# 50 Psalms of Wisdom (#8) Psalm 73 “doubt is something only a believer can experience”

I think I would be right in suggesting that all of us have experienced times of doubt in our lives. We doubt ourselves, our own abilities, our wisdom in certain situations. We even doubt our loved ones at times and sadly we regularly doubt the promises of politicians. Sometimes, obviously, these doubts are justified, based on our past experiences or history. Doubting is normal and at times even healthy. But what about when our doubts concern God? What about when what we are experiencing doesn’t seem to line up with what we thought we understood about God, or what we have read in the Bible?

Well, this was the experience of Asaph, the psalmist who wrote Psalm 73 (see previous post # 49). A man full of doubt, extremely anxious and envious about “the prosperity of the wicked” and for him, this had created a crisis of faith. Just maybe you are able to identify with his problem.

Craig Boyles, in his commentary on the Psalms says:

“Psalm 73 represents an intriguing approach to reality. The whole problem underlying the psalm arises from a realistic and frank appraisal of a claim made for God (i.e. that “God is good”, verse 1). But this claim is made in the light of human experience that [seems to contradict that truth]. But the psalm does not limit reality to human experience and human rationality; it opens us to an ultimate and divine reality that goes beyond the immediate reality around us. It represents a bold faith: a willingness to test, and thus possibly relinquish, our understanding, only to receive a deeper insight and thus grasp things more tightly.”  (see references # 4)

But this was not only the experience of the psalmist who wrote Psalm 73 but also many other Bible heroes including Job, Habakkuk, Peter and Paul. It has also been my own experience. Maybe it has been your experience as well?

So, let me introduce to this psalmist who struggled with reconciling what he believed with what he experienced all around him in daily life. His name was Asaph and he lived a long time ago, around 1000BC. He was King David’s musical director and probably wrote much of the music for David’s psalms. He also wrote 12 psalms of his own and one of them is Psalm 73.

Michael Wilcock, in his book ‘The Message of the Psalms’   suggests that  

“Psalm 73 is ‘the book of Job in a nutshell.”

Asaph’s situation was in some ways similar to the dilemma we face living in Australia.

Maybe, you believe that “God is good” and have believed it all your life, it’s a part of the spiritual solid ground you stand upon, particularly helpful in the difficult times in your life. But sometimes you doubt, like Asaph, and you ask yourself why those who have little or no belief in God seem to have such good lives, are popular, wealthy and seemingly carefree.

If that is you, then just maybe Asaph’s story, as he works his way through this dilemma, will be helpful to you. He confesses what we are sometimes afraid to admit. He helps us to be honest with God about life’s inconsistencies, life’s temptations and our lack of strength to stand firm in the trials that come our way.

It has been said that doubt is something only a believer can experience, for you can only doubt what you believe. Doubt is to unbelief what temptation is to sin. A test, but not a surrender.

I remember reading comforting words like these in my first year as a student nurse training in a hospital in WA in the 1970s. I had only been a Christian for about 6 years and had seen very little physical suffering or death in my life. But that first year in the hospital was a bit of a shock to me. Remember, I had worked in a “sterile” drafting office prior to nursing. Then, all of a sudden, I was faced with the overwhelming dilemma of suffering and death and began to doubt all that I believed. I remember in particular one night on night duty sitting with a desperately fearful dying man, who kept asking me to stay with him, which I did as much as possible, considering my other duties. By morning I felt shattered and full of doubt about all I believed! Did I really believe in heaven and hell. Can the Bible be believed? What about all the suffering around me? Is God really good? Like the psalmist I was confused by the truth I believed and the reality of my everyday experiences which somehow seemed to contradict all that I believed. What helped me through my struggle were the words in the introduction of a book simply called  ‘Doubt – Faith in Two Minds’ by Oz Guiness.

He explains: “If ours is an examined faith, we should be unafraid to doubt…There is no believing without some doubting, and believing is all the stronger for understanding and resolving doubt.”

May God use your doubts to make you even stronger in your faith, eternally confident that “God is good”!  

 

# 49 Psalms of Wisdom (#7) Psalm 73 God is good, so why do I still have doubts?

Longman suggests that in addition to the wisdom as expressed in Psalm 1, there is another “strain of wisdom thought [which] deals with the more sceptical side of life and faith.” He mentions “Job [who] wrestles with the difficult issue of the suffering of an apparently righteous man, and Ecclesiastes [which] deals with the doubt of a wise man gone bad.” He then talks of “the psalmist who composed Psalm 73 [who] echoes momentarily this doubting strain when he questions God about the wicked who ‘have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong.’ (v. 4)” (see references # 1)

The Psalms were originally intended to be read aloud in worship, to be memorized, to be prayed and even to be sung. All good things to do, but I have discovered that to enter into the meaning of the psalms, it is helpful sometimes to write out my own understanding of the psalm. And that is what I have done with this psalm. This is not a new translation, but my understanding, sometimes using direct quotes, but mainly my own words, of what the psalmist, Asaph,  was struggling with. Hopefully it will be helpful to you as well.

