The Secret of Happiness

Psalm 32

26 June 2005

Woodley Baptist Church

Morning service


What is the secret of happiness?

The United States Declaration of Independence enshrines the right of everyone to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but why is happiness so elusive? The world energetically and enthusiastically runs after happiness, but it always seems to be just beyond its grasp.

The relentless pursuit of happiness drives the age we live in, doesn't it? But the perpetual failure to grasp it only amplifies the misery.

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 we have to read books called things like Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realise Your Potential for Lasting Fulfilment.

Or 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 the matter in three themes: his theology, his experience and his advice.

David's Theology

David begins by laying out his theological understanding.

David knows that the secret of happiness is a right relationship with our Creator. 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 it restores us to a right relationship with God. And the incredible truth that David has understood is that forgiveness of sins is available.

Forgiveness of sins is available. Perhaps we take it for granted, but it really is not at all obvious that it should be the case. 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 sinners 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.

And, in verses one and two, David describes for us the shear comprehensiveness of the forgiveness for sins 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 the Old Testament law prescribes sacrifices to atone for transgressions. David has understood that God can forgive, although he doesn't yet know that God would one day give his own precious Son to as the sacrifice 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 needs to be buried and covered: dumped outside the city walls, in the landfill site. David understands that God can cover sin, although 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 Hebrew 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 King David has a very healthy theology of forgiveness. Although he doesn't enjoy the advantage we have of being this side of the cross, he has understood thoroughly the God who revealed himself to Moses as the Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious... forgiving iniquity and transgression and sinref.

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?!

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 in 1 John 1 verse 8, 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, and therefore my happiness, 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.

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.

David's Experience

David's confirms all this by sharing his own experience with us. He tells about three of its aspects.

The misery of concealed sin

First, in verses 3 and 4 we have 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. Actually, the instinct to hide our wrongdoing is built into us at a very early age.

Recently there was a television programme about child development presented by Robert 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? So often we know when we are guilty before him, yet we try to cover our sin, 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 depression was so overwhelming he couldn't eat. His strength was sapped as in the heat of summer, something we can all understand after the last week's weather. 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. Finally David wakes up. Like prodigal son who had descended to the misery of feeding pigs in the sty he has a revelation: What am I doing? Why am I suffering like this when I could be enjoying being at home with my father?

At last David remembers his three-fold theology 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 party 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

So, David confessed to God, he confessed his sins specifically, and there was no penance to be done.

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. Verse 8 is particularly interesting because the word "you" in this verse is the singular you. Verse 9 is in the plural and is clearly advice directed at the reader. But verse 8 is aimed at David himself, and is God 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.

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 theology 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.

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

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.

Reading the biographies of great Christians of the past we find time and time again that immediate confession is by far the most helpful way to deal with sin. As just one example, the great Scottish preacher Robert Murray M'Cheyne wrote this in his journal.

I am persuaded that I ought to confess my sin more. I think I ought to confess sin the moment I see it to be sin; whether I am in company, or in study, or even preaching, the soul ought to cast a glance of abhorrence at the sin... I think I ought at certain times of the day—my best times—say, after breakfast and after tea—to confess solemnly the sins of the previous hours, and to seek their complete remission.

This accords with David's advice: confess your sins and confess them urgently.

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 you. In other words, don't be stubborn! Don't be like David!

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" .

Note that, 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 who was in such deep despair precisely because he was righteous? But it 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, Proverbs 28 verse 13 says He who conceals his sins does not prosper, but whoever confesses and renounces them finds mercy.ref

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?

Unfortunately, it is so easy to overlook the discipline of willing confession in our Christian lives. The world we live in has deadened us to sin. We are surrounded by immorality, by law-breaking, by abuse, injustice and blasphemy on a daily basis. No wonder we are de-sensitised to it. Our consciences—our sense of what is sinful—have become tuned to the wrong frequency. We need to work hard to regain a horror of sin. To retune our consciences we need to read our Bibles, to look deep into our hearts and pray for the Spirit's help. Then we can root out our sin, and willingly bring it to God for his forgiveness. This is how we can avoid the misery of feeling God's heavy hand upon us that David experienced.

To be brought to willing confession we need all the help we can get, which is why constant reminders of our sinfulness need to be part of the fabric of our church life together. But, disastrously, in my view the churches of this generation are letting believers down badly.

A correspondent wrote to The Times in the early 1960s to complain about the apparent preoccupation of Christians with their sins. He found it disconcerting, whenever he attended a Church of England service to be reminded of his sins. At Morning and Evening prayer he was obliged to associate himself with the rest of the congregation as a crowd of "miserable offenders" . At every baptism he was informed that he was "conceived and born in sin" , at every wedding that marriage was "a remedy against sin" , and at every funeral that death delivered me "out of the miseries of this sinful world" . He had come to the conclusion that sin was with churchmen a veritable obsession.

Now, you just wouldn't hear that these days, would you? Who on earth would write to the papers about the church of any denomination's obsession with sin in this day and age? In most of our corporate life together sin is completely off the agenda.

And if our corporate lives together are an accurate reflection of our personal devotional lives—and I really fear they are—then it's no wonder that the churches are so laden with miserable Christians.

As churches, as a church, we need to be regain the Bible's obsession with sin, else we shall never find the true happiness that God intends for us.

Which brings us to David's last piece of advice. Verse 11 Rejoice in the Lord and be glad. If we have brought our sins to God, he declares us righteous and 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.


The communion that we will celebrate in a few minutes time is the guarantee for us that forgiveness is avilable. As we saw right at the start of the sermon, God gave his only son to make possible the forgiveness of sins we enjoy.

The communion is a meal for sinners who need to be forgiven. If you are a good person, then please don't take it - it is not for you. Please only join in if you are bad person, longing for forgiveness, because the cross of Christ is the place where forgiveness is found.

And if you feel that God is prompting you to do business with him this morning, and you feel you need some help with that, then after the service there will be some people here at front who can talk to you and pray with you. Do it urgently, do it willingly.