By Wilfried Depnering
[This sermon presented 2/29/2004 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web. Wilfried Depnering, b. 1949, is an evangelical pastor and family therapist in Bad Schwalbach.]
I heartily welcome you to today’s church service where I begin a series of sermons on the theme happiness. I’d like to speak about attitudes that we adopt toward life and ourselves which increase our likelihood of experiencing happiness and meaning in our life.
I will hearken back to biblical texts that are occupied with this theme. I think especially of Jesus’ parables of God’s new world.
In these stories, pictures and analogies, Jesus speaks about attitudes and behavior that we adopt without knowing they contain anything heavenly. In these attitudes, decisions are made about happiness and suffering, success and failure. Happiness is not decided above our heads but in a way that we are participants and actors. According to a popular saying, “everyone is the architect of his or her happiness.” Everyone contributes to his or her happiness. Happiness is impossible without one’s involvement. Certainly, there are situations where we simply are happy when another person smiles at us or we receive something without contributing. This is beautiful and good. Whoever has success in life accepts an unexpected gift and makes something of this. However my theme here is long-term happiness, a happiness that remains despite blows of fate, a happiness that survives the ups and downs of life, a happiness that withstands the vicissitudes of life.
The wisdom literature of humanity and recent psychological studies indicate happiness has something to do with our attitude to life, to others and to ourselves. Happiness is not something that simply comes to us from outside, presented to one and not to others. Rather happiness can be understood as an interaction event, as a special form of encounter and relation between us and the events outside. Whether something becomes disaster or salvation in the long-term seems influenced by how and with what attitude we encounter the things coming to us and where we direct our attention.
Victor Frankl once wrote that people are paralyzed when they ask: “Why did this happen to me?” or “Why did I have to suffer this?” Asking “How can I survive this situation?” or “For what or whom should I concentrate all my strength to come out of this difficult situation?” would be more helpful.
I invite you today to look at once of Jesus’ parables with me, a parable that can strengthen our vitality and lead us to more composure, self-confidence and a deeper trust in life.
In Psalm 1, we read: “Blessed is the man whose delight is in the law of the Lord. He is like a tree planted by streams of water, that yields its fruit in its season. In all that he does, he prospers.” That is my desire for you, that your life roots will go deep in the earth or be deeply rooted and give you new strength.
And he said, “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed upon the ground, and should sleep and rise night and day, and the seed should sprout and grow he knows not how. The earth produces of itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.”
Mk 4, 26-29
In this parable, Jesus describes God’s new world, a reality that gives another flavor or another sound to our life, which can change our life and give it a happier and more meaningful note: God’s new world. Perhaps we long for it at times. Maybe we do not express this desire with this phrase that comes from religious language. Maybe we use the worldly term happiness and think of joy, a pleasant feeling, a being in harmony with ourselves, a life where goodness comes to us from outside, where people and destiny seem happy and life seems mild. Perhaps some of us think of a good supportive relationship. Others hope they will be healthy. Still others yearn for a secure job or a satisfying or fulfilling activity.
Wouldn’t it be beautiful if our life had this flavor with the fragrance of happiness stimulating and making us buoyant?
Perhaps some think experiencing so much happiness would be almost inconceivable or frightening. The contrast to their present life ruled by suffering and burdens would be too great. They say a little less happiness would be enough. Later they could have more. Often people think happiness is something that comes to us from outside and without out doing anything.
When Jesus speaks of God’s new world, he means a world and an enjoyment of life where the essential things of life are given to us and yet do not arise without our involvement. We participate in God’s world. We do not experience happiness without doing something, even if only being open and ready to receive happiness and allow it in our life. Without this readiness, happiness may stand at our door but cannot enter because we have closed the door and do not expect or believe we deserve so much happiness.
As we can resist happiness, we conversely can also do something so happiness really seeks and finds us. In his parable that we theologians call the parable of the self-growing seed, Jesus describes what the farmer does so he can harvest at the end. Without this special preparation, there would be no harvest.
The harvest is tied to certain conditions and certain attitudes.
The farmer had to sow what he later sought to harvest.
He needs trust that what he sows will grow and be strong enough to survive in its environment.
He needs patience. He must give time for growth and development to what he sows.
Then he has to harvest when the time of harvest comes. He may not harvest too early or too late.
The farmer needs something else that is very important. He must resist the temptation of trying to control the seed’s growth. The seed has its own time and its own rhythm for its growth. In this time, the best the farmer can do is devote himself to his own activities that have nothing to do with the seed. So it is good when he goes home again, sleeps, rises and pursues his normal activity. Then he can look at the seed from time to time and see whether it rises and how far it develops. The harvest first occurs when the seed is ready for harvest. The farmer’s task is to recognize this moment when he has to act.
