When Life Does not Seem Fair
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Psalms 73:1-73:28 (NIV, NIRV, TNIV, KJV)
Sermon Series: Praying Through the Psalms
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When Life Doesn’t Seem Fair
Let’s begin this morning by talking about perception. How we view something becomes reality for us. The New Scientist magazine has compiled a list of actual statements made by children regarding their perspective about scientific matters.
There are three kinds of blood vessels: arteries, vanes and caterpillars.
Water is composed of two gins, Oxygin and Hydrogin. Oxygin is pure gin. Hydrogin is gin and water.
Blood flows down one leg and up the other.
Rhubarb is a kind of celery gone bloodshot.
Before giving a blood transfusion, find out if the blood is affirmative or negative.
To keep milk from turning sour: keep it in the cow.
To collect fumes of sulphur, hold a deacon over a flame in a test tube.
A child’s perception of reality is often much different than ours. But adults can get mixed up as well. Did you hear the story this week about the Green Bay Packer football player who got his signals crossed? Jason Brookins misinterpreted the Packers’ request for his playbook as a sign that he was cut from the team. After turning in his playbook, he jumped in his car and began the long drive to his home in Missouri. He had turned off his cell phone so team officials couldn’t reach him. Unfortunately, his perception was wrong. The Packers had no intention of releasing him. His name was simply listed so that his playbook could be updated in time for the next practice.
Coach Mike Sherman is not sure if he now wants him on the team anyway: “It was a misunderstanding on his part. I don’t quite understand how. It’s pretty self-explanatory if you can read. In our new facility we have a nice in-house communication process that’s foolproof and he misread the foolproof communication on our video monitors.” I’m not sure if Brookins will want to play for the Packers after hearing a comment like that!
It’s so easy for us to get out of touch with what is real. When we lose our perspective of reality, we can say and do some pretty crazy things. Our perception of reality will always affect our response to reality. I wonder if some of you may have lost your spiritual equilibrium as a result of some faulty perceptions.
Life doesn’t seem fair. Nonbelievers seem to experience more blessings than we do. In order to find some spiritual stability we need a reality check. The best place we can go to get things “reframed” is to listen to God’s communication system – the Bible. This morning as we wrap up our summer series called, “Praying Through the Psalms,” we’ll see how Psalm 73 gives us God’s playbook on what to do when we get our signals crossed.
This psalm was written by a man named Asaph. He was a mature, godly man who served as the worship leader in the temple and was the author of 12 different psalms. Yet, in spite of all this, he was ready to hand everything in and head back home. He almost walked away from God because his perception of reality was mixed up. This psalm is very personal, and filled with gut-wrenching honesty. Asaph asks the question that many of us have asked at one time or another: If God is supposed to bless believers, why do we struggle with health, finances, and relational turmoil while the unbelievers around us seem to enjoy prosperity? Or, we could ask it this way, “Why are the wicked successful while the righteous suffer?”
Asaph begins with an introduction, a summary statement, and a theological conclusion all wrapped up in verse 1: “Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart.” Asaph is stating the universal premise for the believer: God is good. The word “surely” literally means “yet” and also has the idea of exclusivity: “No matter what happens, God and God alone is good.” While we can count on this certainty, it’s also the crux of the problem. Psalm 84:11 reinforces this dilemma “…no good thing does he withhold from those whose walk is blameless.” If God is good, shouldn’t we receive more “good” things in our life? Shouldn’t we at least have more blessings than those who don’t even care about God?
The Human Perspective
After stating what he knows is ultimately true, Asaph looks around and from a human perspective wonders what is going on in the first half of the psalm. He was bothered by what he had been taught in Scripture because what he had experienced in life was radically different. In verse 2, he admits that he had almost “slipped.” This verse stands in stark contrast to the certainty of verse 1: “But as for me, my feet had almost slipped; I had nearly lost my foothold.” God, you might be good, but I almost bailed on you. Asaph felt like he was trying to walk on moss-covered rocks in a lake. He came very, very close to losing his confidence in God’s goodness because of four things that he saw around him.
