As the deer pants after the water brooks, so my soul pants after thee, O God. – Psalm 42:1
In 1986, the noted American Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote “When All You’ve Ever Wanted Is Not Enough.” In the first paragraph of his book Kushner says, “Ask the average person, which is more important to him, making money or being devoted to his family, and virtually everyone will answer family without hesitation.”
However, Kushner says that if one observes how the average person actually lives out his/her life, one will discover that the person does not really live by what he/she believes. He argues that as much as we claim that family is important to us, in reality our actions do not match our words.
For example, a husband may persuade himself that if he leaves for work earlier in the morning and comes home more tired at night, he is “proving how devoted he is” to his family by expending himself to provide for them. In reality, what the family wanted was not more things, but him. They did not want a figment of their imagination, but a father. They did not want a deserter, but a dad. They did not want solely a paycheck, but a Pop.
If this is the case, then the question is: How did many of us arrive at this point? Kushner argues that we arrived at this place because America’s Declaration of Independence guarantees everyone the “right to the pursuit of happiness.” Indeed, if we are really honest with ourselves, many of us make the mistakes that we make because we are in pursuit of happiness.
- We have the house that we have, and the mortgage that we cannot pay because we were in the pursuit of happiness.
- We have the jobs that we have, and the frustrations that seem to go away because we were in the pursuit of happiness.
- We have the cars that we barely drive, the huge flat-screen TVs that we are too tired to watch, and the huge salaries that we can’t seem to keep, because we were in the pursuit of happiness.
Certainly, if we were to ask the average person what he/she wants out of life, the response the person would probably give is: “All I want is to be happy.”
However, the question is: What does happiness mean? Or better yet, why should that sense of happiness be so elusive, eluding both to those people who get what they want in life and those who don’t? Why should people with so many reasons to be happy feel so acutely that something is missing from their lives?
Harold Kushner asks: “Are we asking too much of life when we say, ‘All I want is to be happy’?” Is happiness, like eternal youth or perpetual motion, a goal that we are not meant to reach, no matter how hard we work for it? Or is it possible for people to be happy, but we are going about it in the wrong way?
Oscar Wilde, the great Irish writer and poet, who often wrote about tragedies in plays, once said: “In this world there only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.”
Indeed, if Oscar Wilde is right, then what we learn from his quote is that no matter how hard we try to pursue happiness or success, we will not ever find either. For by the time we get there, having sacrificed so much on the altar of being successful, we will realize that success was not what we wanted.
People who have money and power know something that you and I do not know and might not believe even when we are told. Money and power do not satisfy that unnamable hunger in the soul. We read about the family problems of the rich and famous, we see their unreal conflicts on television, but we never get the message. We keep thinking that if we had what they have, we would be happy. No matter how hard we work at being popular and no matter how successful we become, we never seem to reach the point where we can relax and feel we have arrived.
Our souls are not hungry for fame, comfort, wealth or power. Those rewards create almost as many problems as they solve. Our souls are hungry for meaning, for the sense that we have figured out how to live so that our lives matter, so that the world will be at least a little bit different for our having passed through it.
In his book “Modern Man in Search of a Soul, “Carl Jung comes across an amazing discovery in his psychological practice. Having seen and talked to a number of patients, Jung comes to the conclusion in his book that: “About a third of my cases are suffering from NO clinically definable neurosis,” but rather “from the senselessness and emptiness of their lives.” Jung concludes that this “can be described as the general neurosis of our time.” And that’s the reason it is often said that “happiness is a butterfly. The more you chase it, the more it flies away from you and hides.”
In Psalm 42, King David laments and cries out to God because of a great need in his life. Those of you who are familiar with King David’s downfall will remember that in 2 Samuel 11 King David’s life changed for the worse after he decided to take a little walk on the rooftop of his house, saw a beautiful woman named, Bathsheba, and slept with her. As a result of David’s transgression, the following happened:
- The child he conceived with Bathsheba died.
- His son Amnon raped his daughter Tamar.
- His son Absalom killed Amnon for raping Tamar.
- And now Absalom, who killed Amnon for raping Tamar, has turned the people’s hearts against King David and is hunting him like an animal to kill him.
All of this occurred because King David was in pursuit of a “little happiness.”
At the end of the day, what we learn from King David is that what he needs and now wants more than anything is God. He no longer desires to be accepted. He no longer needs to be called the king. He no longer needs his ego stroked. Yes, what David needs, which is what we all need, is God. Hence, that is the reason David says in Psalm 42:
As the deer panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God. My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God: when shall I come and appear before God? My tears have been my meat day and night, while they continually say unto me, Where is thy God? When I remember these things, I pour out my soul in me: for I had gone with the multitude, I went with them to the house of God, with the voice of joy and praise, with a multitude that kept holy day.
What are you pursuing today? If it is not God, then maybe you should give him a try. It might save you so much unnecessary heartache and pain.
As always, keep the faith.
The Rev. Dr. Kevin R. Johnson is senior pastor of Bright Hope Baptist Church.