When Life Doesn’t Seem Fair
August 29, 2015 | Brian Bill
[Walk up to stage and act like I’m tripping over something…and then act like I’m slipping on a wet floor]
Have you ever been tripped up by trials? Have you ever slipped spiritually when you see how carefree some non-Christians seem to live? If so, you’re not alone. That’s exactly what happened to a musician named Asaph in Psalm 73. Check out what he describes in verse 2:
“ But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled, my steps had nearly slipped.”
Grab your Bibles and turn to the first verse of the 73rd Psalm: “Truly God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart.” He is stating a bedrock truth: God is good. The word “truly” literally means “yet” or “indeed” 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. 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 care about God? Psalm 84:11 reinforces this dilemma “…no good thing does he withhold from those whose walk is blameless.”
Asaph was a mature, godly man who served as the chief worship leader and was the human author of 12 different psalms. Interestingly, his name means “gatherer.” Yet, in spite of all this, he came close to falling. He almost walked away from God because his perception of reality was mixed up. Asaph asks the question that many of us have asked: “Why are the unrighteous successful while the righteous suffer?”
Asaph understands the Word but when he looks at the world around him, his faith almost faceplants! He takes his eyes off the eternal and as a result he loses his spiritual equilibrium. He can’t reconcile his faith with the reality that some unbelievers seem to experience more blessings than he does and spiritual slippage starts to take place. Here’s the deal: Our perception of reality will always affect our response to reality. We could say it like this: Where you stand determines what you see.
The Human Perspective
Asaph came very close to losing his confidence in God’s goodness because of four things that he saw around him. He tried to color within the lines but it didn’t seem to pay off. And now the dragon of doubt is breathing down his neck.
1. The prosperity of the wicked.
Verse 3 tells us why he almost went spiritually AWOL: “For [because] I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.” Envy is the tendency to compare yourself with someone else in a way that leaves you feeling deprived. The word “arrogant” comes from a root word that means a loud noise. The idea is that a proud person is one who loudly toots his own horn. It’s also used of the braying of a donkey. Notice that Asaph is not upset with the arrogant or the wicked, he’s envious of them. He wants what they have. But actually this goes much deeper.
His perspective is on the present and he’s forgotten the future
The word “prosperity” doesn’t do justice to the Hebrew word, which is shalom. The root meaning 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? Isaiah 57:21 says, “There is no peace for the wicked!” How can this be? It doesn’t seem fair. Asaph is 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. As a result, he has a hole in his soul.
2. The painlessness of the wicked.
In verses 4-5 Asaph wonders why life seems so good for those who have nothing to do with God: “For they have no pangs until death; their bodies are fat [healthy] and sleek. They are not in trouble as others are; they are not stricken like the rest of mankind.”
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 pompous. 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.
The wicked speak against God in verses 9 and 11 and act like God doesn’t know what they’re doing. 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 at ease, they increase in riches.” They are prosperous and carefree.
Let’s admit something. Many of us secretly look up to those who are famous and financially secure. We long to have what they have. We want to be popular and famous and will even compromise our convictions to make that happen. We see that in our culture all the time. Tragically, one example was Tobias Strebel, who was known for spending $100,000 on plastic surgery so he could look like Justin Bieber. He was found dead in a Motel 6 in L.A. this past weekend.
Maybe you’re stumbling instead of standing up for Jesus
We’re jealous of those who seem to live without boundaries, of those who can do whatever they want. Some of you teenagers and young adults 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 stumbling instead of standing up for Jesus. Is it more important to you to be popular or to be pure in heart?
Listen. If you choose to date only a Christian and you save sex for marriage and you determine to not lie or cheat or steal, you will stand out…and you will wonder if it’s really worth it when you see all the popular people doing whatever they want and seeming to get away with it.
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 slip spiritually when he writes: “All in vain have I kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence.” He’s kept his inner life clean and has kept his hands from doing harm but now he wonders if it’s worth it. From a human perspective, there seems to be little reward for righteous living. One paraphrase puts it this way: “Have I been wasting my time? Why take the trouble to be pure?”
In verse 14 Asaph wonders why he’s been pummeled 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 stricken and rebuked 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.
But then two checks take place in his spirit.
- Be careful what you say. He remembers that he is part of the community of faith and must watch his words in verse 15: “If I had said, ‘I will speak thus,’ I would have betrayed the generation of your children.” 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. Proverbs 17:28: “Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent, and discerning if he holds his tongue.” Too many of us think we can say (or post on social media) or do anything we want without thinking about how this may cause a younger believer to stumble spiritually.
- Be committed to learn. Verse 16 says, “But when I thought how to understand this, it seemed to me a wearisome task.” 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.
I want to come back to youth and young adults for a moment. I have so much respect for those of you who are living out your faith because you’re part of a generation that doesn’t take Jesus seriously. Listen. It’s OK to have some doubts and some questions. In a three-year study done by Sticky Faith, over 500 students were surveyed and they found that doubt is pervasive but it’s not necessarily a bad thing: “What is toxic is unexpressed or unexplored doubt. When young people have the opportunity to express or explore their doubt, it is correlated with stronger and more mature faith.”
Asaph made at least three foundational mistakes (credit to Ray Pritchard).