1. The prosperity of the wicked. Verse 3 tells us why he almost went spiritually AWOL: “For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.” The word “arrogant” comes from a root word that means a loud and clear noise. The idea is that a proud person is one who toots his own horn real loud. It’s also used of the braying of a donkey. Notice that Asaph is not upset with the arrogant or the wicked, he’s jealous of them. He wants what they have. But actually this goes much deeper.
The word “prosperity” doesn’t do justice to the original term: shalom. This word is pregnant with meaning for the Old Testament believer. The root of shalom is “completion” or “fulfillment” and was often used to describe peace, wholeness, harmony and physical well-being. Asaph doesn’t get this. Why would the wicked have everything that was only promised to God’s covenant people? It doesn’t seem fair. He’s doing what many of us do when we make judgments based only upon what we see. His perspective is on the present and he’s forgotten the future.
2. The peace of the wicked. In verses 4-5 Asaph wonders why life seems so good for those who have nothing to do with God: “They 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.” They live in the fast lane but don’t seem to crash and burn. Their life appears painless and easy. Charles Spurgeon once said, “Those who deserve the hottest hell often have the warmest nest.”
3. The pride of the wicked. As Asaph looks closer, he sees that the unbeliever has no need of God in verses 6-12. The very people who are often the most prosperous and live the most peaceful lives are also those who are the most arrogant. They don’t need any jewelry because their pride glitters like an expensive necklace. They think very highly of themselves and very little of others. Verse 7 says that they have no limits. They have all the time, money, and influence to do whatever they want.
These prideful people make fun of believers in verse 8 and even speak against God in verses 9 and 11. Their pride has taken them so high that they look down on God and on God’s people. Verse 10 indicates that this boasting and scoffing has a powerful impact on those who are trying to follow God. Verse 12 gives a summary of what the wicked are like: “Always carefree, they increase in wealth.”
Let’s admit something this morning. Many of us secretly look up to those who are famous and financially secure. That’s why the Osbourne’s and American Idol are such big hits on TV. Lance Bass, who is a member of ‘N Sync, is planning to fly to the international space station this fall and younger kids are suddenly interested in the space program again. We’re jealous of those who seem to live without boundaries, of those who can do whatever they want. Some of you teenagers are wondering right now if following Christ is really worth it. Why should you live for Jesus when your friends seem to be doing all right without Him? Maybe you’re ready to cave in instead of standing up for Jesus. Is it more important to you to be popular or to be pure in heart?
4. The self-pity of the righteous. In verse 13, Asaph basically believes that there is no advantage to holy living. He’s starting to tube out spiritually when he writes: “Surely in vain have I kept my heart pure; in vain have I washed my hands in innocence.” From a human perspective, there seems to be little reward for righteous living. The Living Bible puts it this way: “Have I been wasting my time? Why take the trouble to be pure?” Malachi 3:14 echoes this complaint: “You have said, ‘It is futile to serve God. What did we gain by carrying out his requirements and going about like mourners before the LORD Almighty? But now we call the arrogant blessed. Certainly the evildoers prosper, and even those who challenge God escape.’”
In verse 14 Asaph wonders why he’s been beat up while the prideful are prospering. He turns to self-pity as he describes the emotional deluge that has come over him: “All day long I have been plagued; I have been punished every morning.” His afflictions last all day and when he wakes up the next morning, there’s a boatload of new problems waiting for him.
At the end of verse 14, Asaph is filled with turmoil, confusion and despondency. What begins as envy in verses 2 and 3 results in agonizing self-doubt. Doug Goins, in a sermon on this passage, suggests that the process of resolution and restoration begins only when Asaph battles through the ideology of autonomy and affluence in verses 15-16.
