If you talk to people who do not believe, or who have walked away from faith, they will often tell you that the reason for their unbelief is the evil and injustice that they see in the world. How can a loving and all-powerful God allow the things that we see in our world on a regular basis?
This very real problem of evil in the world is the focus of Psalm 73, our text this morning. Asaph (who worked at the temple) knows and believes the truth about God. He has a solid theology and starts from a position of faith. But the reality of life still shakes him.
1 Truly God is good to Israel, to those whose hearts are pure.
2 But as for me, I almost lost my footing. My feet were slipping, and I was almost gone.
Asaph knows God is good but . . . he confesses that his faith was almost lost. His feet were slipping and he almost walked away. The rest of Psalm tells us why he almost slipped and what he did to regain his footing.
He Envied the Wicked
The first thing that caused Asaph to slip was looking at the world around him. Listen to his description of what he saw,
3 For I envied the proud when I saw them prosper despite their wickedness.
4 They seem to live such painless lives; their bodies are so healthy and strong.
5 They don’t have troubles like other people; they’re not plagued with problems like everyone else.
6 They wear pride like a jeweled necklace and clothe themselves with cruelty.
7 These fat cats have everything their hearts could ever wish for!
8 They scoff and speak only evil; in their pride they seek to crush others.
9 They boast against the very heavens, and their words strut throughout the earth.
10 And so the people are dismayed and confused, drinking in all their words.
11 “What does God know?” they ask. “Does the Most High even know what’s happening?”
12 Look at these wicked people— enjoying a life of ease while their riches multiply.
This is interesting. Though there are big things (disease, disability, natural disasters) that can lead us to question what is going on in the world, what causes Asaph to slip is the fact that some people seem to be getting away with sinful behavior. Not only are they getting away with godlessness . . . they seem to be flourishing!
In verse 3 we are told Asaph “envied” the proud. In other words Asaph found himself wishing he could be more like the wicked. There didn’t seem to be any real consequence to their self-indulgent lifestyle. They seemed to have the best of both worlds. When we begin to envy those who are sinful we are in trouble.
Asaph describes what he sees: they are healthy, strong, and seem to be living a carefree life. They were proud, cruel, rich, abusive, and openly and boastfully godless. These are people who will get more upset if their steak is overcooked than if their heart is hard. They tend to cherish things and use people. Asaph admits that there is a part of him that would like to be more self-absorbed . . . and face no consequence.
I appreciate the honesty of Asaph. We sometimes feel the same way.
- We see good and godly people die young, get cancer, become victims of crimes, while the “party-animals”, the profane, or the abusive people seem to have everything and appear to live lives of ease.
- We look at the rich and famous and they seem to do what they want and can seemingly buy themselves out of any difficulty. On the other hand we feel we are punished severely even when we make an honest mistake.
- We work hard and give all we have to our employer and we get passed over for promotions while someone less qualified but is good at “playing the game” are promoted instead.
- We struggle to make ends meet living paycheck to paycheck (which admittedly is often our own fault) but we are frustrated because we see those who know how to “work the system” who seem to be living more comfortably than we are.
- We work hard to be faithful to our spouse and face struggle after struggle while the person who cheats on their spouse seems to be carefree and have no apparent consequence.
These things make us cry out, “This isn’t fair!” We wonder why God lets such things happen.
He Questioned the Wisdom of Living God’s Way
As a result of his envy of the wicked Asaph slips a little further when he asked,
Did I keep my heart pure for nothing?
Did I keep myself innocent for no reason?
14 I get nothing but trouble all day long;
every morning brings me pain.
Asaph wonders if there is any benefit to seeking to live as God has commanded. Is God’s way really the way of wisdom or are we just fools who are missing out on “the good life”? Why are we working so hard when it seems like there is no advantage to living this way? Why are we enduring when it seems so much easier to take the way of least resistance? Why sacrifice when there doesn’t seem to be any payoff?
