On the days when I sit down and read listener emails to the Ask Pastor John podcast, I brace myself for impact.
Opening those emails is to enter into the darkest trials, sins and relational struggles imaginable: churches splitting, marriages ending, children dying, teenagers rebelling, men and women being haunted by memories of physical, spiritual and sexual abuse.
The darkest stories are always the most complex and complicated stories, making them least likely to make it to the podcast (a medium best served by brief questions with broad applicability). Every one of those tough emails reminds us that our podcast will never substitute for the labors of pastors and brothers and sisters in local churches.
Losing a Grip
A woman (I’ll call her Julie) recently emailed to say, “For about 23 or more years, I genuinely thought I was a Christian. I thought I wanted God, I thought I believed in God and I thought I needed God. After a 20-year battle with ‘religious’ OCD, in which I used the Bible to help me deal with my questions, I came to the end of the road.”
After the last four years, “I do not believe,” she admits. “It has been a devastating loss to me, as I built my whole life and world around what I genuinely thought I believed, or maybe what I thought I wanted to believe.”
What drove her stop and pivot away from the gospel?
My trouble was that I see how “sinful” people seem to be living perfectly happy lives without God—something I mistakenly believed for a long time that no one was able to do. To be honest, they seem to be living pretty moral lives, too.
I came to the realization that some people are genuinely not looking for God. It took me a while to realize I was that person. Nobody who genuinely thought they at least wanted God “wants” to admit they really and very actually do not. So, I have done everything possible to cover it up, hoping that the hurt of it will go away. It doesn’t, really.
Then, to underline what’s at stake for her, Julie concluded with this heartbreaking admission:
I see where all the looking and reading and everything that happened led me. It led me here. I have to go and live my “new” life. Leave my husband, children, extended family, community. Leave everything behind, just like a new believer in Christ leaves behind their old life to follow the new life they have in him.
This email breaks me. It stays with me. I’ve read it three times and prayed over it. But it also calls for an answer.
Shouldn’t Non-Christians Be Miserable?
We look around and try to understand whether God understands and whether God sees. Does God see the circumstances we see, and does he see my struggles, and does he see the prosperity of the godless? The godless are wealthy and comfortable. Is God asleep? Does he watch the circumstances of the world like we watch them? Does he see the injustice of it all?
As we weigh our circumstances, we ask the cost-benefit question: Are the benefits of following Christ really worth the price?
One of only a handful of “wisdom psalms,” Psalm 73 is intended to address an ethical dilemma like Julie’s: Why should I keep faith, when unbelievers often seem better off? The psalm took center stage in the story of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, too, in the black struggle against slavery, and you’ll soon see why. The themes of Psalm 73 are also prominent in Jonathan Edwards’s most famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”
Doubting Dilemma (Psalm 73:1–15)
The psalmist looks around and sees the faithless living opulent lives of comfort and blessing and long life. He looks around and sees that these same people are wicked oppressors of others. He thinks that they’re getting away with it. The simplicity of the psalmist’s challenge fuels our search for clarity and answers. Where is our sovereign, righteous God when the sex trafficker naps on his yacht?
God is good to the “pure in heart” (Psalm 73:1). That makes sense. So why doesn’t he frustrate and undermine the lives of the impure in heart?
A question like that will shake your footing, and this psalmist (his name is Asaph), is losing his footing. His steps had nearly come out from under him. The ground seemed to move and the grave seemed to turn and slip under his feet (Psalm 73:2).
The God-rejecters are wealthy, healthy and comfortable (Psalm 73:4–15). Their toxic cocktail of health and wealth and comfort becomes a prosperity “gospel” of degradation. They live pompous and arrogant lives, as they look down on everyone else and abuse others. They have tongues that strut, so they despise God as unspeaking and powerless. They have bank accounts that prosper, so they despise God as worthless. They have indulgences that abound, so they despise God as an opiate for the poor and lowly.
Asaph looked at this predicament and felt the ground of his worldview shift under his feet: “As for me, my feet had almost stumbled, my steps had nearly slipped. For I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked” (Psalm 73:2–3).
Footing is faith, and to lose your footing is to lose your faith—or almost to lose your faith. In this world we face seasons of unbelief that hit like a dizzying spell of spiritual vertigo.
Unbelief hits so hard because our spiritual life depends so fully on faith. “Faith is the inescapable way in which we live our lives now in relation to God,” wrote John Webster, a beloved theologian who passed away this summer. “We cannot get beyond it; there are, again, no other terms on which we can have God” (Confronted, 163).
It’s tragically easy for us to lose our footing.
So how did the psalmist catch his footing? What stabilized his faith from the tremors of doubt?
Four realities kept him from finally stumbling down the cliff of unbelief.
1. Seek the sanctuary (Psalm 73:16–17).
When life seems unfair, or you feel depressed, or you feel like you’re being exploited, where do you turn? Do you turn to work to drown out your feebleness with more effectiveness? Do you turn to the mall to drown out your monotony with new clothes? Do you turn to your phone and social media to drown out your depression with a shot of affirmation? Do you turn to alcohol to numb your struggle? These therapeutic band-aids to our challenges cannot fundamentally heal us. They will only cover the pain for a moment.
The psalmist turned to the sanctuary, where he began thinking right again. In the sanctuary, in his right thoughts, he found correction for his heart and soul.
