Which of you desires life, and covets many days to enjoy good? Keep your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking deceit. Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it.
Who doesn’t want to be happy? Who doesn’t want to be free to live the good life? The second sentence of the Declaration of Independence declares among the Creator’s “inalienable rights” is “the pursuit of happiness.”
In crafting these words of our nation’s founding document, Thomas Jefferson wrote from a long line of ethical thinkers who equated happiness with virtue. Jefferson took his stand with those who thought of happiness as being good rather than feeling good. Jefferson wrote in a letter to a neighbor, William Short, “Virtue is the foundation of happiness.” Jefferson was adamant that the practice of virtue would be essential to any future happiness of the fledgling nation.
Jefferson actually borrowed the memorable phrase, “the pursuit of happiness,” from English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704), who distinguished “real happiness” from “imaginary happiness.” Lock said that a bank robber celebrating his success with friends at the pub is happy, but not really happy. His happiness was but an “imaginary happiness” without true pleasure.
Watch an evening of network television, read the day’s news, or just listen to conversations, and we are witness to a culture bent on the pursuit of imaginary happiness. Ours is a culture exhausted and wearing out from the pursuit of happiness without virtue. That makes today’s Scripture text especially relevant as it takes up the great theme of Wisdom Literature: “Which of you desires life, and covets many days to enjoy good?”
By desiring life, Scripture means more than material and animal survival, because “Man does not live by bread alone.” Today’s wisdom scripture says that life to the fullest has something to do with the way we talk: “Keep your tongue…your lips…” Here is true wisdom for us as we are increasingly surrounded by incendiary language and strident attacks ad hominem. This includes the pursuit, not primarily of happiness, but of peace: “seek peace, and pursue it.”
It is striking that centuries later the apostle Peter takes up today’s scripture in addressing Christians facing Nero’s persecution in degenerate Rome:
“For ‘Those who desire life and desire to see good days,1 Peter 3:10-11
let them keep their tongues from evil and their lips
from speaking deceit; let them turn away
from evil and do good;
let them seek peace and pursue it.’”
What was good for the psalmist and the apostle Peter is good and relevant for us today. As we celebrate our troubled nation’s birthday, I pray the prayer of Francis of Assisi. Would you join me?
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
A fellow traveler,