How can God be good when the godless prosper and the Godly suffer?

Psalm 73

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How can God be Good when the Godless Prosper and the Godly Suffer?

Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing 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).

What believer would not want to experience this deep devotion to God? Surely, this kind of loyal commitment is the desire of every person of faith. However, this does not come easy. There is a great price involved in reaching such heights. This level of commitment is only achieved through fierce struggle.

Asaph, the psalmist who penned these words, came to this conclusion after a difficult and confusing crisis of faith. Asaph’s crisis of faith nearly resulted in apostasy. He was tempted to completely give up the faith. He is candid about his narrow escape:

“But as for me, my feet had almost slipped; I had nearly lost my foothold” (Ps. 73:2).

In retrospect, he realized that during his crisis he

“was senseless and ignorant… a brute beast” before God (Ps. 73:22).

Surprisingly, it was this near loss of faith that brought him to pen the words of deep devotion at the head of this article! What led to his crisis? Asaph had a hard time reconciling faith in God’s goodness with his surroundings.

From his perspective, two things made it difficult to whole-heartedly affirm God’s absolute goodness: (1) the prosperity of the godless, and; (2) the suffering of the godly.

How can God be good when the godless prosper and the godly suffer? The prosperity of the godless and the suffering of the godly caused Asaph to question whether faith mattered at all. For this reason he cried out,

“In vain have I kept my heart pure” (Ps. 73:13). A crisis of faith fueled by his inability to harmonize his beliefs with his experience led him to frustration, bitterness, envy, and despair.

Psalm 73 is a record of this experience – an experience that begins with deep questions about God’s goodness and ends with the affirmation of deep devotion,

“As long as I have you, God, I wish for nothing else in heaven and earth” (Ps. 73:25).

What was the turning point that renewed his perspective? What insight so radically changed his attitude? By studying this psalm we come to a greater understanding of how faith deepens through doubts, questions, frustrations – even envy. Indeed, without these fiery trials and temptations our faith will decline or disappear altogether.

The Problem

Asaph begins the psalm with the truth that brought him such difficulty:

“Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart” (Ps. 73:1).

This great truth, meant to bring great comfort, was, instead, the source of great frustration. This is not a unique problem. An argument could be made that this is the problem of the ages. The central question of human/divine relationship has never been, “Is there a God?” The majority of people throughout history, and the majority of people presently alive, believe in God. The issue is not the existence of God; the issue is whether the God who exists is truly good! Is God worthy of our praise, thanksgiving, loyalty, and commitment? Asaph questioned God’s goodness in light of the evidence before him. In spite of his intellectual assent to God’s absolute goodness, circumstances seemed to point to a different reality altogether. How could God be good when the godly suffer while the godless prosper? The prosperity of the godless was deeply troublesome to Asaph. He found himself envying their prosperity – prosperity that obviously had nothing to do with faithful loyalty to God.

For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. They have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong. They are free from the burdens common to man; they are not plagued by human ills. (Ps. 73:3-5)

Asaph lamented the charmed lives of those who possessed little or no interest in God. Their ease, wealth, comfort, good health, security, and indulgence in vain pleasures troubled him deeply. Their prosperity did not provoke gratitude; it inflated them with pride. Because of their success, masses of people sought their presence and sucked up their every word (see Ps. 73:6-10):

Psalm 73:6 - Therefore pride is their necklace; they clothe themselves with violence. 7 From their callous hearts comes iniquity ; the evil conceits of their minds know no limits. 8 They scoff, and speak with malice; in their arrogance they threaten oppression. 9 Their mouths lay claim to heaven, and their tongues take possession of the earth. 10 Therefore their people turn to them and drink up waters in abundance.

And yet, in the midst of such prosperity, the godless paid no heed to God’s divine claim upon their lives. They acted as if God was unaware, or worse, uninterested, in their activities. They forgot their relationship and responsibility to God – the very things the godly sought to keep foremost in their mind (see Ps. 73:11).

Psalm 73:11 - They say, "How can God know? Does the Most High have knowledge?"

Worst of all, in spite of their inattention to God, God seemed to reward them with “continual ease” and “increased wealth” while the godly suffered (Ps. 73:12):

Psalm 73:12 - This is what the wicked are like— always carefree, they increase in wealth.

