own way and not His.

If that is you, then I hope the simplicity of King David's confession will be an inspiration to you. He uncovered his sin before God and immediately knew the joy of forgiveness. That's how I began the Christian life many years ago—I simply said, "I'm sorry Lord for living my life my own way and not following you. Please forgive me and help me to live a life that pleases you." And that day I began to enjoy the experience of knowing God personally.

There's nothing to stop you doing the same. Only don't put it off. do it it urgently; do it willingly. God is not reluctant to forgive you, he's just waiting to hear from you.

Others here may have taken that step themselves many years ago, or even quite recently. But you are finding that you are making little progress in your Christian lives. You feel like you've ground to a halt or are even going backwards. You find that God is distant and remote, and you know little of the joy of Christian living.

Usually this happens to us because we forget that the way on in the Christian life is the same as the way in to the Christian life. We need to go on confessing our sins, just as we did in the beginning. Every day we fall out of relationship with God and every day we need to mend that relationship again.

In the book of Proverbs it says He who conceals his sins does not prosper, but whoever confesses and renounces them finds mercy.ref If we are not prospering in our Christian lives then we need to consider—what sin do I need to uncover in my life? what do I need to confess to God?

Just to be clear, the Bible never teaches that experience of depression or suffering automatically means we've sinned. If it were so then how could we account for Job in the Bible who was in such deep despair precisely because he was a good man? But the Bible does consistently teach the converse, that sin always leads to backwardness in our spiritual lives, and therefore discontent in the other parts of our lives.

So if we find that our Christian lives are not progressing, if we are not flourishing and prospering spiritually, these might be signs that it would be a good idea to examine ourselves: is there some unconfessed sin that I am harbouring?

All this brings us to David's final piece of advice at the end of the Psalm. Verse 11 Rejoice in the Lord and be gladref. If we have brought our sins to God, for the first time or for the thousandth time, he declares us righteous and he declares us upright in heart. Our confessed sin is gone, it is dealt with and we need never be troubled by it again. Now we can know the only true happiness on offer: right relationship with the Lord our God.