Have you ever burned with envy? You’re not alone. Envy is, as we saw in the previous post, considered to be the central fact of American Life. In our Advent series, Longings, this second week we are looking at envy through the lens of ancient poem, Psalm 73. So far we have seen the author, Asaph, tell us that he almost lost his faith because of envy.
Specifically he envied of the arrogant and wicked. You might think, “Why, Asaph? Why envy the arrogant? What about the wicked might make you jealous?” He tells us: their prosperity. He doesn’t want to be like them in their wickedness or arrogance. He wants to be like them in their prosperity.
How many of you have felt that? I listen to a podcast called Slow Burn, and right now they are in Season 3. The first season was about President Nixon and the Watergate scandal. Season 2 was about President Clinton and all his scandals. For Season 3 they went in a completely different direction, and they are investigating the feud in hip-hop rap between the East Coast and West Coast in the 1990s that led to the deaths of one rapper from each side, Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls. There have been times in all three seasons when I have thought something very similar to what Asaph says. All of these people, from presidents to rap stars, behaved with arrogance and wickedness, yet prospered in their wickedness.
It can get us really bitter when we look at them, seemingly with no troubles and loads of cash. That’s what Asaph says in verses 4-12. The wicked seem to be healthy and free, even while they are acting with pride and violence. They are able to persist in evil that knows no limits, to the point where it seems they are untouchable.
They even act and talk god-like (verse 9), as if heaven and earth are theirs, and people eat it up (verse 10). It seems like no one would fall for arrogant, wicked boasting, but plenty of people do. There is part of me that wants to say, “Come on, Asaph, you are exaggerating.” But all it takes is to consider politicians in our society, and Asaph is right on the money, isn’t he? Read the tweets, listen to the interviews and there are plenty of people exactly like Asaph describes. It’s not just politicians, rap stars or sports figures. I’ve heard people, famous and obscure, in all walks of life, talk like this. From teenagers in school cafeterias, to soccer moms, to seminary professors. I’m guessing you’ve heard it too. Arrogance is everywhere.
It might seem crazy, but so often we really do long for it. We long for what appears to be strength, and freedom, and ease and comfort.
Sometimes it is non-Christian arrogance. That’s what Asaph mentions in verse 11. People in their pride challenging God. That’s no joke.
Yet, he says in verse 12, and this is what can be so frustrating, that wicked, godless, arrogant people increase in wealth. It doesn’t seem right! The politician with the horrible comments in interviews wins another election. The foul-mouthed sports star gets another huge contract. The actress that sleeps around is hired for film after film for millions a piece. The CEO who makes a hundred times what his employees make, while he is a total jerk to them.
So our very normal reaction is to look at how the wicked prosper, and then look at how we, striving to follow Jesus, struggle. How many of you have thought to yourself, for example, “Who came up with the pay structure in our society?” Or we say, “I teach kids, or I serve as a first responder, or I am a health care worker, or I am a pastor, and society values me economically less than them? I am giving, I am serving, I am busting my butt.”
This is what Asaph is getting at in verse 13. Any follower of Jesus could think this way when life is hard. “Lord, I have followed your ways. I have tried to give to the church. I did not have sex before marriage. I exercise. And this is what I get?” When we struggle to pay the bills, when we have a health issue, when we lose our job, or lose a loved one, we can really start thinking that it isn’t worth it, all that spiritual toil.
I’m not saying that when we think this way, that we are at all thinking theologically correctly. When we think like that, we often betray what is called a works righteousness theology. Work righteousness theology says, “If I behave well, then I will be saved.” Or “If I do what God says, then God will bless me,” as if God is a spiritual ATM who has to bless us when we behave a certain way.
That’s just not the case. But do we think that way? Maybe more than we realize. When we try to live rightly, and then bad stuff happens to us, we can be really upset. What we are often showing is the true longing of our hearts. We want blessing more than we want Jesus. We want health, we want riches, we want power, we want influence, we want attractiveness, we want good feelings, and often our Christian living is in hopes of getting all that good stuff, rather than just simply living for Jesus. Thus when the bad stuff happens to us, we are crushed.
I hear the crushing disappointment in the longings of the psalmist. Look at verse 14. He says he is plagued. Punished.
He is really wrestling because, looking at verse 15, he wants to let these emotions and thoughts out. He wants to complain, he wants to rant, he wants to post on social media, he wants to text his friends, but he is concerned, and this is a good sign that the condition of his heart is not totally corrupted: he is afraid that he will betray God’s children. I find that fascinating. In the midst of his wrestling with his unfulfilled longings and his envy and his disappointment, he still has a sense of responsibility for how his words will affect other followers of God. After so many verses describing his struggle, we get a glimmer of hope here. Maybe this guy’s not only filled with envy and jealousy. Maybe he is not just focused on himself. In verse 15 we learn that there is still a part of his heart that has selfless longings.
Watching the wicked prosper while he struggles, Asaph knows that this private battle he is having between himself and God must stay private because he doesn’t want to do damage to others by letting it out. This is instructive to us in our interactions with the world. I’m not saying that we lie. Social media can be a way that people really lie, presenting images of themselves as happy, carefree, and always going on amazing cool adventures, when in reality their lives have other sides too. Sure, there are the happy times in their lives, but there are also hard times and sad times, but they never or rarely show the darkness. We Christians should be committed to truth, presenting our lives as they really are. But the psalmist is also right, that we don’t want to needlessly drag people down.
It is important to admit that the struggle is real. He comes right back to that in verse 16. He wants to talk and let it out, but he doesn’t want to hurt people. So he says that he finds this dilemma oppressive. Not to mention the fact that the whole situation is hard to understand. Why does God allow the wicked to prosper, while at the same time there are righteous who suffer? Why do the wicked seem so carefree, while they are still behaving wicked? Yet those attempting to be righteous can struggle and feel plagued and punished. It is hard to understand. It can make us crazy.
We can think that God would be far better off getting people to believe in and follow him if he flipped the script, and made the righteous (or at least those who are really trying to be righteous) to be generally blessed, and allow the wicked generally to suffer. Am I wrong? Isn’t that the dilemma we wrestle with when we are struggling? I am grateful that Asaph is so honest in this Psalm. God does allow the wicked to prosper and the righteous to suffer, and that can make us pull our hair out.
It has led some people to stop believing in God. What does Asaph do? Where will he go with his thoughts and his pain and his confusion? Check back in to the next post where we find out.