. These circumstances made no sense to Asaph. He could not reconcile his belief in the absolute goodness of God with the prosperity of the godless and the suffering of the godly. His frustration with this caused him to cry out,

Surely in vain have I kept my heart pure; in vain have I washed my hands in innocence. All day long I have been plagued; I have been punished every morning. (Ps. 73:13-14)

Asaph was afflicted with suffering while the wicked enjoyed the good things of life. What else could Asaph do but question the truth that

“God is good to those who are pure in heart” (Ps. 73:1)?

The evidence before him challenged this claim to its very core. Was divine goodness merely a sham? Were the wicked enjoying the only real goodness available? Does purity of heart and loyal devotion to God really matter when the wicked are rewarded and the righteous are left with nothing? In light of these twisted circumstances, does faith matter at all? Asaph’s dilemma continues in our day. Contemporary examples abound: (1) A single Christian remains lonely while her sexually-active friend experiences happiness with her boyfriend, ultimately choosing to live together with him; (2) An ambitious coworker who “doctors” reports to make himself look good receives an advancement while an honest man of integrity is laid off; (3) A husband has an affair with a younger woman and leaves his wife to fend for herself after she has given her best years to raising his children; (4) A wealthy celebrity escapes justice by hiring the best, brightest, and most expensive lawyers money can buy. As in Asaph’s day, the question remains to haunt us: Is God really good to those who are pure in heart? Or, is it vanity to believe in God’s absolute goodness and live like it matters? In a double explosion of emotion Asaph cries out,

Psalm 73:13 - Surely in vain have I kept my heart pure; in vain have I washed my hands in innocence.

He echoes the familiar phrase, “vanity of vanities.” He wonders whether faith is empty and meaningless, a mere illusion, possessing no more value or substance than chasing the wind.

The Turning Point

Asaph is left with a two-fold predicament. He cannot voice his frustrations for fear of harming the faithful. He clearly feels that he will betray the godly community if he publicly denies the goodness of God by declaring that all expressions of faithfulness are in vain

Psalm 73:15 - If I had said, "I will speak thus," I would have betrayed your children.

Subsequently, Asaph is forced to keep his frustrations to himself. His doubts descend into the depths of his being. They percolate in his psyche as he desperately seeks a solution to his problem. The more he thinks about it, the more insoluble it seems:

“When I tried to understand this, it was oppressive to me” (Ps. 73:16).

Try as he might, he is unable to reason his way out of his predicament. The combination of perplexity, bitterness, envy, and anger make it impossible to come to a satisfying conclusion. Unwilling to announce his complaints in public, and unable to come to a satisfying answer, Asaph does that which had become a normal part of his weekly routine – he enters the divine sanctuary of God for worship

Ps. 73:17 - till I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny.

He enters “the sphere of the powerful presence of God. The possibility of the Presence was the ministry and mystery of the sanctuary, the place where God chose to be for the pure in heart of Israel.”[1]

This was the turning point!

When I tried to understand all this, it was oppressive to me till I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny. (Ps. 73:17)

Here, in the sanctuary, participating in worship of God, Asaph is given divine insight. The words, the music, the rituals, and the preaching remind him anew of “the big picture.” He begins to see the prosperity of the wicked in the full light of divine revelation and divine presence. The “big picture” sheds light on all facets of human existence. Life looks different when viewed from the end. Asaph’s vision had been too narrow. He was seeing things from a secular perspective – from merely a small slice of time, rather than in light of God and eternity. From his new perspective, the ease, wealth, comfort, good health, and security of the godless were clearly temporary. In the long run, these things would not last. A life of sin is its own undoing. Evil contains the seeds of its own destruction. Asaph had no reason to envy the godless. Their very prosperity would contribute to their own downfall. The sure footing of their comforts was, in truth, a slippery and treacherous slope to ruin. In the end, their accomplishments would be seen in light of God’s divine glory, and they would be exposed as mere phantoms, illusions, fading vapors (see Ps. 73:18-20)

Psalm 73:18 - Surely you place them on slippery ground; you cast them down to ruin. 19 How suddenly are they destroyed, completely swept away by terrors! 20 As a dream when one awakes, so when you arise, O Lord, you will despise them as fantasies.

This revelation brought Asaph to full and complete confession. With a renewed mind and transformed perspective he recognizes how miserable he has acted.

When my heart was grieved and my spirit embittered, I was senseless and ignorant; I was a brute beast before you. (Ps. 73:21-22)

His confession leads to a new discovery of God’s goodness. In spite of his bitterness and unbelief, God was still faithful to him.

Yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me into glory. (Ps. 73:23-24)

In spite of – indeed, in the midst of! – Asaph’s crisis of faith, God remained faithful. God proves his goodness in and through divine persistence. Though we may be “grieved,” “embittered,” “senseless,” “ignorant,” and “a brute beast” before God, nevertheless God always remains with us and for us – holding and guiding us even as we wrestle to escape his grasp. This is not true some of the time, or even most of the time; it is true all of the time:

“I am always with you” (Ps. 73:23, emphasis mine).

The divine and gracious presence of God – preserving, protecting, and guiding – is a continuous and unending reality. Its end is eternal glory! Asaph’s antidote to envy is his recognition that to possess God’s gracious presence is to possess all he really needs. This leads to his profound statement,

“As long as I have you, I wish for nothing else in heaven and earth” (Ps. 73:25). He proves this in his most ambitious statement: My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. (Ps. 73:26)

His life is built on a different foundation than the godless – the eternal foundation of God’s faithful love. No matter what comes his way he cannot lose that which is most precious to him, namely, God. In all his newfound devotion, Asaph never loses sight of the terrible reality of suffering. He singles out the worst possible case – the complete failure of flesh and heart – and states that even if he loses everything, God remains his ultimate support. He realizes that he is so closely united with God that he cannot possibly lose God. What then does it matter if other things come and go? In the process of gaining a new perspective, Asaph redefines goodness. Through his fight of faith, he concludes that God is his greatest good (Ps. 73:28).

Psalm 73: 28 - But as for me, it is good to be near God. I have made the Sovereign LORD my refuge; I will tell of all your deeds.

God is “the good” that is given to those who are pure of heart (Ps. 73:1).

Psalm 73:1 - A psalm of Asaph. Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart.

Goodness is not defined by the prosperity the godless enjoy. Nor is divine goodness denied by the affliction of the righteous. Goodness is not earthly prosperity, but God himself. If this is the greatest good, then the ultimate misery is to be “far from God” (Ps. 73:27).

Psalm 73:27 - 27 Those who are far from you will perish; you destroy all who are unfaithful to you.

Ultimate prosperity, therefore, is to be “near God” (Ps. 73: 28). This newfound emphasis allows him to speak publicly in the faith community again. Now, he has a testimony that is valuable to the faithful (Ps. 73:28b; cf. 73:15). He is now able to bear the sorrows of the godly and to look without envy – perhaps, even mercy (“Father, forgive them, they know not what they do”) – on the fleeting prosperity of the godless. With a renewed perspective, he is able to praise all God’s works.

Concluding Thoughts

Every believer longs to express the deep devotion of the latter half of this psalm. However, this kind of faith does not come easy. It involves a great fight. Many believers have treasured verses 23-26, and rightly so, but we must appreciate that they were not achieved by a deferential, docile, unquestioning faith but by a critical, reflective faith…

Psalm 73:23-26 - 23 Yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand. 24 You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me into glory. 25 Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. 26 My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.

Without the struggle and questioning of the first half, it is doubtful the second half would have ever been written.[2] It was a violent struggle for Asaph to achieve this. But at the end of his wrestlings with God, his faith was purified. His final resolution did not come by way of deliverance from troubling circumstances but from a new understanding of God.

Faith that is worth possessing is faith that will be tested, purified, refined, and renewed. It will go through fiery trials. A faith that fails to do this is hardly worth possessing.

Parker Palmer expresses this well: The deeper our faith, the more doubt we must endure; the deeper our hope, the more prone we are to despair; the deeper our love, the more pain its loss will bring: these are a few of the paradoxes we must hold as human beings. If we refuse to hold them in hopes of living without doubt, despair, and pain, we also find ourselves living without faith, hope, and love.[3]

Asaph did not come to a renewed perspective on his own. He was unable to interpret his situation by himself. The turning point took place in the sanctuary of God in the corporate worship of the faithful. Asaph’s bitterness changed by joining God’s people in the sanctuary and being reminded of the “big picture” and God’s gracious presence. Asaph’s renewal underscores the importance of constant participation in worship, even when we don’t feel like it. Experiences of doubt, despair, frustration, bitterness, and questioning are not a good reason to neglect corporate worship. When we experience these things, we need the support, nurture, and nourishment of divine worship more than ever

[1] James L. Mays, Psalms: Interpretation Series (Louisville, Kentucky: John Knox Press, 1994), 243.

[2] Craig C. Broyles, Psalms: New International Biblical Commentary (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999), 304.

[3] Parker Palmer, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004), 82-83.

© Richard J. Vincent, 2005

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