READ : Psalm 73:1-28
Faith isn’t worth much unless it can face the tough questions. If you are struggling to understand how God could allow some of the things that have happened, I’d like to try to point you toward an answer.
I was reading a news report about a deadly storm that struck a town in the United States earlier this year with devastating fury. The reporter told of a six-year-old girl who, as she stood in the ruins of her house, turned to her mother and asked, “Mommy, why did God let this happen?”
That’s a tough question. The best answer I can come up with is, “I don’t know.” But I also know where to look for more information about these kinds of questions, because the Bible itself is full of them.
Psalm 73, for example, is the song of a troubled heart. It was written by a man who struggled with the same tough questions we do. Our questions mostly have to do with all the apparent injustice in the world. Several years ago a book appeared with the title When Bad Things Happen To Good People. It proved to be a best-seller because it struck a responsive chord. Most of us do wonder about the justice and compassion of God. We struggle with the problem of how a God who is good can be ruling over a world in which there seems to be so much undeserved suffering. Why do bad things happen to good people? How can that be right?
In the 73rd Psalm, however, we’re presented with the opposite question: Why do good things happen to bad people? The writer is concerned with the same basic issue here: the presence of injustice in a world where God supposedly is watching out to make sure that everything is right and everyone gets what they deserve. What triggers the sense of wrong in the psalmist’s case, however, is not undeserved suffering, but unwarranted prosperity. He is troubled not so much because good people are experiencing bad things, but because bad people are getting all sorts of good things.
. . . I almost stumbled and fell,
because it made me jealous
to see proud and evil people
and to watch them prosper.
They never have to suffer,
they stay healthy,
and they don’t have troubles,
like everyone else.
(vv. 2-5, cev)
IT’S NOT FAIR!
We all have a desire for justice imprinted deeply in our souls. When our sense of what is right is outraged, we feel it keenly. We become angry, we complain bitterly, we want to see something done to establish justice. It’s true that some people don’t seem to care at all about what is right, just or good. Just as a blind person can’t see, or a deaf person hear, so someone whose conscience has been destroyed no longer feels the difference between right and wrong. It’s also true that in some cultures and societies a long history of suffering and social inequity has left many seemingly indifferent to the presence of injustice. But though the sense of justice may be dulled, it is still very real.
This moral instinct for right and wrong, our conscience, is a powerful influence on our thinking and behavior. It is also a key sign that we humans were created in the likeness of God, the God who also loves what is right and who wants justice to be established. Moral instinct is something we’re born with. In fact, you can usually observe it most clearly in children. Young children have a sharply developed sense of justice. No one is more sensitive to unfairness than they, no one more quick to complain about it. If you’ve ever raised children, you know what I’m talking about. If the candy is distributed in uneven portions, if brother or sister gets special privileges, if the rules are not being enforced impartially, if the baby of the family is disciplined less strictly than the first-born, they cry out, “It’s not fair!”
As adults, we respond the same way to more serious instances of the inequities of life. As the Russian economy collapses into utter ruin, ordinary citizens are outraged that while their small savings are wiped out, a handful of well-connected criminals and shady operators at the top grow richer and richer. Mafia bosses die in bed at a ripe old age and leave ill-gotten fortunes to their heirs. Corporate executives ruthlessly slash jobs, throwing thousands of people out of work, and then cash in 30 or 40 million dollars worth of stock options for themselves and retire to enjoy a life of luxury. National leaders lie and cheat and seem to get away with it. Government officials take bribes and look the other way while the law is broken. Politicians trade favors for contributions. It goes on and on. And when we see it, we cry out, “It’s not fair!” We can’t help but wonder: What is God doing all this time? Doesn’t he know? Doesn’t he see? Doesn’t he care? Can’t he act? If he can, then why doesn’t he?
As human beings made in the likeness of God, our deepest moral craving is that good be rewarded and evil punished. When that doesn’t happen, when instead, for example, your no-good, irresponsible neighbor wins the lottery while your saintly mother gets Alzheimer’s disease, you just can’t figure it out. No one can. Normal people can’t be happy when life is so full of injustice.
Worse than anything is the cynicism that all this injustice tends to breed. When the wicked seem to win, and nice guys finish last, we’re tempted to wonder: What’s the point of being good?