Psalm 73

Simply titled, “A Psalm of Asaph”.

My paraphrase:

“There really is no doubt about it, God is good, that’s who he is, and because his nature is goodness, he is always good to his people in all his ways, good to those who by the grace of God at work in their lives have a pure heart.

So, why didn’t I believe it?  How did I nearly miss seeing his goodness? I guess because my experience seemed to tell me different and I was looking in the wrong direction – at people instead of God.                                                                                            

Believe me when I tell you that I really had slipped badly as regards this truth, had almost fallen over the cliff, spiritually that is.                                                                                  You see, I had come to a place of actually being jealous and envious of those who arrogantly go around in all their prosperity, while denying God and acting in wicked ways.

How could it be?                                                                                                                    Well, this is how it appeared to me: the wicked seemed to have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong. They are free from the common human burdens; they are not plagued by human ills. Therefore they are incredibly proud and show it; forcing their wills on others, even violently. From their callous hearts comes iniquity; there appears no limits to just how evil their imaginations can be. They scoff, and speak with malice; arrogantly they threaten to oppress those who stand in their way. They boast as if they were gods and owned everything, as if even the heavens and the earth belonged to them. And so their followers are many, people who acquiesce to all their ways and drink in everything they say, living off their evil profits. They even speak against God, denying that he knows what is going on, and for that matter, even cares!

Pretty grim situation! But as far as I could see, that was the story concerning the wicked, always carefree, getting more and more powerful, rich and oppressive.

No wonder it got to me!  In fact, I confess, I had almost thrown in the towel.  My mind was full of negative thoughts. Things like, ‘what’s the use of keeping my heart pure, of keeping my hands clean? What good has it done me? All day long I am afflicted, and then every morning brings, what seems to be, new punishments, more suffering’. I felt desperate. How much more could I handle?

I almost gave in. I almost opened my mouth and said things that I would have regretted for the rest of my life. Things that would have been a stumbling block in the paths of others of your people.  Thank God, I didn’t.                                                                                                                                        

But, I was just so confused, so perplexed about all this. I just couldn’t understand it, as much as I tried. The more I thought about it, the more it troubled me deep down inside of my being.                                                                                                                                                                        

Until, that day! That life changing day, that day when it all became clearer to me. That day when my eyes were opened. That day when I went into the sanctuary of God, into God’s holy presence.                                                                                                                 Then I knew. Then I saw things from His perspective. I saw God’s big picture. I finally understood in a way I had never understood before.  I had been so blind. I then understood their final destiny! That is, the destiny of the wicked!

How did I miss it? I realised that it was them that are the ones on slippery ground, sliding to their own eventual ruin.  Suddenly, before they know it, destruction will come; they will be all swept away as in a flood of terror.                                                                                                                               Those, who seemed to me like a nightmare, like any dream will be gone forever, judged by the God they despised.

How stupid of me to have missed this!  My heart was just so upset and full of grief, I was so full of myself! And then the bitterness followed that began to consume me.  I know now that I was like a senseless and ignorant beast before you. And I’m so very sorry!

No matter what my life’s situation, or what is happening amongst those around me, I now know, I am always with you, and you will never leave me nor forsake me;  you, like the good Father you are, hold my hand as we walk along together, and you always have. You guide me along the path of life, giving me good advice and teaching me your ways; and as for my future, it’s all good – even in your presence for ever more. What glory! My heart is now full of joy and I realise, who have I in heaven but you? And this old earth has nothing worth desiring in comparison to you.  Even if my body grows weak and my bones get brittle,         you, my God, my Rock, are the strength of my heart and my portion, my rich inheritance, forever.

So, thank you God, I have now come back to my senses. I know now that those who are far from you will perish; to go their own way and be unfaithful to you will only result in judgement. But, as for me, it is so very good to be near you because you are good, and that is enough!

  I have made the Sovereign Lord, my refuge (in every struggle and storm and trial that comes my way);  and my plan is that next time I do open my mouth it will be to tell of all the wonderful deeds of my God and to remind everyone who will hear, that God is good!”

A pretty amazing psalm! I wonder if you can identify with Asaph’s dilemma?

# 48 Psalms of Wisdom (#6) Psalm 1 – “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

The Psalmist then gives another side to the story:

 4 Not so the wicked!  [Here is the contrast] They are like chaff  [as compared to a tree] that the wind blows away.  5 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.

On the one hand is the tree, stable, rooted, strong, immovable, green and fruitful.  On the other hand is “chaff”, carried away by the lightest wind, useless.

And then the conclusion:

 6 For the LORD watches over the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked leads to destruction.

As mentioned, Psalm 1 is a “wisdom Psalm” and the wisdom offered here for us all to consider is the choice between two very different lifestyles and outcomes. It demands that we make a choice, in fact a daily choice.

