READ : Psalm 73:21-22
Have you ever felt the bitter taste of envy? Do you know how life is so often? The bad get rich and the good get trouble. It just doesn’t seem fair.
Do you ever feel bitter, sour inside about the way life has treated you? Does the downright unfairness of things sometimes gall you? I received a letter some time ago from a woman in a great city who made no effort to conceal her bitterness. “I find these days how little living a good and decent life has meant.” She points to “unanswered prayer, prolonged denial and frustration, selfishness and human waste” as proving ridiculous the idea that God is just. Many of us have known at times something of that dark, biting inner pain. One of my favorite scripture passages, Psalm 73, is an honest expression of the same struggle.
“Truly God is good to the upright,” begins the psalmist, “to those who are pure in heart” (v. 1). That sounds orthodox and reasonable, doesn’t it? Many of us grew up believing it. God is on the side of right. The good guys will win out in the end. Live an upright life and God will surely reward you. All the best-loved stories end up that way, don’t they? And don’t we hear that version of the gospel often today? “Believe in God and do your best; then all you try will bring success!”
STRUGGLING WITH BITTERNESS
The only problem is that that rosy view of life is not confirmed by the experience of most people. That woman who wrote to me, crushed and embittered by disappointments, speaks for many. Along with hers came a letter from a man whose childhood confidence about happy endings, about the moral order of the universe, has been blasted apart by tragic experience. He writes also out of deep anguish, “I have tried to do what is right and my life is a complete failure. I am totally miserable.” One setback after another has shattered his dreams.
The man who wrote Psalm 73, though he wanted to believe, was also going through a desperate struggle. He was offended, first of all, by the evident flourishing of many godless, unprincipled people. “I was envious of the arrogant,” he writes, “when I saw the prosperity of the wicked” (v. 3). They have good health; they seem to be free of major problems. They can buy themselves out of any difficulty. They have it made! They strut about pompously, run roughshod over other people, sneer at anyone who challenges them and even scoff at the idea of God. Watching them made this man bitter. It ground away at his insides.
It further upset him that others fawned over the godless rich. That exasperates me, too. Let a man be greedy, deceitful, heartless, unfaithful, but if he is worth millions of dollars, then whatever he does is treated as newsworthy. Everywhere he goes, he is viewed with awe and greeted with applause: “This is the famous so-and-so who owns such-and-such.” People like that seem to be a standing challenge to any religious or moral view of the universe. They make the question sharp for many of us, “How can God know? Is there knowledge in the Most High?”
But even that is not the most maddening part. It’s bad enough to see arrogant evil rewarded, but it’s even worse when those who try to live a decent life have so much trouble. That’s the psalmist’s problem, and ours. We’re ready to throw up our hands and say, “What’s the use?” “All in vain,” he writes, “have I kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence, for all the day long I have been stricken and chastened every morning” (vv. 13,14). He, the man who’s trying to keep straight, to live for God, he’s the one who has sickness in his family, financial problems, miseries of all kinds. On many days, it seems that if anything can possibly go wrong for him, it does. That’s painfully hard to understand. No wonder so many get bitter.
Well, why doesn’t he dump the whole business? Why not deny God and stop looking for any moral sense in this scheme of things? At least that would ease the unbearable pain of disappointment. But this man can’t bring himself to do that. His sense of responsibility for other strugglers stands in the way. Listen: “If I had said, ‘I will speak thus,’ I would have been untrue to the generation of thy children” (v. 15). In other words, “if I spoke out my doubts and bitterness, I’d be betraying a number of other embattled believers. Think of the stumbling block I’d put in the way of other people. I don’t want to see children growing up hard and cynical. I don’t want to see them throw over all standards and settle for raw selfishness, dog-eat-dog ethics.”
“I can’t do that,” he says. But on the other hand, trying to figure it all out was too much for him. “When I thought how to understand this,” he said, “it seemed to me a wearisome task” (v. 16). So there he was, trying to believe but grappling with ugly doubts, bitter, frustrated, hurting. He couldn’t make any sense out of life. But he was still too much of a believer, too much of a friend, to leave the ranks of the faithful.
A GREAT BREAKTHROUGH
One day something remarkable happened in his life. It changed his outlook radically. Everything appeared now in a different light. What about those wealthy scoundrels that had so scandalized his sense of justice? Somehow the envy and irritation toward them had drained away. He says, “I perceived their end” (v. 17). He saw what their life was really like and, most significantly, where it was headed.
Truly you set them in slippery places; you make them fall to ruin. How they are destroyed in a moment, swept away utterly by terrors! They are like a dream when one awakes.
He was looking at them now from a new vantage point. He saw not only their pride and pretensions, but their great peril. How fragile was their imagined well-being! At any moment, death could sweep them away, and then their vaunted success would appear as only a dream. What had seemed solid and secure about these people was only, after all, a mirage. Once you see that, can you envy, fret over such people? Can you long to change places with them? Can you covet their future? Hardly. It’s a vision to excite pity more than bitterness. They aren’t really living at all, and the vanity of it will soon become clear.
