What makes you happy? What brings you a sense of true joy and contentment? For many of us it may be opening our eyes, going outside, taking a deep breath, and looking around on a day like today. Others locate their happiness in relationships; perhaps among their family and friends. Those are the places we are supposed to find happiness. When push comes to shove, at the end of the day, when nothing else is available and resources are scant; happiness is available to us in immeasurable units. In the back of our minds, that’s we’ve be taught and led to believe. I’m not sure we believe it. Most of us, on our best days, despite countless protestations to the contrary, live as if happiness is measured in things you can actually count. We would deny it until we’re blue in the face but our actions run to the contrary. Despite all we’ve read about simplicity and materialism, we still believe that “stuff” makes us happy.
I need to tell you the truth here. I’m pointing the finger at myself. I’m a stuff junkie. I’ve tried to break the habit on numerous occasions but it’s hard. The stuff I can’t get rid of isn’t the good stuff; the things with emotional resonance and sentimental value. It’s the clutter, albeit clutter that I can justify in one way or another. For example, fancy writing instruments. How many pens does a grown man need? The thing is, each one has a story. I know where I bought the pen. I even know how long I had to save to buy several of them. There are a couple of them I wouldn’t dare write with. I just look at them and thank God I get to be the custodian of something attached to American history. Despite the value of these pens, I’ll be the first to admit, they’re stuff, clutter moved from multiple houses and across the ocean. My happiness, though it is, shouldn’t be tied in up in pieces of plastic, I never use. There are things like my pens in all of our lives. They appear to make me happy. But my happiness, as it has been reshaped by the world (and we’ve allowed this to happen), is both flawed and false. In truth, none of us knows what makes us happy. We have so many things competing for the limited amount of time we’ve reserved for joy in our lives. Maybe it’s time we open up more space on our schedules for happiness.
When you step back from the sheep and shepherd metaphor, the 23rd Psalm opens with a powerful statement about the relationship between happiness, need, and want. It’s hard for modern readers to grasp the work of shepherds or the difficulties of raising sheep. I lived in Irish sheep country for two years. The shepherds I knew were unsentimental, hard scrabble men with little time for the romanticized version of their work presented in scripture. Like their 1st century peers, modern day shepherds are invested in the survival and protection of their flocks.
For the shepherd in the 23rd Psalm, handling sheep is more than a job. I don’t feel comfortable saying God’s calling is to be a shepherd. Calling a God a shepherd is a way, for us as humans, to try to grasp and understand, in a limited way, what God does and who God is. When you start talking about whom God is and God’s job description, that’s when I wait for the Indiana Jones moment, for the floor to drop out from under me and boulder to start rolling from the ceiling. That’s very dicey ground on which to stand. God is too big for me to put into one vocational box.
So we say that God’s sort of a shepherd. It’s like saying, “the best thing we can come up with in order to describe how God looks after the universe is to compare it to the work of a shepherd.” God isn’t a shepherd but the best way we know how to describe it is to use that word. If we talk about it this way, we may see something we’ve missed.
The second half of the first verse contains four words: “I shall not want”. When it comes to any understanding of happiness, generosity, joy or contentment; those four words answer questions and statements we are afraid to ask.
Why am I unhappy? I shall not want.
What happens when Mama gets sick? I shall not want.
What happens when there is no money for the light bill? I shall not want.
When I cannot see God? I shall not want.
I am afraid. I shall not want.
I will never have enough. I shall not want.
Despite the presence of death, I shall not want.
Those words are both a promise and an ultimatum. The world will come this far and no further. We do not want what the world has to offer.
Here’s what those four words ultimately mean: we shall not want for life in the face of death. So let me give you a huge spoiler alert: the tomb will be empty. Death loses!
This is the difference that Christ makes. When we place Christ at the center, want (or happiness) is never about what we possess. It’s the opposite. It’s about letting go of everything. Christ, though he was God, did not make a big deal about the fact he was God, divested himself of all power, so that now he’s basically a slave in a human body, and that slave in a human body died on a Roman cross so we might be free from what the world calls want.
That’s when all the pieces fall into place and this single verse makes more sense than all the imagery about green pastures and still waters combined. Christ changes our perspective on happiness and want. Why shall we not want? Because we know who’s let everything go and why he did it.
One of the questions Jesus was regularly asked (and the disciples after the resurrection) by the religious authorities was “by whose power do you do these things?” Whether it was a healing, preaching, or teaching, they wanted to know who gave them the authority to stand, in public, in God’s name, and act accordingly. That’s just another way of asking, “How are you so happy and content?” “How do you have the nerve to be so without want?” “What do you know that we don’t?
We know this: whether we’re asking ourselves in the bathroom mirror or someone poses it to us we have the opportunity to proclaim the resurrection in four simple words: I shall not want.