This sermon is part of the sermon series "Really?". See series.
Everyone knows rebels have more fun: from "The Music Man" to "Footloose," which was the hip teen movie of my teenage years, to "True Blood"; from Cindi Lauper, "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun," to Madonna and Lady Gaga. For decades popular culture has constantly reminded us of this basic truth: rebels have more fun. Rules by their very nature restrict. Rules say no. Rules deny: you can't have. Rules repress: you can't be. Rules are a burden, aren't they? So throwing off the rules must lead to more fun, more pleasure, more success. Maybe you don't actually believe that, but the people around you do. And there's empirical evidence for it. When we look back at the revolutions during the past 50 years, the ones that have changed our lives—the economic revolution, social revolutions, sexual revolutions—what have they done? They've thrown off the norms that our parents lived by. Why were they pursued? They were not pursued so much in the name of justice abstractly understood; they were pursued in the cause of greater personal fulfillment and liberty. Rebels, at the end of the day, aren't so much anti-authoritarian; they just want to have more fun, more freedom. What's so bad about that?
This is where the idea that rebels have more fun even resonates with us inside the church, we who call ourselves Christians. It's not that we want to overthrow morality; we want to bend it a little for the sake of our pleasure, for fun when we want it. We want a relationship with God, but we don't want the burden of self-denial. We like the idea of following God, but following God so often seems to be all about duty. And if we're honest, what we really like is just a little more happiness.
We are working through the Psalms of Asaph. Asaph wrote 12 psalms. In each one he explores some of the problems and some of the misconceptions that surround our understanding of faith, particularly the Christian faith, both outside the church and inside the church.
Psalm 73 is the second Psalm of Asaph in the book of Psalms. It's arguably his most famous. Asaph was a Levite. We don't know a lot about him. He was appointed by David, he worked in the temple, he led one of three major choirs that sang when the sacrifices were offered in the temple, and he was also a prophet. He struggled with the issue of rebels having more fun, and he wrote it down in this psalm. As we look at his struggle, I want you to consider your own pursuit of happiness. Consider how he deals with it, and ask yourself the question, Am I pursuing too much happiness or too little?
Surely God is good to Israel,
to those who are pure in heart.
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 common human burdens;
they are not plagued by human ills.
Therefore pride is their necklace;
they clothe themselves with violence.
From their callous hearts comes iniquity;
their evil imaginations have no limits.
They scoff, and speak with malice;
with arrogance they threaten oppression.
Their mouths lay claim to heaven,
and their tongues take possession of the earth.
Therefore their people turn to them
and drink up waters in abundance.
They say, "How would God know?
Does the Most High know anything?"
This is what the wicked are like—
always free of care, they go on amassing wealth.
Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure
and have washed my hands in innocence.
All day long I have been afflicted,
and every morning brings new punishments.
If I had spoken out like that,
I would have betrayed your children.
When I tried to understand all this,
it troubled me deeply
till I entered the sanctuary of God;
then I understood their final destiny.
Surely you place them on slippery ground;
you cast them down to ruin.
How suddenly are they destroyed,
completely swept away by terrors!
They are like a dream when one awakes;
when you arise, Lord,
you will despise them as fantasies.
When my heart was grieved
and my spirit embittered,
I was senseless and ignorant;
I was a brute beast before you.
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.
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.
Those who are far from you will perish;
you destroy all who are unfaithful to you.
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.
This is an amazing Psalm. The first verse sets up the problem: "Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart." Surely God is good to the faithful. "Pure in heart" doesn't actually mean sinless. Asaph knows all have sinned. It's the language of loyalty, of faithfulness. Surely God will give the good life to the good people, to the faithful people. While that sounds right in theory, it doesn't seem to work that way in practice.