This life-changing experience led the psalmist to look at himself differently, too. His old thinking seemed shallow now, his former attitudes shabby. “When my soul was embittered,” he confesses, “when I was pricked in heart, I was stupid and ignorant, I was like a beast toward you” (vv. 21-22). “How could I have felt that way?” he wonders. “How could I have acted like such a fool?” What had seemed like righteous indignation looked more like stuffiness now. There had been the whine of self-pity about it. Worst of all, he saw his old outlook now as the blindness of unbelief.
But the biggest change of all came in the way he viewed his relationship to God. Before, he had been venting the complaint: “God isn’t coming through for me. He’s short-changing me. In spite of all my efforts, I’m getting a raw deal!” But now listen to him:
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.
Now he sees that God has been holding on to him through all of life. In spite of his difficulties and disappointments, he has known the incomparable blessing of God’s presence. The sense of the Lord’s guiding hand upon him now fills him with confidence about the future. “You will receive me to glory” (v. 24). And here he’s thinking not about a coming prosperity in this life but of a divine welcome beyond the boundary of death. He’s persuaded that even that last great enemy can’t sever the ties that bind him to God.
His hope is not a wistful longing for something he has missed out on in this life. It’s rather the assurance that what he now experiences will never come to an end. Not God’s gifts, but God himself has become his treasure. “Whom have I in heaven but you?” he cries, “And there is nothing upon earth that I desire besides you” (v. 25). Or, as Luther beautifully translated it, “As long as I have you, I wish for nothing else in heaven or on earth.”
How radically different this is from what he felt before! Then he was complaining about what he didn’t have, fretting over the burdens he had to bear. Now he says that whatever else he has or doesn’t have, the Lord is his portion. God is enough for him. No matter what comes, he can rejoice in that.
My flesh and my heart may fail [the most complete collapse imaginable], but God is the strength of my heart and my portion for ever!
I’m wondering if anything like this has happened to you. You’ve had your share of confusion about the apparent injustice of life, I’m sure. And like me, you may have felt twinges of bitterness. Maybe you doubt that it makes any sense to say, “Truly God is good to the upright.” You’ve questioned more than once whether he was being very good to you. You can go along with the psalmist up to that point. But has the great change come yet? Do you look on yourself and those around you with new eyes because the living God has become your joy?
You say, “How does a thing like that happen? It hardly seems possible.” Well, for the man who wrote this psalm, everything changed when he “went into the sanctuary of God.” He entered the place of worship, came into the fellowship of God’s people, and there he met the Lord. It wasn’t that all his circumstances were suddenly altered, that everything started going right for him. He didn’t have a great success story to tell. But God had become freshly real to him. And that made all the difference.
FOR US TODAY
Do you know where this living, life-changing God meets people now? It may be in a church or in a chapel or right by your radio. God has come very near to us in his Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus says to all the world,
I am the way . . . He that has seen me has seen the Father . . . No one comes to the Father except by me . . . I am the door . . . By me, if anyone enters in, he shall be
John 14:6,9; 10:7-9
If you will respond to his call, if you will put your trust in Jesus Christ as the Savior who died for you and rose again from the dead, you will find forgiveness and eternal life. And in Christ, together with others who believe, you will meet the living God. Oh, take that step today! Call on Christ now from your heart!
The place of revelation, the point of meeting, is his cross. That’s the clue for me to life’s mystery, the key that somehow unlocks its meaning. When I look at the world around me with its natural disasters, its heartless oppression, its terrible conflicts and tragic inequities, I’m utterly at a loss to understand it. I feel overwhelmed. Where is the God of love and justice in the midst of all this? But when I look at the suffering Savior, light dawns in my darkness. There on Golgotha, the worst crime of all was perpetrated, the most terrible injustice was done. But out of that, God somehow brought the very best – salvation for all who believe. There God took the sin and evil of the whole world upon his own heart and bore it away. That’s how far his love was willing to go.
And when we trust in this crucified, risen One as our Lord and Savior, we find that he is enough for us. He never promised his followers wealth, ease or a trouble-free path. But he does say, “My grace is enough for you” (2 Cor. 12:9).
Do Christians sometimes forget and lapse back into their bitterness and grousing? Yes, they do, just as that man of faith did who wrote Psalm 73. But they can learn as he did to go back to the sanctuary, back to the place of prayer, back to the Word of the gospel, back to the hill called Calvary, to renew their vision of life and to meet again the Lord who is enough. Whatever comes, they learn to sing this:
Your gifts alone cannot suffice,
unless yourself be given.
Your presence makes my paradise,
and where you are is heaven.
– Charles Wesley
And that, friends, can take all the bitterness away.