So Jesus describes God’s new world or the happiness we humans can experience as an interaction event or teamwork of our involvement in this world and how we respond to what we are given. Happiness arises in our trust that what we do will find an echo, that the seed will grow without our encouragement and that the events and occurrences in this world contribute to fulfilling our desires. Jesus is convinced there is a power that is interested in our longing becoming reality.
What Jesus calls God’s new world is called happiness in worldly language. Jesus desires this happiness for us. In his eyes, we have earned it, perhaps especially when we experience suffering. A happy time does us good.
While cantor Schmitt plays the organ, remember when you experienced happiness, even if only a little happiness and how your attitude contributed to its genesis.
Perhaps some ideas came to you on how your happiness was influenced and how you contributed to that. Jesus names several conditions that in his opinion contribute to happiness.
Jesus’ parable of God’s new world or happiness in a worldly language is light and almost playful. It tells of a harmony and concord, of teamwork of farmer and seed. I imagine some of you would like something playful and light in your life. The opposite of effort and futility marks may of your lives. Strain and vain effort make life so hard.
What looks so playful and light at first is tied to presuppositions. It depends on certain behavior patterns and attitudes to life, our fellow persons and ourselves and ultimately whether we regard God, the determining power of life, as kindly, loving us and coming to meet us. What we expect we will receive in large part. Let us review the parable.
The farmer does not scatter any kind of seed. He knows what he casts on the field, the special seed that he determined and selected in advance.
When we view human relations, people – speaking figuratively – are casting seed on the ground. They appear with an official side and often with a rather secret side, a side not openly expressed that may be somewhat different than the public side.
Persons in partnerships are often easy to get along with. They don’t say exactly what they want from others. Often they are disappointed.
The farmer clearly acts differently. From his different seeds, he chooses one type. He makes clear to his environment what he wants. He positions himself and shows his profile.
Often people hesitate to clearly confess their desires and ideas in order not to be rejected. However the price is high; they deny their secret expectation. The relation suffers; they become dissatisfied in the long run since they do not gain the harvest they secretly desired.
Whoever wants to receive what he desires must also say what he wants to keep.
The farmer does something else. He has trust. He trusts that the seed he has sown will rise. He trusts that the seed and the field on which he casts the seed have their own interest in its rising.
When this is transferred to relations, it is striking that the farmer is not in control. “Trust is good; control is better,” Lenin said. For persons who seek happiness in their life, Jesus propagates another attitude: the relations of equals, of people who rely on each other.
The desire for control does not arise by chance. Often this desire is based on the experience of bitter suffering.
In relationships, I often witness that partners try to control and educate each other. The result is often discord. The partners then rebel hidden or openly. A combative relation teeming with conflict occurs.
When persons are urged to show trust after many grievous experiences, they often experience this as a leap into the abyss. They fear acting naively. They don’t want to hurt themselves again and grieve. Therefore I often recommend testing the partner in little things and seeing the reaction. Then trusting him in greater thins is easier.
Without trust, there is no lightness in relations. Without trust that I am attractive, I will not find any relation where a partner regards me as attractive.
When I first give freedom to the partner to stay with me or turn away, I will learn whether he has an interest in me.
Speaking figuratively, happiness in relations only exists when the farmer trust the field and the seed that they will contribute to growth and development.
In the parable of God’s new world, the farmer demonstrates a third quality: patience. He gives time to the seed needed to develop into an ear of corn that yields fruit. In vocational and private relations, giving time to others and examining what we offer them is good. Then they will say yes to us and develop of their own free will and their own strength. This freedom brings the lightness and the really binding in a relationship. At the end of the parable, Jesus says the farmer harvested. The farmer trusts his judgment to know when the time of harvest comes. Then he acts. My assumption is whoever wants to experience happiness and lightness in his or her life needs the attitudes described by Jesus.
The woman and man do what they can to experience happiness
when they recognize what they really want,
when they strive to reach their goal,
when they clearly tell what they want to others and especially their partners,
when they trust there are people who tell them their longings,
when they show patience that is necessary so things can develop. A good thing often needs its time.
Finally, a basic trust is part of this that God intends good things with us and wants the best for us. Holding fast to this is not easy when we experience suffering. God’s world appears as happiness given to us.
We can contribute to this happiness by preparing the place it needs to come to us.
Happiness comes easier and more quickly to us when we know what we want, when we do our utmost for our goals with patience and trust and are ready to accept happiness when it comes to us.
I hope you will succeed to this standard of living more and more. Amen.