As we look around it is easy to get discouraged. But we need to look further:
This morning – like almost every morning – I spent time reading from two different sources. One is the various morning newspapers and related things, such as news feeds and the like. The other is my daily Bible reading. It is interesting how often the two align. Sometimes they contrast greatly, but sometimes they seem to be speaking of the same things.
I usually begin – and rightly so – with Scripture first. But today I started with the daily news. And as is so often the case, after a short perusal I was left depressed, discouraged and in despair. Things just seem to get worse and worse each day. So I thought I might get some cheering up in my reading of the Word.
But Job 21 left me with mixed feelings! In verses 7-16 we read about how poor Job feels when he looks around. It seems that everywhere the wicked prosper, while the godly suffer. The verses say this:
Why do the wicked live,
reach old age, and grow mighty in power?
Their offspring are established in their presence,
and their descendants before their eyes.
Their houses are safe from fear,
and no rod of God is upon them.
Their bull breeds without fail;
their cow calves and does not miscarry.
They send out their little boys like a flock,
and their children dance.
They sing to the tambourine and the lyre
and rejoice to the sound of the pipe.
They spend their days in prosperity,
and in peace they go down to Sheol.
They say to God, ‘Depart from us!
We do not desire the knowledge of your ways.
What is the Almighty, that we should serve him?
And what profit do we get if we pray to him?’
Behold, is not their prosperity in their hand?
The counsel of the wicked is far from me.
Hmm, it seems Job was reading from the same morning newspapers that I was! He has the same concerns that I do. He sees the same problems that I see. Talk about the relevance of God’s Word. And there are other such verses found in the Bible. Some of the main ones are these:
Psalm 10:1-6 Why, O LORD, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble? In his arrogance the wicked man hunts down the weak, who are caught in the schemes he devises. He boasts of the cravings of his heart; he blesses the greedy and reviles the LORD. In his pride the wicked does not seek him; in all his thoughts there is no room for God. His ways are always prosperous; he is haughty and your laws are far from him; he sneers at all his enemies. He says to himself, “Nothing will shake me; I’ll always be happy and never have trouble.”
Psalm 73:2-5 But as for me, my feet had almost slipped; I had nearly lost my foothold. 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.
Jeremiah 12:1-2 You are always righteous, O LORD, when I bring a case before you. Yet I would speak with you about your justice: Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all the faithless live at ease? You have planted them, and they have taken root; they grow and bear fruit. You are always on their lips but far from their hearts.
Habakkuk 1:13 Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrong. Why then do you tolerate the treacherous? Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves?
Malachi 3:15 But now we call the arrogant blessed. Certainly evildoers prosper, and even when they put God to the test, they get away with it.
Related to these verses are all the passages that ask similar sorts of questions, including this one: “How long O Lord?” But I penned a piece on that question earlier, so I refer you to it: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2020/10/03/how-long-o-lord/
But the sad truth is this: God’s people can easily become bummed out as they look around and see evil flourishing everywhere, with evil people seeming to get away with murder – often literally. We see evildoers everywhere who appear to live the good life, and their life of ease and pleasure is built on their evil, unjust ways.
Nations and leaders also seem to prosper and go on and on. Just think of godless communism and how it prospered in the former Soviet Union for a full 72 years, from the 1917 Russian Revolution to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Or consider godless and evil governments such as Labor under Dan Andrews here in Victoria. There seems to be no end in sight of his nefarious reign.
So how does the discouraged believer respond? The short answer of course is to simply remember that all these evil men and evil nations always do come to an end. All the dictators and dictatorships of the past have eventually disappeared, and current ones will also do so one day.
Sure, it is real hell for those forced to live under such tyrants, whether they be in North Korea or Communist China. But both secular history and biblical history tell us the same thing: all these kings and kingdoms do come to an end. The trick is to persevere and endure until they do come crashing down, or until Christ returns and puts an end to all these wicked rulers and nations.
So we need God’s perspective on these things. From our vantage point things look very bad indeed. But we need the bigger picture here. Whether it is a Dan Andrews (and he has been out of action for a while, hasn’t he?) or a Kim Jong-un or a Joe Biden or a Justin Trudeau, all these big cheese leaders will soon enough be no more. God and his kingdom – and his people – will however remain forever.
