David Murray writes an excellent book entitled ‘The Happy Christian—Ten Ways to be a joyful believer in a gloomy world.’ I normally steer clear of books with titles like that. It sounds like a self-help book. But this is a book written by a really sound theologian with a pastoral heart.
Murray points out that our world is wired towards negative thinking. Look at the news we consume! Tragedy sells. We spend hours been told how awful things are. I am not saying that we bury our head in the sand, but we need to balance all the bad news stories with some really good news stories. Feed the mind on a diet of sorrow and you will end up felling sad. As Solomon writes, ‘as a person thinks in his heart, so is he.’
Of course we can be our own worst enemies. We like to gossip. We are good at seeing the worst in people. We have a tendency to put people down. It makes us feel superior to criticise. But talking that way about people is like living off junk good: the short term pleasure ultimate leaves us dissatisfied and unhealthy. Do you ever find yourself in a conversation that leaves you feeling compromised and awful?
Perhaps the healthiest of all thoughts are when we praise God. God, in his infinite goodness, has tied his glory together with the good of his people. The Westminster Confession of faith states that the chief end of men and women is to glorify God and enjoy him for ever. The eighteenth-century theologian, Jonathan Edwards, wrote that God made man for no other purpose by happiness. John Piper teaches that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. So let’s talk a psalm of praise and allow it show us the God-honouring path to emotional well-being.
Praise the God who rescues you (1-3)
The Bible commands us to praise God. I suspect that praising God is more important for us than it is for God. He had no shortage of praise from choirs of angelic beings. But because he loves us he values our praise. In fact we are designed in such a way that our hearts will expand when we focus on God and sing of his greatness. We are to praise God because he is good, and we are to praise him because it is good. ‘Praise the Lord, for the Lord is good; sing praise to his name, for that is pleasant’ (Psalm 135:3). The psalmist tells us to sing to the Lord a new song, for God has done marvellous things.
Three times in the opening three verses we hear the word ‘salvation’. God saves his people. The psalmist doesn’t tell us what saving event he has in mind. The psalms often speak in general ways like this so that we can relate them to our own experiences. In what ways has God saved us? Obviously he has saved us through the cross of Jesus, which we will think about in a moment, but he actually has saved us in a whole variety of ways.
Spend time thinking of the ways that God has saved you! He has saved you from loneliness by placing you in a family (you may not have much of a natural family, but he has given you spiritual brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters in the church). He has saved you from an empty way of life that we see all around us by giving us meaning and purpose. We pray each day, ‘give us our daily bread’, but we rarely give thought to the fact that it is he who provides us with the roof over our head and the food for our bellies. He has saved us from being in dire need. He is so kind to even those who refuse to acknowledge him! We can thank him for good health, and thank him that he cares for us when we are ill. Count your blessings, name them one by one.
Of course the greatest saving event in the Bible is focused on the death and resurrection of God’s own son for us. What a focus for positive thinking that cross is! Look at the cross and remind yourself that this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and gave his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sin. When conscience reminds you of past sin and failing, preach the gospel to yourself. You are to honour God by living as a free person. There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. When you fall for the millionth time to that besetting sin, bring it to the throne of grace, confess it before God and then accept the cleansing and forgiveness he promises. It doesn’t please him to see his beloved children wallowing in shame. He calls us to be happy and free.
Praise the king who loves you (4-6)
At the end of verse six we get mention of God, the king. What an amazing king we have. Self-help books will tell us that we will improve our happiness as we love ourselves more. But actually the real key to a positive outlook on live is to love and be loved by Jesus.
A friend of mine says that he keeps his mind on two things: the resurrection as proof that all this is true and the character of Jesus as proof that God is good. What a king we have! He is a king who leaves his palace to seek and save his enemies. He is a king that little children felt safe to approach and embrace. He is a king who serves his disciples as he washes their feet. A king who prays for those who mock and spit at him and who called for his execution. He is a king who will return in glory and heal this broken world. In one of his hymns, John Newton writes, ‘Jesus! My shepherd, husband, friend, O prophet, priest and king. My Lord, my life, my way, my end, accept the praise I bring.’
It will lift our mood and fill our hearts with positive thoughts to spend time meditating on the splendour of our king. It will also help us to remember that he is the king who delights to save. Indeed, while the gospel may seem to make slow progress in this stubborn and hard-hearted culture of ours, don’t fail to see how the church is blossoming in South America and China. Jesus is establishing his kingdom and the gates of hell cannot prevent it!
Praise him with creation (7-9)
As we come to the end of the psalm we witness the whole of nature praising God. The rivers clap their hands and the mountains sing for joy. Romans chapter eight tells us that nature was made to be more alive than it presently is. It looks forward to what it will be when Christ returns. So should we! ‘Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is’ (1 John 3:2). We have the most amazing future to look forward to. Pray that God would help us overcome our doubt and unbelief about the future and enable us to rejoice in what is to come!
Finally, look at the closing words. Jesus is coming back to judge the world. I must admit that I have struggled with the concept of Jesus coming to judge the world. I have often asked, ‘how can a loving God send people to hell?’ The Bible marvels in the other direction, however. It answers the question, ‘how can a holy God accept rebels as his children?’ The cross of Jesus gives us the answer to that question!
Notice that the coming king will judge the world in righteousness and with equity. We can trust the judge because we know his character. His judgement will be a positive for change. When we see the suffering that people inflict on people, when we see the corrupt prosper, when we witness neglect and abuse, when the most vulnerable in our society are no longer protected, we may cry, ‘what are you going to do about this God?’ God answers by showing us that his king is coming to judge with righteousness and equity. The judge of this world will do what is right!
God commands us to think good thoughts. We are told to think about whatever is lovely, commendable, excellent and praiseworthy (Philippians 4:9). But positive thinking is not just biblical, it is good for you. Scientists who study happiness found that you could improve your mood by only ten percent through improvements in your circumstances. In other words, that new car, house, job or body is only going to give you a minimal improvement in happiness. However, how you think and act determines your mood by forty percent. Heathy ways of thinking can have a really significant impact on the way you feel.
Remember that Solomon taught that, ‘as a person thinks in his heart, so is he.’ The apostle Paul commanded us to think about whatever is excellent and praiseworthy. If your thoughts are always negative you cannot expect to have a positive emotional life.
There are things that you can do that will, over time, make a radical change on your mood. Start seeing the positive in people rather than just the negative. Speak well about your church, without being naïve about the things that need to improve. Learn to compliment people and praise them. Avoid gossip. While I don’t want you to be uninformed, there is no need to spend hours obsessing over every detail of every tragedy. Let your prayers be dominated by thanksgiving and praise. Read Christian biographies and other good Christian books. Learn to enjoy nature and music. Spend time meditating on how wonderful Jesus is. A friend told me to write a daily list of things I am thankful for—apparently this has proven to change people’s mood. Most of all may God enable us to praise him. May he enlarge our hearts and minds as we thank him for all that he has done for us! May the many ways he has saved us thrill our hearts! May we realise that he will bring an end to all that is wrong with this world! May we be glad that no matter what direction our society is going in, he sits on his throne and remains in control! May we grow the faith that can look beyond this world to the beautiful future that awaits us!