|Psalm 73: When Evil Flourishes
November 15, 1998
Faith is frequently taken to the edge in this world. Stress, heartache, loss, problems that appear to have no solution ó these things challenge a believerís faith at a very personal, very practical level.
Hurricane Mitch has hit Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala. These places are reeling from the stormís damage. More than 10,000 are known dead ó 8,000 in Honduras alone. At least 70 percent of the economic infrastructure in Honduras and Nicaragua has been destroyed. Somewhere in that cauldron of pain is some mother who has lost her baby and who is in danger of falling ó or jumping! ó from the thin edge of faith on which she is still standing.
After a debate with an atheist on the campus of the University of Alabama at Birmingham last Thursday night, a man about my age waited in line to speak to me. He has cerebral palsy. I had noticed him even as the debate proceeded, for he sat at the very front of a crowded room ó and nodded and applauded every point my opponent made in his presentations. He wanted me to explain why his life had been made so difficult by his physical limitations. He blames God for the distress he experiences every day of his life.
Issues such as these are all elements in the so-called "problem of evil." If there is a God of maximal power, goodness, and love who is sovereign over this universe, why do things like these happen? Psalm 37 and Psalm 49 also raise this issues, as does the Book of Job.
The Psalmistís Problem
In Psalm 73, a writer named Asaph writes of his own struggle with the problem of human suffering. It is the first of eleven psalms attributed to this man about whom we know practically nothing. But he was troubled. He was deeply offended by the suffering of saints and the success of sinners. Where was the justice in it? Why did God allow it?
The serious depth of Asaphís concern over this unsettling problem is indicated in these words:
But as for me, my feet had almost slipped;
I had nearly lost my foothold.
For I envied the arrogant
when I saw the prosperity of the wicked (vs. 2-3).
Realizing that Asaph is writing this psalm well after a personal crisis during which he almost "slipped" and "lost my footing" on the cliff-hanging edge of faith, he tells us the two factors that almost drove him over the edge: (1) a skewed emotional reaction and (2) a limited, time-bounded understanding of how issues of injustice will be resolved.
Emotionally, Asaph is honest enough to admit that he had been affected by envy. It bothered him that evil and arrogant people were prospering when righteous and humble people were suffering. Waiting as patiently as I could yesterday for a man to pull out of a parking space in Green Hills, I had backed still further away to give him an easier path through the aisle. Then, just as I started toward the spot, a woman in a BMW came around the corner, turned left in front of me, and took the space! Iím not going to tell you what I said ó just that I was guilty of envy at that instant! Asaph had probably suffered something far more serious, but he had given way to the same emotion that generates resentment and bad feelings.
Intellectually, he had tried to make sense of how God could allow the "prosperity of the wicked." How are we to understand Godís goodness when violent, evil people enslave human beings and trade in human flesh? How do we explain the ways of God against an event like the Holocaust? How can we continue believing God is good to the pure in heart when they are the very people being stabbed in the back? Meanwhile, the wicked seem to go right on prospering. It isnít difficult to envision the martyrs of the Book of Revelation crying out with a loud voice from beneath heavenís altar: "How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?" (Rev. 6:10).
First, envy is a negative emotion in anyone experience. It is jealousy over anotherís good fortune or resentment that I donít have another has. It is an evil resentment that can easily lead not only to bad feelings but to hateful words and wicked deeds toward another. Second, even when it is essentially correct, our view of justice is typically such a short-sighted view. Yes, we are legitimately scandalized by some of the things we see in this world. But we sometimes forget there is more to life than we can see with these eyes. That all the scales cannot be balanced in this life is surely part of the reason for an afterlife.
Asaph has a well-developed sense of retribution. Wicked people deserve punishment ó murderers, rapists, thieves, drug-traffickers. Decent people deserve to get something back from their piety ó peace. But life as he had experienced it had not worked according to those principles. Things had been stood on their head.
[The wicked] have no struggles;
their bodies are healthy and strong.
They are free from the burdens common to man;
they are not plagued by human ills.
Therefore pride is their necklace;
they clothe themselves with violence.
From their callous hearts comes iniquity;
the evil conceits of their minds know no limits.
They scoff, and speak with malice;
in their arrogance they threaten oppression.
