Talking about doubts can seem almost taboo. How many friends have expressed their doubts about faith to you? How many sermons have you heard about doubts? What would your church friends or pastor think if you expressed your doubts to them? Are not the Old Testament saints heroes of great faith who never wavered in their trust in God?
Sadly, like wild birds who show no evidence they are sick until they suddenly perish, many professing Christians do not want to disclose or deal with their doubts. Perhaps they will ignore their doubts or dismiss them, or worse, internalize them until they feel hopeless. Or maybe they will feed those doubts a steady diet of false teaching until finally they abandon their faith.
Of course, anyone who lives the life of faith will experience doubts at one time or another. And in this world of sin it does not take long to stumble upon doubt-inducing events. A quick flick through the news channels evidences the wealth of cruel dictators and the poverty of innocent citizens. Documentaries describe how billionaire investors scammed their clients out of pension money. Why is it that the wicked seem to prosper? After all, do we not read in Proverbs 14:24 that, “The crown of the wise is their wealth, but the folly of fools brings folly,” or in Proverbs 1:19 that, “Such are the ways of everyone who is greedy for unjust gain; it takes away the life of its possessors”? The wisdom literature of the Bible seems to teach that the righteous will live the good life, and the wicked will fall to ruin. This is called the retribution principle, meaning that each will get what is owed to him.
Yet, so often it seems that life does not work this way. And as Christians, injustice and calamity can seem so dire that our faith may be stretched to within moments of breaking. Perhaps you have experienced something like this personally: a great tragedy, suffering, illness, abuse, loss, or betrayal. Even if you have not yet, you are going to face challenges to your faith in the future.
But the good news is that God cares about the doubts of his people. He cares so much about preserving your faith that, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, he has recorded Asaph’s struggle of faith for you in Scripture to prepare you for how to respond when life does not go the way you think it should. So as we meditate on Psalm 73, God instructs us by way of example on how to respond to doubts: by looking ahead to the age to come, the days in which our Savior Jesus Christ will bless the righteous and judge the wicked. In other words, Psalm 73 teaches us that our response to doubts must be to trust in the Lord’s promises, and to use his means of grace throughout our pilgrim journey of faith.
The psalm is structured in three segments, each marked by a Hebrew particle we can translate as truly or surely. The first segment is verses 1–12. In this section we learn that even the faithful may have doubts—a crisis of faith. The second segment is verses 13–17. In this section we learn what to do when we doubt—the turning point. The third segment is verses 18–28. In this section we learn of God’s faithfulness to doubters—the resolution.
Even the Faithful May Have Doubts: A Crisis of Faith
The psalm is ascribed to Asaph, about whom we know little except that he is one of three Levitical musicians appointed by King David for worship in the temple (1 Chron 6:31–48). Asaph has experienced a great crisis of faith and is wondering why the retribution principle is not working. The first verse of the psalm describes Asaph’s agreement with the clear teaching of the Scriptures: “Truly, God is good to Israel” (v. 1). But he has not always believed this. In fact, this declaration, his assured affirmation (truly), comes only after the resolution of his crisis of faith. There was a moment where his “feet had almost stumbled”—a metaphor for almost losing his faith (v. 2). Thus, this psalm is a recounting of how he moved from a place of doubt to a place of deep assurance, praising God for his goodness to Israel.
In the midst of his crisis of faith, Asaph was not pure in heart, because what had driven him to doubt was his envy of the arrogant and the wicked (v. 3). He looked around at others and wished that life went as well for him as for the wicked. What a shock! The psalmist admits that the reason his steps had almost slipped, that he had almost abandoned his faith, was his envy of the success of the wicked. Here, we should reflect on how easily we can fall victim to this kind of jealousy. Rather than scoff at Asaph’s lack of piety, we should consider what makes us jealous. Is there a deceptive and egotistical colleague at work who owns a large house and a holiday home? Is there a bully at school who is mean to others yet seems to have lots of friends? How unfair! After all, if I am faithful to God, why am I experiencing financial troubles? Why is my marriage on the rocks? Why is my daughter ill with cancer?