How to Regain Your Footing
I hope you already recognize that part of the problem is that what we see is a distorted picture. We are focusing on superficial and surface things. We don’t know what is going on in a person’s heart. We don’t know what someone’s life is really like. We don’t know if all these people who “have it so good” are really miserable inside. We don’t know that any of these people feel any sense of fulfillment at all. We don’t see what the long term (and eternal) consequences of these behaviors will be. Now Asaph tells us how he regained his footing.
He Turned to the Lord
15 If I had really spoken this way to others, I would have been a traitor to your people.
16 So I tried to understand why the wicked prosper. But what a difficult task it is!
17 Then I went into your sanctuary, O God, and I finally understood the destiny of the wicked.
18 Truly, you put them on a slippery path and send them sliding over the cliff to destruction.
19 In an instant they are destroyed, completely swept away by terrors.
20 When you arise, O Lord, you will laugh at their silly ideas as a person laughs at dreams in the morning.
Asaph turned to the Lord. He expressed his concerns to Him. It is interesting that his first motivation was negative. He realized that his thoughts and feelings were wrong. He understood that he was a religious leader. If he acted on what he was thinking he would be seen as a traitor to the Lord. He would have led other people down a deadly path.
Sometimes, when you are slipping, you have to hold on to these negative realities. You have to consider not only what you could “gain” but also what you could “lose” and who you could hurt.
- You have to think about what your actions would do to your testimony for Christ.
- You must think about what the impact of your actions will be to your family.
- You must consider the people who would be encouraged to do what is evil because of your example.
After considering the negative consequences Asaph decided to honestly wrestle with the issues that troubled him. The way he began was to go into God’s sanctuary. It is very common for people who have doubts and are being pulled into the indulgent lifestyle of the world to drift from the house of God. Asaph didn’t do that. He didn’t walk away or merely go through the motions in his job. Instead he sought to “find God”.
The first thing Asaph came to understand was that he was not seeing the whole picture. Tim Keller gave a helpful illustration. He points out that a square and a cube are not the same thing. You can see the whole square from one vantage point but to see a cube you need to view it from several sides. We have a tendency to look at life as if it were a square when in reality it is more like a cube.
Think about someone who is looking to buy a house. You know that you can’t learn everything you need to know about a house from looking only at the front. You need to walk around the house and see it from all sides. You can’t tell how deep it is or what is in the back of the house until you walk around it.
This is also true of truth. The reason we get confused, the reason we fall into heresy or false thinking is because we are trying to make things too simple! We are looking at truth two dimensionally rather than three dimensionally. When we look at three dimensional life from a two dimensional perspective our conclusions are often erroneous.
Singer and songwriter Laura Story discovered this when her husband Martin was diagnosed with massive brain tumor early in their marriage. After countless rounds of treatment Martin was left with a mental disability. As Laura wrestled with the “unfairness” of it all she started to see with new eyes. She had believed that blessing was ease, health, and wealth. But through the trials of her life she discovered that perhaps there is a deeper blessing that comes from learning to rely on God more fully. In her song “Blessings” she asks:
What if your blessings come through raindrops?
What if your healing comes through tears?
What if a thousand sleepless nights are what it takes to know you’re near?
What if the trials of this life are your mercies in disguise?
What if my greatest disappointments or the aching of this life
Is the revealing of a greater thirst this world can’t satisfy
What if trials of this life
The rain, the storms, the hardest nights
Are your mercies in disguise?
When friends betray us, when darkness seems to win we know,
The pain reminds our heart
That this is not, this is not our home.
Laura Story is beginning to understand that God’s truth is three dimensional. It is more like a cube than a square. It is more profound and deep than we can immediately see.
As Asaph began to see truth this way he began to understand that he was defining prosperity and blessing two dimensionally. He was so focused on the present that he failed to see the big picture.
R.C. Sproul says: for the believer, there is no such thing as tragedy because in every situation God is working for our good. He is teaching us, drawing us close, deepening our faith, and giving us hope. Even death is not a tragedy to a believer because it is the doorway to Heaven, the highest, deepest, and most lasting blessing there is. On the other hand, for the unbeliever, everything is tragedy. All those things we “envy” about their lives is actually making them feel more and more that they don’t need God and those “blessings” are effectively moving them further from God and closer to their own eternal destruction. There is no greater tragedy.