What good did it do me
to keep my thoughts pure
and refuse to do wrong?
(v. 13, cev)
There’s another tough question. What profit is there in being honest and trying to do right when it gets you nothing, when you only end up the loser? The liars and cheaters and crooks, the insiders, the rich and powerful who manipulate the system – they all just laugh at simple, ordinary, hard-working folk who abide by the rules. All that does is make it easier for them to win. And when that happens, we’re tempted to think that morality is a joke, just a fool’s game made up to keep decent and honorable people on the bottom. We begin to believe that everybody is corrupt, so we might as well be too. All husbands are unfaithful to their wives; all politicians lie; everybody cheats on their taxes; everyone steals or takes a kick-back if they can. You’ve heard it, and so have I. So go ahead, do it yourself, and in the meantime, don’t trust anyone, don’t respect anyone, don’t believe in anyone or anything, including God. That’s the cynic’s view of the world.
A DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE
Is that right? Is that what we should conclude about the world? If that’s true, what a dismal thing life would be. But it isn’t true! The psalmist learned the real truth, and he learned it at the Temple in Jerusalem, as he was worshiping there. Listen to his testimony:
I tried to understand it all.
But it was more than I could handle.
It troubled me until I entered God’s temple.
Then I understood what will happen to bad people in the end.
God, I’m sure you will make them slip and fall,
You will throw them down and destroy them.
It will happen very suddenly. . . .
A dream goes away when a person wakes up.
Lord, it will be like that when you rise up.
It will be as if those people were only a dream.
(vv. 16-20, NIrV)
This man had a reality check as he came before the Lord in his holy temple. Something helped him to suddenly see the truth about life, and to see it clearly. Something caused him to view reality from a different perspective – the perspective of eternity. We’re not told exactly what opened this man’s eyes. Perhaps it was the music of the Temple worship, maybe even one of the Psalms. Or it could have been hearing a passage read from the Bible. The word of God, more than anything else in the world, has this power of getting through to us and clearing the fog from our minds so that we see the full truth, the eternal truth. What we really need to do to answer life’s toughest questions is to look at them from this perspective of eternity and life in the world to come.
The reason it seems to us that there is so much unchallenged, uncorrected and unpunished injustice in the world is that we have such a limited perspective. We don’t see what’s going to happen in the future. Trying to determine who really gains or loses in the world is like trying to name the winner of a football game in the first half. That’s a premature decision. Things have a way of changing. Making yourself rich or powerful by doing evil is sort of like sailing first-class on the Titanic; it may be a nice ride while it lasts, but it won’t last very long, and you for certain won’t like the way it’s going to end.
While he was worshiping in the presence of the holy, living, reigning, eternal Lord, the psalmist caught a glimpse of the end of the wicked. It will be judgment for those who reject God. Morality, justice and truth will all prevail. All those who lived for this world and its values, all those who lived by this world’s nasty rules, will pass away. They will vanish like a dream. That’s a good perspective to acquire. This life is like a dream, and it’s the arrogant and the wicked who are asleep to ultimate reality. So much of what we see is only an illusion. So much of what we believe to be real and important is only fantasy. So many of those who think they have it all are only dreaming. One day, everyone will wake up and have to face the truth. That day will be a day of God’s judgment, when good will finally and forever be rewarded, and all evil rejected and destroyed.
A DIFFERENT SONG
As Psalm 73 comes to a close, we find our psalmist singing a different song. As the psalmist brings his song to its close, he is no longer troubled about the temporary prosperity of wicked people. He knows where and what they are headed to. Instead of worrying about or envying them, he now wants to focus on God. His faith in God has been restored. His over-worked, angry conscience finds relief. His tough questions get some answers – or at least he is sure they will eventually. In the meantime, it’s enough for this believer that he is with God, and will live with him forever:
But I am always with you.
You hold me by my right hand.
You give me wise advice to guide me.
And when I die, you will take me away
into the glory of heaven.
(vv. 22,23, NIrV)
The psalmist’s love for God has been rekindled. His perspective on life has been corrected –
I don’t have anyone in heaven but you.
I don’t want anything on earth besides you.
(vv. 23-25, NIrV)
His hope in God for the future is sure –
My body and mind may fail,
but you are my strength
and my choice forever.
(v. 26, cev)
So may it be for all of us!