- He judged only by what he saw
- He left God out of the equation
- He forgot about the life to come
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 views life from a human perspective. He looks at what others have and what he doesn’t have. Now he looks at who God is and what he has in Him. 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: gathering with God’s people for worship! Verse 17 is the hinge point of the psalm: “Until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I discerned their end.” The word “went” means to “come” or “go,” meaning he had to get up and go and not stay where he was.
It’s important to gather with God’s people to 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. It’s only when God is at the center that we see things as they really are. When we think God is not enough we’ll end up in a bad place. Psalm 63:2: “So I looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory.” Our muddled thinking only gets cleared up when we meet with God.
Unfortuntely, too many today unplug and then they unravel. And because they are not gathering in God’s presence, their thinking gets out of whack and they start slipping. Friends, see our weekly gatherings as not optional but essential!
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 slippery ground: “Truly you set them in slippery places; you make them fall to ruin.” [show PPT slide] In verse 2, he felt like he was sliding away, but now he recognizes that unbelievers will be cast down to ruin. From heaven’s perspective, lost people will lose their footing and have a quick ride to the bottom. The word “ruin” was used of an area decimated by a storm, like what happened after Hurricane Katrina hit 10 years ago this weekend. When God’s judgment comes, unbelievers will be wiped out.
Did you see this week that James Holmes, who murdered 12 people in that Colorado movie theater received 12 life sentences and an additional 3,318 years for his crimes? Albert Mohler pointed out that we want justice but we know it won’t be completed here. Only God can deliver righteous justice. Listen to what the judge said: “If there was ever a case that warranted a maximimum sentence, this is the case. The defendant does not deserve any sympathy. Sheriff, get the defendant out of my courtroom please!”
Verse 19 is the destiny of those who do not know Christ: “How they are destroyed in a moment, swept away utterly [completely] by terrors!” God will send people out of his courtroom. That’s echoed in 1 Thessalonians 5:3: “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. The solid-looking path is really a slippery road that leads to a ditch of damnation.
At almost every funeral I do, I 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.
I like what Randy Alcorn says: “This world is the closest thing to heaven unbelievers will ever experience, and the closest thing to hell believers will ever know.”
Jonathon Edwards, in his classic sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” preached from Deuteronomy 32:35: “Their foot shall slide in due time.” Here’s just a portion of what he preached: “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…It is to be ascribed to nothing else, that you did not go to hell the last night…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 to his sin: “When my soul was embittered, when I was pricked in heart, I was brutish and ignorant; I was like a beast toward you.” The word “embittered” 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 sour attitude toward God when he looked at life through his human glasses. His spirit was bitter, which can 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 a beast. He uses a term for a grazing animal that lives with his head hunched down, seeing only the grass, and never the sky.
3. The rewards of the righteous.
I love the first word of verse 23: “Nevertheless.” Asaph had really underestimated his prosperity all along. Here are four things that he now knows he has:
- God’s presence. “I am continually with you…” God will never leave us.
- God’s protection. “You hold my right hand.” We are His possession.
- God’s guidance. Verse 24: “You guide me with your counsel…” God promises to counsel us and lead us through life.
- God’s glory. “…and afterward you will receive me to glory.” When our time on earth is finished, He will take us into glory.
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 there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.” If you cannot say this with integrity right now, 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? Asaph knew that nothing was more valuable than what he already had.
In verse 26, he makes a bold confession, “My flesh and my heart may fail, but 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.
4. The responsibility of believers.
Asaph urges us to make two commitments.
- Stay near to God. Look at the first part of verse 28: “But for me it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord God my refuge…” His nearness is “good,” which means, “sweet and pleasant.” He began by saying God is good and now he says it is good to be near Him. 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. Tim Keller says that the reason we get mad at God is because we want more than God. James 4:8: “Come near to God and he will come near to you.”
- Tell others about God. We see this in the very last phrase of the psalm: “That I may tell of all your works.” Before Asaph worshipped he concluded that it wasn’t worth it to follow God. Don’t miss this connection. As long as he was discontented with God he couldn’t tell others about Him. Envy is the enemy of evangelism.
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 we have.
One of the best motivators for evangelism is to come into the presence of God as verse 17 says, so “you can discern their end.” 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 long to have their toys? Ask yourself this question: Where will they be when the finality of God’s judgment is delivered to them and they are cast out his courtroom? Look at verse 27: “For behold, those who are far from you shall perish; you put an end to everyone who is unfaithful to you.”
Check this out. Those we are prone to envy are the very ones we must rescue. We cannot sit on the good news while people are slipping and sliding into the horrors of a hot and eternal Hell.
When Megan was a baby, our oldest daughter Emily babysat her one night and had a difficult time getting her to fall asleep (she loves to sleep now). No matter what Emily did, she kept crying and calling for her mommy and daddy. Emily then had a brilliant idea. She grabbed a picture of her parents and set it up in Megan’s crib. She told Megan that she didn’t have to be sad because her parents were with her. Guess what? She calmed down and experienced shalom…and then fell asleep.
Any Asaphs here today? Anyone experiencing some spiritual slippage? Your Father is with you and He’s given you a picture of His love. Jesus died in your place, as your substitute on the cross, so that we don’t have to pay the price for your sins by spending eternity in hell. And instead of tripping or slipping, you will be secure because He is your rock and refuge.
[Demonstrate almost slipping and falling but standing firm with both feet on the ground]
If you’re far from God, draw near to Him, allow Him to reframe your reality, repent of your sins and receive Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior. And then tell everyone about the wonderful ways he has rescued you.