Their mouths lay claim to heaven,
and their tongues take possession of the earth.
Therefore their people turn to them
and drink up waters in abundance.
They say, "How can God know?
Does the Most High have knowledge?"
This is what the wicked are likeó
always carefree, they increase in wealth.
Surely in vain have I kept my heart pure;
in vain have I washed my hands in innocence.
All day long I have been plagued;
I have been punished every morning (vs. 4-14).
Have you ever seen anyone who was trapped by his or her poor theology? I have! And itís a mess! For one thing, you canít do much to sort out the stinking socks of bad theology in the emergency room, funeral home, or drunk tank. People are in crisis and have already made some judgments on the basis of their false assumptions about God (e.g., everything that happens is Godís choice and will) or the nature of the world (e.g., suffering is a sign that God one is being punished by God).
The mistake most people make who lose their footing and go over the edge into despair is to take the short view of things. Some people read the final few chapters of novels first so they can follow the storyís plot, clues, and subtle twists. It keeps them from getting confused and frustrated, they explain, in reading. Real life canít be handled that way ó or can it?
God is good to the pure in heart. He does bless and prosper righteousness. He is unalterably against evil. Sickness, birth defects, untimely death, persecution, poverty, discrimination ó all these things will be set right. Thieves, drug traffickers, and liars are headed to swift and certain destruction. But it may be in the world yet to come before all these things are sorted out and put exactly as they should be.
Asaph says as much at verse 17 when he says the insight that stabilized him in all this uncertainty was an understanding of the "final destiny" of the wicked. They are the ones on "slippery ground," for God will cast them down to "ruin" (v.18). It will be Godís business to set everything into harmony at the end. He knows how things are supposed to be at the end (i.e., right triumphant and evil overthrown), and it is his sovereignty that will bring everything to its true resolution.
No, there is no doctrine of heaven or hell in the Old Testament. But I think there is a clarity of understanding that comes from the Old Testament that we have made difficult by the way we have used the New Testament. Let me explain.
I think we have literalized the New Testament descriptions of heaven and hell far too much. Do you think heaven is literal gold, literal pearl, literal mansions or hotel rooms, literal trees, and so on? I doubt that you do. You understand that the biblical pictures of heaven are metaphors for something beautiful, wonderful, and desirable. So do you think hell is literal fire, literal brimstone, literal darkness, and so on? Some people do. And they wonder how God could create a place of conscious torment that is so horrible. Yes, anyone would. Canít we grasp that the pictures of hell are also metaphors for something ugly, horrible, and repugnant?
Iíll tell you what I find beautiful, wonderful, and desirable about heaven. God. And here is what I take to be ugly, horrible, and repugnant about hell. The absence of God. For all I know, hell may be 18-hole golf courses, swimming pools, and gourmet restaurants. But there will be no joy there, for everyone who goes there will find no trace of Godís fellowship or grace in the place.
"But an atheist or truly evil person wouldnít care if God were not there!" someone says. Not so! In the instant of the general resurrection of the dead, every eye will see him and every heart will be drawn to him. He will be seen in the full clarity of his holiness and love. There will be an attraction to him a million million million times greater than the first-blush attraction I felt to the woman who later became my wife when I saw her for the very first time.
While I would have gotten over that brief encounter with her if there had been nothing more to follow, it will be impossible for those who see God in that instant not to long for him instantly, intently, and incessantly. But for those who have rejected him in unbelief, they have cut themselves off from his eternal fellowship. And their sense of loss in a place that has none of his personal beauty, personal love, and personal grace will be so overwhelming as to make it seem unbearable ó as if he had been thrown into a molten cauldron of brimstone! Theyíll never tee up on course or dive into the pool. Theyíll have no heart for anything that could be joyful, for they have lost true joy in losing the fellowship of God.
The Writerís Resolution
Asaph found his personal resolution to the problem of evil in an experience of worship. Oh, he had been tempted to give up the whole business of God and worship (vs.13-14). The thing that had kept him from going over the edge was his sense of place within the community of faith. He would have "betrayed [Godís] children" (v.15), if he had given vent to all his frustrations and unreconciled conflicts. So he made an all-important decision to turn outward from his self-pity and confusion to God himself! It was when he "entered the sanctuary of God" (v.17a) that things began to come clear for him.