Verse 2 says, "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." When Asaph looks around, he sees the people that are enjoying the good life aren't the godly. The people that are really enjoying the good life are the wicked. They are the ones that are prospering. As Americans, we think prosperity is linked to finances. But the word he uses for prosperity is shalom. Asaph sees the peace, the sense of wellbeing and safety, of those who are not even pretending to follow God, and it makes him doubt. He starts thinking about walking away from God and pursuing his own happiness. He is in a precarious position at this point.
This psalm was written 3,000 years ago, but it could have been written yesterday. You might find pages in my journal that sound similar. Maybe yours, too. Throughout the rest of the psalm, Asaph works this problem out, trying to understand it. He comes to three conclusions. First, rebels do have more fun. He shows this in verses four through 12. Second, the godly don't (verses 13 and 14). Third, the end is all that matters, in verses (verses 15 through 28).
Rebels have more fun
Verses 4 through 12 say:
They [the wicked] 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. Therefore pride is their necklace; they clothe themselves with violence. From their callous hearts comes iniquity; the evil conceits of their minds know no limits. They scoff, and speak with malice; in their arrogance they threaten oppression. Their mouths lay claim to heaven, and their tongues take possession of the earth. Therefore their people turn to them and drink up waters in abundance. They say, 'How can God know? Does the Most High have knowledge?'
This is what the wicked are like—always carefree, they go on amassing wealth.
When Asaph looks around, he sees the wicked enjoying life. They're healthy and they're getting ahead in life. In all appearances they are having a great time. When he says that they're free from the burdens common to man, he doesn't mean that they never get sick. He doesn't mean that people who don't believe in God never lose their jobs or struggle to pay their bills. He means that, generally speaking, they don't seem to be experiencing God's judgment under the curse like you would expect. Since life is going really well, they take pride in their success. They don't hesitate to pursue further success, using wickedness to improve their lot in life even more. He says their hearts are callous.
We recently bought a house, which means I now have a yard to maintain. The other day, after a weekend of taking care of the yard, one of my kids was sitting next to me looking at my hands and said, "Dad, what are those?" This shows that I haven't owned my own home in a while and haven't had to take care of my own yard. I had to explain, "Those are calluses." "What are calluses?" "They are things that develop on your skin so that you no longer feel pain there, because you're constantly working, constantly rubbing the same spot. That's how guitar players play the guitar: they develop calluses on the tips of their fingers so that they don't feel the pain of the metal string biting into their finger."
Asaph says the hearts of the wicked become callous. Not that the wicked are as wicked as they could be, not that non-believers are really, really terrible, but that they are no longer burdened by conscience. They don't feel the pain of their wickedness. So their pride in their own success, their scoffing at God, unburdened by conscience, grows. To add insult to injury, while God seems silent in all of this, letting them get away with it all, their very success makes them quite popular, according to verse 10. People are drawn to those who are successful and happy. They want that for themselves and they are eager to imitate it.
Asaph sums it all up in verse 12: "They are carefree." It's not that non-believers don't worry. Of course they worry. Everybody worries. Rather, they're not worried about pleasing anyone but themselves. They're certainly not worried about pleasing God. They know what they want and what makes them happy. So they pursue those things, and it's generally working.
The Bible is very realistic about sin. Sin is fun. Sin feels good. Asaph is not just talking about illicit sex or drunkenness or drugs or gluttony, or about the obvious sins of the heart like greed or lust or anger which feel good to give in to. No, he's talking about sin in general. In verse 3 and in verse 12, when he talks about the wicked, he's literally saying "the faithless." We read "wicked" and think monster. Hitler was wicked, but my neighbor is not wicked. The word Asaph is using here could easily be translated "the faithless."
If you live for yourself in this life, you have a decent chance of having a good life, of getting ahead, of enjoying yourself. You might not do as well as the guy next door, but you might do well. I think too often Christians have tried to persuade others, persuade ourselves, persuade our kids, persuade our friends, persuade our non-Christian family members, that this kind of faithless, self-centered life doesn't work, and that's why you should become a Christian. We try to convince people that virtue really is better than vice. That virtue, if you really understand it, is more fun than vice. If they only knew, ice water tastes a lot better than a cold beer. I know it doesn't feel this way, but sex outside of marriage isn't actually enjoyable. We say these things, and people don't seem to be buying it.
