Thank you for joining me again this morning. Today we’ll turn to Psalm 73, a psalm of wrestling and doubt, but also hope and devotion.Click here if you would like to read the sermon text.
This morning we’re wrestling with doubt. That’s what this psalm is about. Specifically, it’s about the psalmist’s struggles through doubt caused by the injustice he sees around him and how that appears to contradict everything he believes about God. Doubt is a normal part of the Christian faith and, if we use it well, it can lead us to even stronger faith.
Every so often I’ll have a conversation with an atheist or agnostic and they will raise the issue of how anyone can believe in a good God when there is so much injustice and suffering in the world. I think the assumption that some people make is that, to be a Christian, you must just not think about all that stuff. As if I’ve never thought about the problem of suffering and injustice, or else I just close my eyes to it to live in a fantasy world where everything is nice.
I’d argue that the opposite is true: that a committed Christian is far more likely to think about the problem of injustice and how we can see it right in front of our faces or on the news, while at the same time believing that God is good and just and that he is in control over everything. The Christian is far more likely to wrestle with this than the unbeliever. Loving God and having a relationship with him doesn’t mean that you never wrestle with doubt.
We argue with people who are close to us more often than we argue with total strangers. And that’s because of our close relationship, not despite it. In the same way, my relationship with God makes me more likely to wrestle with him over things and more likely to have thought about the times when life seems to contradict the things I believe. I believe in God’s goodness. I believe that God is sovereign — that he is in control over all things. So when I see terrible injustice, the things I see seem to contradict the things I believe about a good and just God being in control. So, I wrestle with this. I wrestle with God. This is the stuff I think about on a regular basis, because of my faith, not despite it. The believer is far more likely to wrestle with God than the unbeliever.
One of the things I love about the Bible is that it doesn’t shy away from these difficult issues. It is the story of God reaching out to his people and how his people have reacted to this in very human ways. The psalms are full of this humanity. In this psalm we read the words of someone who wrestled with doubt.
Doubt isn’t something we need to be ashamed of. It’s not a sin. It’s not the mark of a fake Christian. Remember that these psalms are there to help the people of God worship him together. So if the word of God contains a psalm all about wrestling with doubt then doubt is a part of our faith.
The psalmist lays out his belief and the doubts he has when he looks around him and reality seemed to be telling a different story:
Surely God is good to Israel,
to those who are pure in heart.
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.
(Psalm 73:1-3, NIV)
Our faith doesn’t hide or shy away from this kind of thinking, it doesn’t try and shield us from it. The Bible makes us think about these issues. We are encouraged to wrestle with God. God’s people were even called “Israel”, meaning “he wrestles with God”, reminding them of the time their ancestor Jacob, or Israel as he became known, actually wrestled with God, clinging on to him to receive a blessing from him. We’re supposed to engage with our doubts and bring them to God. We know he can handle it and we know he’s worth wrestling with. When you wrestle with God you will be changed. We’re not meant to live in a fantasy world of wishful thinking, but to wrestle with the tension of the truth of our faith in the justice, sovereignty and goodness of God and the reality that we live in a broken, fallen world.
You look at the injustice of the world and you might think “Well where is it then? Where is God’s goodness to those who are pure in heart?” It seems the other way around. Those with impure, wicked hearts are prospering while they trample on the weak.
The poor are valued less than the ability of the rich and powerful to make a profit so they can get even richer. Services are cut to the neediest to give tax breaks to the rich. The poor are disenfranchised, ignored, dismissed. And the result is that the poor, the sick, the vulnerable die.
People just like you and me have to bury their children, they have to run for their lives as their homes fall to ruin from the bombs dropped on their towns at the orders of people who live at ease and dress in fine suits. The rich and powerful devour the poor and vulnerable. And this is nothing new.
The author looked out at his world where those who hate God seem to be living a great life. They are rich and prosperous. They’re healthy and free from pain and trouble. They are proud, arrogant, and unashamedly violent. They are malicious and oppressive. They are bullies and it looks like they’re getting away with it.
Because of their success they’re praised by the people and they dare God to act, all the while getting richer and richer:
Therefore their people turn to them
and drink up waters in abundance.
They say, ‘How would God know?
Does the Most High know anything?’
This is what the wicked are like –
always free of care, they go on amassing wealth.
(Psalm 73:10-12, NIV)
In the face of this injustice, the psalmist’s creed seems like a taunt or like sarcasm:
Surely God is good to Israel,
to those who are pure in heart
(Psalm 73:1, NIV)
And yet, even faced with the injustice of this world, I believe this. I believe in the goodness and justice of God with all my heart. I believe that he cares much more than I do about the poor and the vulnerable. This psalm is a journey through its author’s own doubt to an even stronger treasuring of God who is good and just.
When the author’s doubting reaches its worst, he has a choice to make. He had begun to wonder what the point of it all was — in his life of trusting and obeying God (vv. 13 and 14):
Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure
and have washed my hands in innocence.
All day long I have been afflicted,
and every morning brings new punishments.
(Psalm 73:13-14, NIV)
Why bother being good? The wicked seem to be doing great and instead of a reward for his goodness he suffers while it looks as if the wicked, the greedy, the violent are rewarded for their wickedness.