Listen again to Charles Swindoll’s paraphrase:

“Oh, the happiness many times over, of the person who does not temporarily or even casually imitate the plans of life of those living in the activity of sinful confusion, nor comes and takes his stand in the midst of those who miss the mark spiritually, nor settles down  and dwells in the habitation of the blasphemous crowd. But (in contrast to that kind of lifestyle) in God’s Word he takes great pleasure, thinking upon it and pondering it every waking moment, day or night. The result: He will become treelike-firm, fruitful, unwithered, and fulfilling the goals in life that God has designed for him.

Not so, the ungodly! They are like worthless husks beaten about and battered by the winds of life…but the Lord is inclined toward and bound to his righteous ones by special love and care; and the way of the one without the Lord will lead only to eternal ruin.” ( see references # 32)

So how do we respond to all this? Join a monastic order? Go and live in a desert somewhere? Join a strict sect of people who isolate themselves and keep themselves free from being tainted by this world, its people and philosophies? But then, what of the fate of “the wicked”? Should we not have some concern for them?

Is it possible to apply the wisdom of Psalm 1 in the context we all live in today, amongst the people we live amongst, in some way impacting their lives for good?

I believe we can.

Back to my story of my time in the drafting office, I discontinued what was the norm, i.e. drinking at the hotel on a Friday after work, but not my relationships with my colleagues. Over the next 6 years of my time there, as I worked with them, I had numerous opportunities to share Jesus with some of them.

But, now, let me tell you another relevant short story from Mark 2:13-17.

13 …Jesus went out beside the lake. A large crowd came to him, and he began to teach them. 14 As he walked along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” Jesus told him, and Levi got up and followed him.

 15 While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. 16 When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

 17 On hearing this, Jesus said to them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

When I read this story again, I thought:

“Either Jesus hadn’t read Psalm 1 (which is unlikely), or was ignoring its wise advice (which is extremely unlikely)? So if these are not the case, then why does Jesus seem to be totally going against the teaching of this Psalm?

Outwardly he seems to be “walking in step with the wicked
and standing in the way that sinners take
and sitting in the company of mockers”.

Certainly the religious leaders of his day thought so anyway. They definitely knew Psalm 1.

In fact, Jesus seemed to be breaking every rule in the book.

1. He invited a tax-collector to be a disciple of his – a tax collector, a traitor to the Jewish nation, a collaborator with the Romans. What was Jesus thinking?

2. Not only this but he actually went into this man’s house, sat down at his table and ate his food. A sign that he considered Levi his friend.

3. But it didn’t stop there. Alongside Jesus, his disciples and Levi were all Levi’s mates – the Bible says “many tax-collectors and ‘sinners’ were eating with him”.

What sort of a Rabbi, who knew Psalm 1 off by heart, would do this? Only Jesus, it seemed.

As we continue on in the story the self-righteous anger of the religious leaders grows and they ask the question, not to him, but to his disciples:

“Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

In the books I previously mentioned by Chaim Potok, a particularly orthodox Jewish group, the Hasidim, even today, so it seems, don’t allow their followers to mix freely with non Hasidim or to eat with them. Some things have not changed over 2000 years.

But when you think about it, Jesus didn’t exactly go into business with Levi. There was no new sign that said, “Levi and Jesus – tax collectors”! In fact Levi joined Jesus as he was invited to repent, leave his life of sin and become a follower of the Messiah.

In the same way, we lived in Pakistan for 11 years, walking, standing and sitting with Muslims, changing some of our lifestyle norms to relate better, sharing with them the good news but we never once considered becoming Muslims or practicing Islamic ways.

So, the question is asked of Jesus, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” and then comes that amazing answer from Jesus himself:

“It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Jesus here appears to write his own addition to Psalm 1 which takes into account that even the wicked, sinners and mockers can be changed. In fact, they need desperately to be changed. And he’s the one to do it because that’s why he came. He is named Jesus, because he will save his people from their sin.

So not only are those blessed who don’t “live their lives in the habit of constant sin and encourage others in it” and not only are those blessed who “delight in the Word of God and meditate day and night on them” but Jesus adds “Blessed also are the sinners, if they will come to me, turn from their sin and follow me wholeheartedly.”

That’s why he came!

And that is the task he has also given to his followers.

So, in summary: We are to live close to Him, walking in his ways according to his words, in the power of his Spirit, not collaborating with the ways of the world – “in the world but not of the world”. But we also have a responsibility to take the good news to those who do not know the abundant life that is in Jesus for without Him their destiny is destruction.

May God give us all the grace to live lives pleasing to God in all our relationships and to be people who delight in His Word day and night.

Let me finish with the words of Brennan Manning:

“If we dared to live beyond our self-concern; [and lived for what concerns God]; if we refused to shrink from being vulnerable; if we took nothing but a compassionate attitude towards the world; if we were a counterculture to our nations lunatic lust for pride of place, power and possessions…[then] the walls of indifference to Jesus Christ would crumble”.                      (see references # 33)