Yet Asaph’s incredulity does not end there. Verses 4–9 enumerate the ease and arrogance with which the wicked coast through life. They have no pains or troubles; they are fat from feasting on the finest wines and cuisine. The result of this ease and wealth is arrogance. But not just the internal state of arrogance; no, the wicked wear their pride and violence like fine pearls and clothing. Their excesses bulge their eyes out like feasting frogs, and they threaten to crush those who pose a challenge to their comfortable lives. Using a Ugaritic phrase, Asaph describes them as big talkers whose tongues march metaphorically through the earth as if it is their kingdom.
Verse 10 then describes the effect this can have on God’s people—and the effect it did have on Asaph—namely, that they are tempted to approve of the wicked. In other words, God’s people see that everything goes smoothly for the wicked, like that perfect couple on social media who never seem to fight and seem to spend all their time on vacation in Tahiti. The wicked get what the righteous should get and the righteous get what the wicked should get. This is exactly the opposite of the retribution principle.
Such a shock to the moral system makes God’s people wonder, “Maybe they’re on the right track. Maybe I’m on the wrong team.” This temptation to approve of wickedness should be a warning to us that other people’s power, success, and wealth is alluring. Believers can be tempted and led astray by the ease of living enjoyed by the wicked. We may be tempted to follow the thinking of the atheists, “How can God know? Is there knowledge in the Most High?” (v. 11). After all, the wicked seem to live beyond the grip of accountability. They do not believe there is a God to whom they must give account, and in practice they seem to maintain their power, privilege, and success all their days. Their behavior demonstrates the ethical result of denying a future judgment—living however one wants. As verse 12 summarizes, the wicked live in arrogant ease, increasing their riches.
What To Do When You Doubt: The Turning Point
This summary of the nature of the wicked is also a summary of Asaph’s jealousy of the wicked. As Asaph reflects on what he observes, he comes to a sad conclusion. In the Hebrew, verse 13 begins with another truly (many English translations seem to leave this out)—a strong affirmation of a negative. His piety has been in vain. By using the cultic (i.e., having to do with worship) terminology of cleansing and washing, he is essentially saying, “What is the point of all this religious stuff? Is it worth it? The wicked prosper and I suffer? My faithfulness has done nothing for me!” You may be able to identify with Asaph. Have you ever wondered, “Is all this church stuff worth it?” Indeed, it is difficult being a pilgrim in this world awaiting the next. It is difficult being a Christian and bearing the promised cross of suffering. Well, Asaph walked that path before us. His doubts are so deep that he wonders whether to just tap out from his life of faith.
In verse 14, he even sounds like the preacher in Ecclesiastes 7:15: “In my absurd life I have seen everything. There is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his evildoing.” Asaph had acted with blameless piety; yet all he seemed to earn was daily calamity.
What happens next strikes a surprising note of pastoral wisdom. In verse 15, Asaph explains he was weary of publicly flaunting his doubts of God’s goodness among the community of faith. In particular, he was concerned about the effect his doubts might have on the children of the covenant community. He was worried about scandalizing them—that is, causing them to fall away from their faith. Perhaps he had an early impulse of the impressionability of children and the weightiness of destroying their faith. This was wise since it was certainly something Jesus fiercely warned against: “But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matt 18:6).
What a contrast between Asaph’s circumspection and the voyeuristic impulses of our social media world to vent any inconvenience or calamity. It is not always appropriate to impress your inner world on anyone and everyone around you. Now, of course, this is not to say you should not talk about and seek counsel concerning your doubts. Rather, it is a lesson that discretion is key. Instead of seeking a therapeutic feeling by getting things off our chest publicly, we should confess our doubts to trusted, mature Christians, and especially our elders and pastors. These are the people equipped to comfort and guide us in our moments of weakness, and they will not be influenced by our doubts in the way that children might.
Since Asaph knows he cannot broadcast his doubts in the public assembly, he tries to understand why the retribution principle is failing (v. 16). But even this avenue he found exhausting. And Asaph is right. It is difficult to understand the complexities of this world in our own strength. Trying to use our own wisdom for this is actually impossible, because we cannot peer into the secrets of God’s providential wisdom.
What then can be done? How do we deal with this wearisome task? What do we do with our doubts? How do we live in a world where the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper? Verse 17 tells us: Asaph went to God’s sanctuary. This was the turning point in his crisis of faith. Everything changed when Asaph went to the temple, and in part two of this exploration of Psalm 73 we will discover what happened there.
©Alex Hewitson. All Rights Reserved.
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