One of the things I love about the Bible is its earthy realism. It understands the world we live in – the good and the bad, the grief and the joys. It also understands how we feel about life’s injustices especially when we see people who mock the notion of God, enjoying success. Nothing ever seems to go wrong for them. And as well as the unfairness we often feel, there are the realities of droughts and famines, floods and fires, earthquakes and ruthless autocratic rulers. Why doesn’t God step in? It seems so out of character, if he is all-powerful and truly good.
True faith will always have questions. In fact, faith that refuses to ask questions is one that leaves itself open to the contempt of the skeptic. True faith will want to address tough questions and be willing to experience the doubts that arise.
Now it’s important to note that to have doubts is not to lack faith: doubt is not the opposite of faith. Doubt and unbelief are two very different things. Doubt is something that only a believer can experience, for you can only doubt what you believe.
Come with me to Psalm 73. It’s the first of three Psalms that I will be touching on as we move into a new season. The Psalms are God’s ancient hymn book for his people. They provide meditations on questions raised in everyday experiences. Over these three Wednesdays we will consider Psalms 73, 96 and 103 as we explore the themes of doubt, joy, and mercy.
Doubt. Psalm 73 is a reflection written by a man who experienced doubt. He came within a hair’s breadth of abandoning his faith in God: But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled; my steps had nearly slipped (73:2). Yet at the end of the psalm he tells us he felt closer to God than ever before: But for me it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord God my refuge, to tell of all your works (73:28). As the psalm unfolds we learn of his spiritual pilgrimage – how he progressed from doubt to a surer trust in God.
One of his big questions is framed by what we might say is a theological principle – that God is good to the upright (73:1). ‘Why is it then’, he asks, ‘that many who are godless find life easy while I suffer? Where is God?’
Indeed, a tone of bitterness flows through verses 3 through 11. It’s as though he is saying, ‘Come on, let’s face it, whatever we say when we go to church, it is the self-centered, proud, deceitful and ruthless people who succeed. Healthy and wealthy, nothing seems to bring them down. No-one seems to be able to call them to account. ‘They get rewarded for their crimes with popularity’, the psalmist observes. ‘God is irrelevant’, they say in mocking tones, rejecting any thought of divine retribution. Justice is the issue troubling the poet.
Consider what triggered the writer’s crisis of faith: All in vain I have kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence. For all day long I have been plagued and am punished every morning (73:13f). For many, injustice only becomes an issue when it touches them. In those times we ask: ‘God, why me?’ It’s here that the first person singular pronouns give us away: ‘Why should I suffer?’ ‘Why me God?’ The psalm-writer articulates it: I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked (73:15).
The solution. In verses 15 following, we discover how the poet worked through his doubts. He went to church: When… I went into the sanctuary of God… I perceived their end.
Good churches not only read the Bible, but believe it to be God’s authentic, self-revelation. And so, they teach it and as they do they put God at the center of the vision of God’s people. This is vitally important. For it is only when God is at the center of our vision that we see life as it really is. We’re like the moon – we live on borrowed light. It’s only when we turn our face towards God through his Word that we see the light. But as long as we put ‘me’ at the center of life, our vision will be distorted.
So it’s only when we learn from God’s Word that we begin to see the true light revealed by God. And when the psalmist reflected on God’s Word he began to see what happens to those who choose not to believe: They are like a dream when one awakes; on awaking you despise their phantoms (73:20). As far as the Bible is concerned, this is dreadfully real.
The idea of a final day of accounting is mocked today. But when we think about it, if there is no ultimate judgement the world is reduced to moral indifference: goodness itself has no value. Furthermore, God’s people realize that just because we can’t see the future doesn’t mean it is imaginary. God sees it, even though we don’t.
There is probably no more terrible judgment on godless men and women than the reality that one day God will ignore them forever. ‘Depart from me, I never knew you,’ Jesus will say. What chilling words to hear from the Lord of the universe. What a terrifying nightmare to be despised by God. When the psalmist went to church and put God at the center of his vision, he understood how precarious is the prosperity of the godless. It won’t last, he realized.
But the psalm-writer also learned that despite his doubts and foolish talk, he was a child of God: Nevertheless I am continually with you; you hold my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me into glory (73:23). To hear God’s Word in the company of his people is a powerful grace-gift from God. It prompts us to see our doubts for what they are and opens our eyes to the riches of faith. God holds us by the hand, guides us with his counsel, and will bring us to everlasting glory.
We today have all the greater assurance of this because we live on the other side of the life and death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. Without him we will not know life in all its fullness and joy. CS Lewis once put it this way: All your life an unattainable ecstasy has hovered just beyond the grasp of your consciousness. The day is coming when you will wake to find, beyond all hope, that you have attained it, or else, that it was within your reach and you have lost it forever.
Prayers. Almighty God, you have conquered death through your dearly beloved Son Jesus Christ and have opened to us the gate of everlasting life: grant us by your grace to set our mind on things above, so that by your continual help our whole life may be transformed; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit in everlasting glory. Amen.
Heavenly Father, the giver of all good things, fill our hearts with thankfulness, and grant that by your holy inspiration we may think those things that are good, and by your grace and guidance do them; through our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.