How do we live wisely and well?
What is the good life? The fulfilling life? What is our best life?
This is the domain of motivational speakers, of life coaches, of self-help gurus, and any number of peddlers of worldly wisdom. I don’t want to disparage these teachers. I think most of them mean well and are trying to do good things. When it comes to effectiveness, time management, and goal setting they can offer real help.
But after a steady diet of that stuff, it starts to feel thin. It all starts to sound the same. And we start to suspect that there’s got to be something more going on. We yearn for meaning and purpose beyond effectiveness.
And this leads us to the domain of faith, philosophy, and wisdom.
Defining the Good Life
Psalm 1 is our introduction to the Psalms. Psalms have been called the prayer book or the hymn book of ancient Israel. These were songs that were meant to be chanted or sung in worship but also privately used as a guide for meditation.
This first Psalm is interesting because it doesn’t introduce us to singing and worship at all. It is a prayer that teaches us about living wisely and well.
“Blessed is the one.”
“Blessed” is the Bible’s word for describing the good, fulfilling, abundant life. When Jesus speaks of blessings in Matthew 5, he defines for us this good life in unexpected ways: Blessed are they who mourn, blessed are the meek, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, etc. This ancient wisdom challenges us with the idea that life is not just about material possessions or accomplishments. Rather, it’s about the fulfillment and enrichment that comes from knowing your place in the cosmos.
The opposite of blessing is not poverty, it is boredom, ennui, and meaninglessness.
Beware of Bad Influences
Jim Collins, in his book Good to Great, says that we should regularly make a “stop doing” list. The idea being that we should regularly evaluate what we’re doing in light of our values and goals and cut out the things that don’t advance these goals.
Here, the Psalm offers us a “stop being influenced by” list
Wise living entails cutting things out. It is delightfully easy to say “yes,” but it is incredibly hard to develop the self discipline to say “no.”
The verbs “Walk, Stand, Sit” are dramatic pictures that illustrate what it means to adopt the bad habits of others. We walk along with their ways of being, we linger with them for a while, and finally we settle down into their habits.
And what kind of habits should we avoid adopting? Wicked people tear other people down to build themselves up. Mockers destroy things with their mouths. Sinners refuse to acknowledge God’s authority in their lives. The psalm gives a nature image to describe the effect of these habits: Chaff blown in the wind. Tumbleweeds blowing across the desert. Dried, lifeless, and insubstantial.
The Powerful Positive Habit
Then the psalm talks about the positive habit that fosters wise living: persistent and continuous meditation on God’s teaching found in the scriptures. Meditation, in this case, is what Paul J Griffiths gets at when he describes attention: “Attention can be thought of as a long, slow, surprised gaze” at whatever the object of your attention is. Do we rush our readings of scripture, or do we slow down, taking a “long, slow, surprised” consideration of what is there?
The benefit is again described in an agricultural metaphor: a flourishing tree, deeply watered by a stream, bearing fruit “in its season.” Think of everything the image of a tree conveys – rootedness, stability, shade from the heat, a refuge for wildlife. This is a deeper, slower kind of effect that is far more profound than “success.” We might call this “flourishing.”
The final piece is verse 6. The Lord watching over the ways of the righteous. This use of the covenant name of God seems to indicate a commitment of mutual belonging. These truths are rooted in something better than simple abstract principles; they are rooted in the design of the personal God who knows us each by name and calls us to be part of His people.
Praying the Psalm
How then do we pray this Psalm? It seems to be a psalm more about instruction than petition.
As with all psalms, we pray slowly, doing our best to inwardly affirm the words with the “amen” of our hearts.
In my experience this means simple affirmation. Praying the psalm entails my saying “yes, it is so” to the truths taught in this psalm.
And in so doing, as I pause and listen, God often challenges me in light of these truths.
- He may challenge me to reconsider my media intake – what I am letting influence my life.
- He may challenge me to renew my commitment to study of scripture.
- He may challenge me to consider more deeply what it means to be fruitful in my life.
- He may challenge me to consider that His timing is seasonal, not according to my timeline.
So your assignment this week is to spend time praying this psalm to yourself. How does it shape what you affirm about God’s character. How does it challenge you?