The first thing he does is to remember that he is part of the community of faith and that he must be careful what he verbalizes: “If I had said, ‘I will speak thus,’ I would have betrayed your children.” He couldn’t talk to others about his doubts because it would have done more harm than good. Asaph is concerned for spiritual infants. He doesn’t want to do anything to lead them astray so he chooses to keep quiet. If he had spoken openly about his doubts he would have betrayed younger believers by introducing ideas that were not true because they were incomplete. Friends, if you have any suspicion of being wrong, it is better to keep your mouth closed. Proverbs 17:28: “Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent, and discerning if he holds his tongue.”
This is admirable but it doesn’t solve his dilemma. His second approach is equally futile. Verse 16 says, “When I tried to understand all this, it was oppressive to me.” Keeping things inside only made him want to explode. He was miserable because he couldn’t talk to others and he was overwhelmed because he couldn’t figure it out on his own.
The Heavenly Perspective
As we come to verse 17 we see a noticeable shift in Asaph’s paradigm as he goes through a reality check. In the first half of the psalm, he is viewing life from a human outlook. In the second half, he reframes his understanding of reality by looking at heaven’s viewpoint. The first section deals with the “trial of faith,” and the last part addresses the “triumph of faith.” We can delineate the difference this way:
Trial of Faith (2-16) Triumph of Faith (17-28)
- Focus on self Focus on God (notice the use of “God” and “you”)
- Locked into present Longing for the future
- Slipping away Secure forever
- Rocked by envy Ready for evangelism
What is it that changes everything for Asaph? The same thing that will transform our perspective: worship. Verse 17 is the hinge point of the psalm: “Till I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny.” I really like how the Message translates this: “Then I understood the whole picture.” When we just look at those around us, and when we judge God according to our own experiences, we can never have the whole picture. Everything is put into proper perspective when we go into the presence of God. The prosperity of the wicked had filled up his vision, but from now to the end of the psalm, God Himself, the God of the sanctuary, becomes his focal point.
The word “sanctuary” is plural and refers to holy places. In the Old Testament, the sanctuary was a set place with certain regulations about how to approach God. According to the New Testament, God has now taken up residence within believers. 1 Corinthians 6:19-20: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body.” We don’t have to make a pilgrimage to a special spot in order to enter the holy place but it’s important to have some places where you can meet with God and gain His perspective again. If we don’t gaze at God, we’ll default to our human perspective and end up becoming jealous and bitter.
God’s point of view is understood when we meet with Him. When we’re reminded of His attributes, His character, and His power, we see both God’s judgment of sin as well as His solution offered to sinners. It was only in the sanctuary of God that Asaph could understand the precarious predicament of the wicked and the sweetness of God’s grace and mercy in his own life. The mysteries of life only make sense in the presence of the Majesty. One of the results of revering God is that instead of focusing on the present, we are transported to eternity. It’s only then that we can fully appreciate the gravity of a final destiny apart from God.
When we look at life through the eyes of eternity, we will see four things:
1. The ruin of the wicked. In verses 18-20, Asaph’s reality is reframed as he’s finally able to see that God has placed the wicked on very slippery ground. In verse 2, he felt like he was sliding away, but now he recognizes that unbelievers will be cast down to ruin. Slippery ground originally referred to a piece of polished marble that was very slick. From heaven’s perspective, lost people will lose their footing and have a quick ride to the bottom. The word “ruin” was used of a desert or an area decimated by a storm. When God’s judgment comes, unbelievers will be wiped out.
Verse 19 is the destiny of those who do not know Christ: “How suddenly are they destroyed, completely swept away by terrors!” That’s echoed in 1 Thessalonians 5:3, a passage that we will study in our upcoming “Don’t Be Left Behind” series: “While people are saying, ‘Peace and safety,’ destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape.”