Like Isaiahís experience (cf. Isa. 6:1ff), a glimpse of God in his majestic splendor and sovereignty put some other things in perspective for Asaph. It was in an experience of worship that Asaph realized these things:
When my heart was grieved
and my spirit embittered,
I was senseless and ignorant;
I was a brute beast before you.
Yet I am always with you;
you hold me by my right hand.
You guide me with your counsel,
and afterward you will take me into glory.
Whom have I in heaven but you?
And earth has nothing I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart
and my portion forever (vs.21-26).
Now thereís "heaven" for you! It is constant nearness to God. "I am always with you," "you hold me by my right hand," and "afterward you take me into glory." What else could Asaph want? "Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you." What the New Testament describes to us is simply an attempt to fill in some of the gaps of this idea with more word pictures and metaphors. Here is a case where going back to the older Spirit-given writings actually may shed light on the newer ones. For myself, Iíll take being with God on a rainy day in a tight, musty tent than to be in a 60-room mansion without him and cut off from access to him!
The fate of those who are cut off from the Lord is certain and inevitable:
Those who are far from you will perish;
you destroy all who are unfaithful to you.
But as for me, it is good to be near God.
I have made the Sovereign LORD my refuge;
I will tell of all your deeds (vs.27-28).
The 1984 movie Places in the Heart is a morality play. It is about tragedy, injustice, hardship, and struggle. It is ultimately, however, about all things getting sorted out, put right, and reconciled.
The movie opens in the small Texas town of Waxahatchie during the Depression. Royce and Edna Spalding are sitting at their dinner table. Royce, who is the townís sheriff, is called away from his wife and two children because a drunken young black man is disturbing the peace. Wylie is drunk but willing for the sheriff to take him to jail to sober up. Gesturing wildly with a gun in his hand, the gun goes off. Sheriff Spalding is shot dead. This tragedy frames all that follows.
The shooting so inflames racial tensions that Wylie is lynched and his body dragged by the Spalding home behind a pickup truck. Edna Spalding, with $116 left to her name, sets about to save her house and farm without a husband. Her banker comes up with the idea of her taking in a boarder and produces a morose, withdrawn blind man known as Mr. Will ó a distant cousin the banker wants to dump from any personal responsibility to help. Ednaís good-intentioned sister canít help her because her good-for-nothing husband is having an affair with a school teacher and canít be bothered with his own family, much less someone elseís.
Hope eventually comes in the form of a black drifter named Moze. Moze does odd jobs for food, stays around to help keep the Spalding place together, and eventually offers the idea of planting cotton as a cash crop. The Ku Klux Klan makes a visit to the Spalding farm to beat up Moze, for they donít want him "interfering" in things. Only Mr. Willís intervention stops them from killing him. But Moze understands he has to leave.
I have given you all that information about a movie you may have seen for yourself in order to take you to its close. In a sparsely filled church building, the choir has just sung "Blessed Assurance." Then something mystical and wonderful happens.
When the final scene begins, the churchís pastor reads from 1 Corinthians 13. As he reads about love, the oft-betrayed wife makes a gesture of reconciliation toward her philandering husband. She reaches for his hand. The choir begins to sing, and a communion service begins. Now there are no empty seats in the building.
In a climactic, idealized scene about setting things right, all the filmís protagonists ó Edna, her dead husband, the young man who killed him, the Spalding children, the philandering brother-in-law, his wife, the school teacher, Moze, a Klansman ó all of them are seated together. They receive the communion of Christís body and blood. They share it with one another, and occasionally one says to another, "Peace of God."
Yes, the scene is only a contrived and imaginary ending to a movie. But it captures a significant truth about what happens in the presence of Godís revelation of himself to hurt, confused, broken, alienated, and suffering people. May you glimpse the glory of God as you come into his sanctuary in a holy time of communion this morning. Let us pray together for the bread and for the wine. As you eat and drink, may you get a glimpse of the glory of the Lord that will help you to see the most difficult element of your life today from the perspective of eternity.
When evil seems to be flourishing all around us, we can allow worship to keep lifeís most perplexing issues in focus. It reminds us that evil will never have the last word in Godís universe. The resolution may not come as quickly as we would like, but it will come in the end.
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