And getting the bigger picture means considering all of Scripture. In the case of Job, we need to read through to the end of the book and see how his strong faith and devotion to the Lord was not in vain. And in the case of Asaph, the writer of Psalm 73, we need to read the whole of the psalm. It may begin in despair, but it ends in glorious trust and assurance. Have a read of verses 25-26:
Whom have I in heaven but you?
And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
Let me speak a bit further to this psalm, and draw upon just one commentator, Richard Phillips. As to the great contrast found in this psalm, he writes: “It is remarkable that within this one psalm we find one of the lowest expressions of unbelief and one of the highest expressions of spiritual devotion.”
And again, “his psalm records his descent into a discontentedness with God and his providence, and then a spiritual recovery that not only restored him but elevated him to one of the highest plateaus of spirituality in all the Old Testament.”
So how did Asaph go from A to Z? How did he go from despair and unbelief to great trust and praise? Phillips lists “four steps to spiritual recovery” that we can also apply to our own lives. First, as seen in verses 16-17, Asaph went into the sanctuary of God to worship. Says Philips:
Worship takes our eyes off ourselves—off the troubles and the confusing data that our minds are dealing with—and puts our eyes onto God. Only then do things come into proper focus. . . . Have you ever experienced this kind of new perspective in prayer? You come to God with your petty anger, self-pity, and self-absorbed attitude. As you start praying, you realize how ridiculous it all is. You become like Job, who had questioned God’s wisdom….
Second, and related to this, as Asaph put his eyes on God and not on that which was happening around him, his perspective changed. We find this in verse 17. Phillips remarks:
His horizons were enlarged. Specifically, he noticed something that he had forgotten in his angry descent, namely, the end that awaits the ungodly. . . . Asaph had forgotten about the final judgment, just as we often do. What a difference this makes in our assessment. The judgment of God! There is a judgment at the end of days! Therefore, though the wicked may be carefree and prosperous now (although this is hardly the case in every instance), though they may avoid punishment in this world, and though they may gloat in their violence and crime, there is a judgment that they cannot and will not escape.
A third, and quite important step is to make sure we apply biblical truths to ourselves. Yes, there are wicked people out there. But we all are wicked, apart from Christ and his forgiveness and restoration. Verses 21-22 speak to this. As Phillips comments:
“Earlier, in his depressed state, he complained about how little he got for his righteousness. Now he realizes that everything he was thinking about other people is true of himself. . . . Likewise, it is necessary for our spiritual well-being that we become aware of our own sin, guilt, and unworthiness.”
He quotes C.S. Lewis on this: “Whenever we find that our religious life is making us feel that we are good—above all, that we are better than someone else—I think we may be sure that we are being acted on, not by God, but by the devil. The real test of being in the presence of God is that you either forget about yourself altogether or see yourself as a small, dirty object.”
This attitude of self-abasement is not morbid self-loathing, but healthy realism about our sin in the presence of God’s holiness. It is borne out in the Bible whenever people really are brought to see God. They see themselves as naked and dirty, like Adam and Eve after their sin, needing to be clothed in the righteousness of Christ. Or, like Peter, they respond to the awareness of God’s presence in the way that Peter spoke when he perceived the deity of Jesus: “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5:8).
And four, this awareness of our own spiritual neediness should lead to “a fresh appreciation of the blessings we enjoy from the unmerited grace of God. When Asaph realizes that he himself is among the wicked, deserving judgment and destruction like the others, he remembers with joy the blessings that he previously despised.”
As he explains:
This same doctrine that offered us salvation in the first place—salvation by grace alone—also preserves the Christian from discontentment. Why are you unhappy? Because you think you deserve something and aren’t getting it. Yet in truth, the thing that you deserve and do not get is God’s judgment for your sins. While deserving only judgment from God, you are instead receiving an inheritance of eternal life through Jesus Christ. Your great spiritual blessings were gained at an infinite cost to the God whom you are so prone to resent. The psalmist realizes this gospel truth, and it leads him upward to recovery.
That is a very helpful four-step process of spiritual recovery indeed. I certainly need to keep it in mind. And you may need to do so as well.