But he stops here. He gets to this point in his complaints and then considers the effect it will have on others if he continues to complain publicly. He still knows deep down that there is truth in his belief that God is good, and he doesn’t want to have a negative impact on the faith of other people.
Since he has decided not to vent publicly any longer, what is he to do? He could keep it to himself and try to bear this burden alone, try to get to the bottom of what’s troubling him. Try to figure out by himself how to resolve this tension — How can there be a good God and so much injustice in the world? But that won’t do. This is an age-old question, something that people have been trying to figure out for millennia. It’s too much for the psalmist to resolve by himself. He says in verse 16:
When I tried to understand all this,
it troubled me deeply
(Psalm 73:16, NIV)
The psalmist didn’t get through his doubt by fixating on the injustice and complaining. Nor was he able to resolve things by himself. He got through his doubt by taking it to God. Verse 17:
till I entered the sanctuary of God;
then I understood their final destiny.
(Psalm 73:17, NIV)
This tension between the injustice that the psalmist sees around him and his belief in the goodness of God can’t be resolved or understood on a merely academic level. You won’t get an answer that will satisfy you. Because God is not just another subject to be studied. The psalmist couldn’t get through his doubts until he sought God himself, instead of treating God like a mere subject to be speculated about.
If you have doubts and you want to get through those doubts then seek God himself, not just answers, not philosophy or theology. Those are fine fields of study, but you will not be satisfied until you seek God in the midst of your doubts.
There’s a part in the children’s book “The Magician’s Nephew”, part of C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. The main character, a young boy named Digory, has met Aslan the lion (who in these books is another incarnation of Jesus) and is telling Aslan about how his mother is dying and he’s begging him to heal her. And then he looks up at Aslan.
“Up till then, he had been looking at the Lion’s great feet and the huge claws on them; now in his despair, he looked up at his face. What he saw surprised him as much as anything in his whole life. For the tawny face was bent down near his own and (wonder of wonders) great shining tears stood in the Lion’s eyes. They were such big, bright tears compared to Digory’s own that for a moment he felt as if the Lion must really be sorrier about his mother than he was, himself”
When we take our doubts and bring them to God to wrestle with him and talk to him about what’s causing those doubts. When we bring our pain at the injustice of the world to God, we will find that he cares a lot more about these things than we do. That he mourns with us. That injustice angers him.
We will find a God who so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. We will find a God who weeps with the mourners, who suffered alongside us, who calls us to trust in him and follow him. We will find a God who willingly submitted to the violence and wickedness of this world to put an end to it. Jesus died on the cross to save us from our own wickedness. We will find a God who will make all things new one day as he wipes away every tear from our eyes.
When the psalmist sought God, he begun to be able to see things from God’s perspective, from an eternal perspective.
Surely you place them on slippery ground;
you cast them down to ruin.
How suddenly are they destroyed,
completely swept away by terrors!
They are like a dream when one awakes;
when you arise, Lord,
you will despise them as fantasies.
(Psalm 73:18-20, NIV)
From an eternal perspective, the most prosperous, long, and healthy life here on earth is over in a moment. The wicked may have an easy life for a while but that time will come to an end for us all. The wicked may enjoy life for now, but the afterlife holds no joy for them.
Contrast this with the psalmist, who has put his faith in God. Who treasures God.
Yet I am always with you;
you hold me by my right hand.
You guide me with your counsel,
and afterwards you will take me into glory.
(Psalm 73:23-24, NIV)
The psalmist may suffer for a time, but if God is his greatest treasure now in this life he will continue to go on with God and be received with honour that awaits all the faithful in heaven.
I don’t have a ready answer to all the questions you may have about the problem of evil and the doubts that may be causing in you. But what I do know is that God cares about this. What I do know is that we are very small, and sometimes we can’t see over the problem of evil and injustice. But I know that God is good, and things are different from his perspective, from the perspective of eternity.
The psalmist leaves this period of doubting with an even stronger faith because he sought God, not merely answers, but God himself.
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 for ever.
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.
(Psalm 73:25-28, NIV)
He treasures God more than anything else in this world and he knows that God is with him forever.
I can’t give you an answer for every doubt you have. Maybe it’s a doubt that will lead you even closer to God and I believe it will if you take that doubt and wrestle with God over it. Seek God.
Father God, we look to you for assurance of your love and your justice in troubled times. When life feels cruel and unfair, we turn to you. We ask not that you remove us from this world but that you help us to stay close to you during our time here. Fill us with your Spirit and help us to be light in the darkness. Fill us with hope. Fill us with compassion and grace. May your church be an oasis of peace and grace in a troubled world. Help us to shine light into the darkness.
We pray for Yemen, and especially its children, trapped by war, suffering and dying from malnutrition and illness. It is no natural disaster, no unavoidable catastrophe that perpetuates the suffering of these children, but the greed and violence of human beings. Please bring peace and stability to this country. Please help aid to get to those who need it.
We pray against COVID19. Please help those who are working to develop treatments and vaccines. Please help people to be mindful of their neighbours and abide by guidelines designed to protect the vulnerable. Please heal the sick. Please help those who are treating and caring for others. Please bring your comfort to those who mourn.
We seek you in the midst of all of life’s pain and uncertainty. Help us to know your great love.
In Jesus’ name we pray.