After Asaph sees this he next Confessed His Foolish Thinking.
21 Then I realized that my heart was bitter, and I was all torn up inside.
22 I was so foolish and ignorant— I must have seemed like a senseless animal to you.
Asaph realized he had been given a relationship with the Creator of the Universe; he had an inheritance from the King of Kings and Lord of Lords and was whining because he couldn’t play with the neighbors’ toys.
Why am I mad at God?” The answer always is, “Because I want something more than I want God.” Let me put it again. Why are you mad at God? Always “Because there’s something you want more than God.” Think about that. Think about the ramifications of that. Think of the logic of that. Think of the stupidity of that. That’s what happens to Asaph. He suddenly gets it.
Imagine being in a situation where you were dating somebody and you seemed to be falling in love. As part of getting to know one another, you let it be known that when you got married you were coming into a significant trust fund. The person who you’re falling in love with said, “Oh, really? Well, it doesn’t make any difference to me whether you’re rich or poor. I love you for who you are.”
Suppose, just before the wedding you learned that you weren’t going to get that trust fund? When you relayed that to your spouse-to-be, he or she got so disappointed that they called off the wedding. How would you feel? What would that tell you about this person’s love for you? What would you say? You know what you would say. You would be utterly devastated. You would start to say, “You never loved me for me. You were using me. You loved me because I was going to get you somewhere or get you something. You didn’t love me. You were using me.”
Asaph understood that he was guilty of doing the same thing in His relationship with God. Asaph realized that instead of loving the Lord for who He is, He loved what He believed the Lord would give him. When he felt he wasn’t getting his “trust fund” he was ready to walk away. Sometimes the trials of life reveal the true nature of our faith. Sometimes we see that we are not serving God, we are using Him! Asaph knew enough to confess and repent. We would be wise to do the same.
He Rejoiced and Celebrated the Treasure he had Been Given. Asaph ended the Psalm with some of the most beautiful and faith-filled words of Scripture. They are well worth memorizing and repeating often.
23 Yet I still belong to you; you hold my right hand.
24 You guide me with your counsel, leading me to a glorious destiny.
25 Whom have I in heaven but you? I desire you more than anything on earth. (I like the NIV here: “Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you”)
26 My health may fail, and my spirit may grow weak, but God remains the strength of my heart; he is mine forever.
27 Those who desert him will perish, for you destroy those who abandon you.
28 But as for me, how good it is to be near God! I have made the Sovereign Lord my shelter, and I will tell everyone about the wonderful things you do.
Asaph started by envying the wicked and ends by recognizing how wonderfully blessed he truly is. Think about our rich blessing,
- We belong to Him which is far better than the world’s applause
- We have been forgiven and made a part of God’s eternal family . . . nothing you can buy in this world comes close to the treasure of God’s redeeming love.
- We are supported and protected by the Lord of the Universe, which is better protection than the money, gadgets, weapons, or people of this world could ever provide.
- We are led by His perfect wisdom and guidance which is superior to any information we could learn at a school or seminar.
- We have peace in trials and hope for eternity that the world cannot produce or understand.
- When we honor Him in our lives we find a deeper and richer satisfaction than any temporary pleasure in this life.
The only thing that will matter in the end is our relationship with the Father through Jesus His Son. And because of this, there is nothing on earth that is more valuable than our developing relationship with Him.
Sometimes I wish I could have and do what some of the people around me have and do. But then I stop and think and realize that no matter what comes our way in this world, no matter how small our bank account appears in comparison to others, no matter what our position is on the social scale, no matter how many years we are given in this world, no matter what difficulties we face in life . . . if we have forgiveness and new life in Christ, we are supremely blessed whether the people around us recognize it or not. What is there to envy in those around us?
If we stay focused on the inheritance we have been given by God we would be far less distracted by the temporary and fleeting pleasures in this life. Life can be slippery. And the best way to remain steady is to hold on to something (or someone) solid.