Friends, listen carefully. Instead of jealously longing for the things that lost people have, we should have a holy horror about their final destiny. Verse 20 warns us that they are living a dream, or a fantasy, that will eventually turn into a nightmare. Judgment is real and we shouldn’t try to sugar coat the awful truth of eternal punishment.
We’re often like the Smith family who was proud of their family tradition. Their ancestors had come to America on the Mayflower and included Senators and successful businessmen. This famous family decided to compile a family history so they hired an author to put everything together in a book. They ran into some trouble however, when they didn’t know how to handle a great-uncle who had been executed in the electric chair.
The author told the family that he would take care of everything. When the book came out, this is what it said about this infamous relative: “Great uncle George occupied a chair of applied electronics at an important government institution, was attached to his position by the strongest of ties and his death came as a real shock.” Friends, we can’t rewrite what God has said. We can’t whitewash the reality of everlasting punishment. People without Christ are one step from destruction, one breath from ruin, and one heartbeat from hell.
At almost every funeral I do, I like to remind people that we get things turned around. We think that when a person dies that they leave the land of the living and go to the place where dead people go. When we come into the sanctuary of God, we see that this is the land of the dying, and when we take our final breath here, we go to the land of the living, either to live in heaven with God forever, or to suffer the horrors of a hot hell for eternity.
Jonathon Edwards, in his classic sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” shocked his listeners into repentance when he preached on Deuteronomy 32:35: “Their foot shall slide in due time.” Here’s just a portion of what he said: “The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much in the same way as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect, over the fire…is dreadfully provoked; His wrath towards you burns like fire; He looks upon you as worthy of nothing else but to be cast into the fire; He is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in His sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in His eyes than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours…It is to be ascribed to nothing else, that you did not go to hell the last night…and there is no other reason to be given, why you have not dropped into hell since you arose in the morning, but that God’s hand has held you up…O sinner, consider the fearful danger you are in! It is a great furnace of wrath, a wide and bottomless pit, full of the fire of wrath…You hang by a slender thread, with the flames of divine wrath flashing about it and ready every moment to singe it, and burn it asunder…” (http://www.visi.com/~contra_m//ab/je_sinners.html)
2. The repentance of the righteous. In verses 21-22, Asaph owns up for his myopic vision: “When my heart was grieved and my spirit embittered, I was senseless and ignorant; I was a brute beast before you.” The word “grieved” is used to describe the expanding, bubbling nature of yeast as it works its way through bread. It’s also used of vinegar, which helps to describe his expanding and sour attitude toward God when he looked at life through his human glasses. His spirit was bitter, which can literally be translated, “my kidneys were sharp with pain.” When he wanted what the wicked had, he was eaten up on the inside.
When controlled by bitterness, he behaved like an animal. He uses a term for a grazing animal that lives with his head hunched down, seeing only the grass, and never the sky. Like an animal out to pasture, so Asaph was viewing things only from a human perspective. When he did, his heart was grieved, or “soured,” and his spirit embittered. One of the things that separate us from brute beasts is that animals cannot contemplate the future; they live only in the present. When Asaph looked only at the here-and-now, he was like an ornery ox that had no concept of eternal realities.
3. The rewards of the righteous. I love the first word of verse 23: “Yet.” After confessing that he was bitter, senseless, and ignorant, he immediately recognizes that God has not cast him away: “ I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand.” This verse delineates two rewards: God’s presence and God’s protection. God is always with us, no matter what we do, or think. And, He holds on to us. We are His possession. Isaiah 41:10: “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”
Verse 24 describes two more rewards: God’s guidance and God’s glory: “You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me into glory.” God promises to counsel us and lead us through life. And, then when our time on earth is finished, He will take us into glory. We can rest in God’s grip. We can rely on His guidance and we can reflect on the glory to come.
