It's All a Matter of Perspective (Psalm 73)
Some Christians would like us to believe that their faith in God is invulnerable to challenges from without. They act and talk as if their faith has never suffered a crisis of any sort, never been stretched or strained almost to the point of breaking. My opinion of such folk is that they are either pathetically naïve, dangerously dishonest, or perfect.
You simply can't live long in this world and not experience crises in spiritual confidence every once in a while. Even the most mature believers will tell you that occasionally they have their doubts about God and his ability to run things the way the Bible says he does.
Challenges to faith come in all shapes and sizes: the devastation of a hurricane, the death of a child, genocide in Darfur, an unexpected bankruptcy; . . . need I go on?
Yet another challenge to faith is when good things happen to bad people. Are you ever bothered when the wicked become even more wealthy, when perverts prosper, or when atheists live long and fruitful lives? Is it unsettling to your faith when those who hate Jesus triumph and those who love him endure unspeakable tragedy?
It bothered Asaph. It got under his skin and was a thorn in his side and threatened to turn his soul sour. In fact, it got so bad that he was tempted to jump ship, to abandon his faith in God, to chuck it all in and join the other side.
Asaph, author of Psalm 73, was deeply disturbed and perturbed by the prosperity of the wicked and the oppression of the righteous. It led him to question God's goodness and greatness. It stirred him to wonder if the pursuit of godliness was really the wisest path to follow.
His problem wasn't with the traditional problem of evil. Asaph's struggle was with why it so often seemed that those who do deserve to suffer don't and those who don't deserve to suffer do. The problem wasn't whether or not God existed, but whether or not God was just.
Asaph is brutally honest about his struggle. As for me, he confessed, "my feet had almost stumbled, my steps had nearly slipped. For I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked" (vv. 2-3). "I'm the one who obeys God. I'm the one who worships. So why are the wicked the ones who get all the rewards?" Of course, when one gets in that frame of mind one tends to generalize to the point of exaggeration and distortion. As far as Asaph was concerned, no wicked person ever suffered; all wicked people are prosperous. It's a classic case of self-pity gone to seed!
As he reflects on the wicked, he is tormented by their power and seemingly care-free existence (vv. 4-12). They appear utterly unconcerned about the consequences for their actions. They don't seem to suffer from the same frailties of life as do the righteous. Adversity, toil, disease, and typical frustrations escape them. It all seems so unfair.
When it does come time for them to die, they seem to do so painlessly (v. 4a). Routine troubles are foreign to them and daily distresses are absent (v. 5). They appear to live above the trials that plague the righteous. They seem immune to ordinary domestic disappointments.
This doesn't lead to gratitude or joy, but presumption and arrogance, vices they proudly wear like a woman who was just given a new necklace or an expensive dress (v. 6). They feel no inclination to put a check on their thoughts or fantasies (v. 7). Far from being grieved when the righteous suffer, they threaten them with even greater oppression (v. 8). Nothing is sacred to them as they curse men and blaspheme God (v. 9).
The power and wealth of the wicked perverts others as well. People are drawn to the rich, as those who long for a piece of the action are seduced into following their ways (v. 10). They justify it by arguing that if God exists, he probably doesn't even take notice, and if he is aware of what's happening, he simply doesn't care (v. 11).
Asaph has let these thoughts fester in his soul, until he draws this dangerous conclusion: "All in vain have I kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence" (v. 13). The bottom line is this: Piety doesn't pay! Moral earnestness is a waste of time! "Poor Asaph! He questions the value of holiness when its wages are paid in the coin of affliction. . . . There were crowns for the reprobates and crosses for the elect. Strange that the saints should sigh and the sinners sing" (Spurgeon, 2:249-50).
But let's not be too quick to judge, for this is what Asaph might have said had he allowed his thoughts to run rampant and unchecked (cf. v. 15a). Perhaps the shocking nature of such a conclusion jolted him back to reality. In any case, he stopped short of blasphemy. While tempted to abandon his faith, something held him in check. What was it? He mentions three things.
First, he reflects on how his decision might impact others in the community of faith (v. 15). He was evidently a man highly esteemed by others and whose opinions carried considerable weight. He knows if he were to go public with his doubts and fears it would adversely affect the faith of others. His love for them keeps his tongue in check.
Second, Asaph had a powerful and transforming experience while in the sanctuary (temple) of God (vv. 16-20). We don't know what it was, but perhaps he had a vision like that of Isaiah (Is. 6:1ff.) or some other revelatory encounter. In any case, he was suddenly gripped by the reality of ultimate and inescapable judgment for those who defy God (v. 17). He looked away from their present prosperity to their future judgment ("their end", v. 17b). He is reminded that justice delayed is not necessarily justice denied. God has arranged it all! He is in control of both their prosperity and their consummate demise. God has temporarily lifted them up and God will eternally bring them down.
He came to realize that the prosperity of the wicked is like a dream: it seems so real until one awakens to see it was all a fleeting fantasy (v. 20). "As a dream vanishes so soon as a man awakes, so the instant the Lord begins to exercise his justice and call men before him, the pomp and prosperity of proud transgressors shall melt away" (Spurgeon, 2:251).
But there is a third and more important reason why Asaph does not permit himself to be swept away by the apparent injustice of wicked people prospering. He describes it in vv. 21-28. His point is simple, yet profound: God is with him! I should let Asaph say it for himself:
"Nevertheless, I am continually with you; you hold my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me to glory. Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you [not even the opulence and apparent success of the wicked!]. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever" (vv. 23-26).
What is all the wealth of the world compared with the spiritual riches of God's presence? Can the power and prestige of earthly fame trump the assurance and peace of God's grip on our lives? Our having him and his having us is simply unparalleled, unsurpassed, and unfathomable. Intimacy with the Almighty transcends all earthly pleasure.
What it all comes down to, then, is a matter of perspective. So I close with these insightful words of D. A. Carson. Everything, says Carson,
"depends on where you start. If you begin by envying the prosperity of the wicked, the human mind can ‘interpret' the data so as to rule God out, to charge him with unfairness, to make piety and purity look silly. But if you begin with genuine delight in God, both in this world and in the world to come, you can put up with ‘flesh and heart failing,' and be absolutely confident that, far from being the victim of injustice, you are in the best possible position: near to the good (v. 1) and sovereign (v. 28) God" (How Long, O Lord? 143).