Because it's not true. It's not true that the selfless life is more carefree than the selfish life. Take a little mental tour with me of the penthouses of Manhattan. Imagine you have that kind of money. Are you feeling carefree yet? Now let's say you don't like the weather of Manhattan. Fine, let's go to the mansions of L. A. Feeling carefree yet? You don't have to go that far. Take a look at the family next door: perfectly kind, pretty happy. They're not immoral. They're not throwing huge keg parties in the backyard every weekend. They're just focused on themselves, and honestly they're doing pretty well. In this life, rebels have more fun. When we try to say otherwise, people may listen politely, but they know we're not telling the truth. They know that we're just kidding ourselves, and they don't buy it.
The godly don't have fun
Verse 13 says, "Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure and have washed my hands in innocence. All day long I have been afflicted, and every morning brings new punishments." Asaph is wondering if his faithfulness to God has been for nothing, if it's all been in vain. As he looks at life around him, the problem is not that the faithful and the faithless are both happy. No, the problem is that the faithless are happy, but for the faithful life is hard and it's not fun. He says he's been plagued and punished, literally stricken and rebuked. Unlike the wicked who are not plagued, he feels like he is constantly living under God's curse. He feels the weight of God's judgment. His daily experience is God rebuking him. That's where this strickenness, this plague, and this rebuking are coming from. It's not from the world; it's from God. God is supposed to be good to the faithful and hard on the wicked. But as far as Asaph can tell, it's just the opposite. So he's wondering, I got into this for what? Why am I doing this? Why be faithful? It's an honest question.
For some here this morning, it's an honest question that you've often thought but never felt like you could fully think out or acknowledge to yourself. Asaph's done it for you. If you're here this morning and you're not a Christian, and someone tells you that being a Christian will make your life better and easier, here's advice from a Baptist pastor: run. They're trying to sell you something, but it's not true. Asaph's experience here is typical of God's people. It's typical of what it looks like to be a Christian and to live the Christian life.
Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn
"a man against his father,
a daughter against her mother,
a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—
a man's enemies will be the members of his own household."
Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me.
Hebrews 12:5-6 says, "My son, do not make light of the Lord's discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son." Or listen to Paul in 2 Corinthians 4:11, "For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body."
A life of faith is not a carefree life. It's a battle against sin. It's an exhausting race to the very end. It is a dying to self. It is a life of discipline; it is a life of discipleship following a crucified Savior. Which is why Jesus repeatedly said, "Count the cost before you follow me. It's worth it, but it's not cheap."
Christian, have you bought in to the idea so common in American Christianity that the shalom, the peace that Jesus brings can be measured by your happiness and the things of this world? Have you bought into TV Christianity? Christianity of the "name it and claim it" pastors. Or maybe the softer "God wants you to love yourself and be happy" pastors that peddle a false gospel. Have you substituted the American dream of ease and comfort for the kind of life of faith that Jesus and Paul and Hebrews talks about? In a fallen world, the life of faith is not a walk in the park; it's a death march. When you pick up your cross, you are walking with it to your death. This is why we don't sing some songs here at this church like "Every Day with Jesus is Sweeter than the Day Before." It's not true. Some days with Jesus I could do without. Some days with Jesus really stink. Christian, God is disciplining you. He is chastening you if you're following him. Not because he's angry with you, but because he loves you and he's fitting you for something far better than the pleasures of this world. If you have bought into some other shalom, some other peace, then you have bought into something other than Jesus.
The end is all that matters
Rebels do have fun now, and the godly don't. But the end is all that matters. Verses 15 through 28 say:
If I had spoken out like that, I would have betrayed your children. When I tried to understand all this, it troubled me deeply till I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny.