In verse 25, Asaph is finally at the point where God has always wanted him to be: “Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you.” If you cannot say this with integrity this morning, then your perspective is more human than heavenly. Until you and I can get to the point of saying, “God, you’re all I want because you’re all I need” then we’re going to wonder why life doesn’t seem fair. Is God all you want? No matter what happens to you, or what you see in others, are you satisfied in God? Asaph knew that nothing was more valuable than what he already had. Do you?
In verse 26, Asaph can say that no matter what happens to him, “God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” The word “strength” means, “rock.” As a Levite, he knew all about a “portion” because his livelihood was dependent upon the tithes and offerings of God’s people (much like pastors today). This “portion,” can also be translated as his “allotment” or “inheritance.” While his present needs are taken care of through people’s faithful stewardship, his eternal inheritance is rock solid because God Himself is His portion. Ultimately, no matter what happens to him, the Almighty is his allotment. Can you say what Habakkuk declared in Habakkuk 3:17-18? “Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Savior.”
4. The responsibility of believers. Asaph concludes by saying that he will fulfill two key responsibilities of every believer. First, he will stay near to God. Look at the first part of verse 28: “But as for me, it is good to be near God. I have made the Sovereign LORD my refuge…” Since happiness is only found in a close relationship with God, it only makes sense to get as close to Him as possible. His nearness is “good,” which means, “sweet and pleasant.” Asaph has learned first-hand that the greater our nearness to God, the less we will be affected by the attractions and distractions around us. James 4:8: “Come near to God and he will come near to you.” Will you draw near to Him right now?
Our second responsibility is to tell others about God. We see this in the very last phrase of the psalm: “I will tell of all your deeds.” Before Asaph worshipped he concluded that it wasn’t worth it to follow God. He was filled with envy and decided to not tell other believers about his doubts. Don’t miss this connection. As long as he was discontented with God he could say nothing at all. Envy is the enemy of evangelism.
But in the second half of the psalm he reaches a different conclusion. Once he sees the destruction of the wicked he no longer craves what they have and now he can speak. Listen carefully. Many of us don’t tell others about Jesus not because we don’t know how but because we don’t really believe that what we have is better than what others have. Worldliness is devastating to our witness because we secretly desire to be more like lost people than we desire that they be like us. We want what they have more than we want them to have what is ours.
One of the best motivators for evangelism is to come into the presence of God and allow Him to shift your paradigm. Think of the people you go to school with. Think of your relatives, co-workers, neighbors, and friends who don’t know Jesus. Are you attracted to their lifestyle? Do you wish you could do the same things they do? Do you wish you could have their toys? Ask yourself this question: Where will they be when the finality of God’s judgment lands on them with a thud?
Friends, those we may have wanted to join are the very ones we must rescue. When our perspective shifts from our human understanding to the reality of eternity, we won’t be able to be quiet. We must speak. We will want to tell of all His deeds. We cannot sit on the good news while people are slipping and sliding into the horrors of hell.
Communion: A Reality Check
On Tuesday of this past week, Beth attended the Women’s Gathering and I went to the prayer meeting here at church as we did a “prayer walk” for AWANA. Emily babysat and had a hard time getting Megan, our youngest, to fall asleep. She was crying and calling for mommy and daddy. Emily then had a brilliant idea. She went into her room and got a picture of our family and set it up in Megan’s crib. She told Megan that she didn’t have to be sad because her family was with her. Guess what? It worked.
One of the best pictures of reality God has given to us is the ordinance of communion. This is a wonderful way to come into the sanctuary of God and have our human perspective changed into a heavenly one. It’s God’s picture of what is ultimately real. Jesus died in our place, as our substitute on the cross, so that we don’t have to pay the price for our sins by spending eternity in hell.
As we prepare to celebrate communion today, maybe your signals have been crossed and you’ve thought about bailing on God. Use this time right now to examine yourself as 1 Corinthians 11:28 challenges us to do. If you’re far from God, draw near to Him and allow Him to reframe your reality. If you need to repent, do so right now. Enter his sanctuary and be ready to tell everyone about the wonderful ways he has rescued you