Personal doubts expose our theological gaps. Our doubts expose that we don’t know God well enough, says Tim Keller. “In Christianity, you feel better when you start to think properly. Some of you are going to hate that. For some of you, that’s not your temperament. But don’t you see, this man goes into the sanctuary to understand. You will never get out of your spiral unless you go to God saying, ‘The reason I’m mad and the reason I’m depressed and the reason I’m discouraged is because I’m missing something in my thinking.’”
So what did Asaph see in the sanctuary?
Asaph did not enter a temperature-controlled sanctuary with a glossy pulpit, upscale band setup, gel-filtered lights and a smoke machine. No, Asaph more likely stepped into God’s sanctuary to the sight of knives and gore and priests flicking blood off their fingers. As blood poured out of the bowl’s brim, Asaph witnessed a stunning optic of God’s justice for sin: the guiltless bull suffering the punishment of death for guilty sinners (see Leviticus 4:4–7, Ezekiel 18:20).
The sanctuary was where fresh bull blood was drained, sprinkled and poured. It was in the final moments of violent death that Asaph saw divine reality in all its gore and thickness. There Asaph was confronted with a foretaste of the cross. And the timeline of God made sense.
This life is not the full story. To worship and follow God is not measured in temporary blessings and comforts; it is measured in ultimate ends. In the sanctuary, the truth of God’s redemptive mercy came rushing back.
2. Become aware of self and patient with God’s plan (Psalm 73:18–22).
When we envy the wicked and grow jealous of the circumstances of those who do not honor God, we are like dumb animals in our ignorance. That’s the blunt reality. And the solution is not only in knowing about God, but also in knowing more about the future actions of God.
God will punish the wicked. He will right all wrongs. He will chastise all those who will not worship. He will bring an end to their flourishing. And although I cannot see God’s vengeance now, I know it is drawing close. The wicked will be swept away in a moment. Their footing will not hold on to their present comforts, they will tumble down into a terror, and they will fall down into a nightmare that will never end.
3. Catch the hand of God (Psalm 73:23–24).
Asaph recognized that God was with him, holding his hand and guiding his pathway into eternity by the light of his word. His unseen word. It’s a matter of faith and unbelief: to live satisfied in this present world is to live ignorant of a pathway into future glory.
4. Regain delight in the presence of God (Psalm 73:25–28).
On the surface, this appears to be a psalm all about the mind and philosophical dilemmas for thinkers. But it is more than this. The dominant organ in Psalm 73 is the heart. The psalmist struggles with an arrhythmia of the heart, not merely a misunderstanding of the mind.
Envy and doubt are signs of heart failure.
Asaph is asking: What do I really, really want? What do I crave?
In all his doubting of God’s wisdom, in his doubting of God’s power, Asaph is pressed to ask the really hard, fundamental questions of his life. Why does Asaph say what he says? Why did he almost lose his footing? Why do we slip like Asaph? His answer is our answer, as well: Because I want something more than I want God.
The solution to Asaph’s envy and jealousy is also our solution: to be satisfied in God. Asaph’s story leads us to beautiful confessions of God’s sufficiency. Compared to this world’s health and wealth and comfort, “there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you” (Psalm 73:25).
Everything in this life will fail, and when it fails and shakes and crumbles, you don’t want to be standing with all your hopes and joy rooted in them. God’s strength and joy is forever. Stand here!
On the other side of Christ, the apostle Paul confirms this same point. His joy in Christ sustained him so far that, “in any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.” With remarkably inclusive language, Paul proclaims, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:12–13).
“Live for beauty—but beauty fades. Live for money—but money fades. Live for success—but success fades,” warns Keller. “If you don’t have God, you really don’t have anything, because everything is just slipping away from you. Therefore, it may be shaky to believe in God. But it’s more slippery not to.”
We are creatures without wings, so we must stand somewhere. Asaph, Julie, you and I—we will all put our faith in something else or someone else. Where we stand exposes our theology, our hopes and our lives.
In his envy of the wealth and success and health of the wicked, Asaph discovered what he really wanted. He wanted God. All his surges of envy, and all his roots of doubt, were ways of saying, “I want pleasure through earthly comforts and I should have them because I’m good enough.” But as Keller points out, only God can give us the joy we seek. It’s not the circumstances we’re after; it’s God we are really after. Only God can deliver on these promises of joy.
How Firm Is Your Foundation?
I pray for Julie, that she will be caught by the sovereign hand of God. I pray that she will get her footing, and not put her faith in what shakes and ultimately gives way. I want her to turn to God and find in him the joy and satisfaction that can last far beyond the circumstances of life, so that she would testify along with Asaph:
Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. (Psalm 73:25–26)
We all face the seeming injustice of the worldly comforts enjoyed by those who reject Christ. We will be tempted to envy the fame and wealth of God-rejecters, even of those who manipulate and take advantage of others. In the cost-benefit structures of this world, Christ sometimes seems pointless. But we bring our questions and doubts and our envy into the sanctuary of God, a room now filled with the people of God, and there we are reminded together of what we are so apt to forget alone.
Our hearts cannot be sustained by health and wealth and worldly comfort. We stand, in faith, for an eternal day of joy—a joy in God himself. That day is now dawning over the timeline of God’s plan for this world. May we rejoice in him and tell others of his glorious works.
But for me it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord God my refuge, that I may tell of all your works. (Psalm 73:28)