Surely you place them on slippery ground; you cast them down to ruin. How suddenly are they destroyed, completely swept away by terrors! They are like a dream when one awakes; when you arise, Lord, you will despise them as fantasies.
When my heart was grieved and my spirit embittered, I was senseless and ignorant; I was a brute beast before you.
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. 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.
Those who are far from you will perish; you destroy all who are unfaithful to you. 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.
The fog of Asaph's jealousy begins to lift in verse 15. He stops thinking about himself. He stops thinking about his own situation and actually begins to consider the impact that his own unfaithfulness—if he acted on it—would have on the people around him. He's a leader in the temple. Others are counting on him.
He remains confused in verse 16. It's oppressive to him, he can't make sense of it, and it is honestly leading him into depression. Looking at his own life and then looking at the carefree life of the faithless is getting him nowhere.
But in verse 17, the fog is pierced by light, and a moment of clarity enters into his thinking. He walks into the sanctuary of God. There he can't see the hustle and bustle of life, there he can't see the wealth of the merchants, there he cannot see the pride of the faithless. Instead, he sees God, and he begins to see everything from God's perspective.
The problem according to the psalm is not that he misunderstood the situation, that the success, happiness, and prosperity of the wicked is really just an illusion. The psalm never says that. The issue was perspective. He'd lost sight of God in the midst of a fallen world. When he'd lost sight of God, he'd lost sight of everything. He was like a dumb beast. He describes himself as blind, ignorant, and senseless.
Have you been there, ready to walk away from God? On the verge of starting that affair? On the verge of walking away from your marriage? On the verge of giving in to temptation? Beginning to think about organizing your life just around your work and going for financial success above everything else? Maybe just on the verge of putting God on the back burner? It's not that you deny him, it's not that you won't believe in him, it's not that you don't think it's true. You're just not going to care anymore. Maybe you're struggling with these kinds of doubts. Maybe you have been for some time. Where do you go when you've lost sight of God?
You need to go where Asaph went. Not to a building, not to a literal temple, you need to go back to the Scriptures where we see God revealed supremely in Jesus Christ. You need to turn to the people of God, the body of Christ that exists together corporately so that when we can't make sense of it anymore, there are people around us that will speak truth into our lives. You need to ask God to show himself to you when you can't see him anymore. Because though Asaph had lost sight of God, God had not lost sight of Asaph, as we see in verse 23. He was about to slip, but in mercy God grabbed hold of him. He was about to walk away, but in mercy God guided him with his truth. What made no sense before, makes sense now.
There's something here for us as leaders in particular. If you are a leader—the head of a Sunday school class or leading a small group or assisting with worship or one of the elders or deacons—it is so easy to become like Asaph, doing the work of the Lord. He didn't stop going to work. Every day he went to the temple. Every day he led the choir. He did the work, he did the service, he was faithful. But it is tempting for leaders to fail to worship the Lord our God, fail to allow him to be the very center of our vision when we get so caught up with service and duty that we forget to worship.
In one of the best commentaries on this psalm, the author writes, "Worship puts God at the center of our vision. It is vitally important because it is only when God is at the center of our vision that we see things as they really are." The man who wrote those words was my pastor in England. Four years after those words were published, God had become so far removed from the center of his vision that he left his ministry, his family, and his wife. He made a shipwreck of his faith. This man was regularly described as the finest preacher in the English language. Friends, it is the worship of God, not the service of God, that must be at the center of our vision, the center of our lives, lest we slip to our sorrow and to the betrayal of those we lead.
The end of the wicked
When God filled Asaph's vision, he saw the end of the wicked and the end of the faithful. On the one hand, despite all of their prosperity, the final end of the wicked is the judgment of God as shown in verses 18 through 20. The image here of sudden destruction does not mean that judgment will come in this life. When it comes it will be unexpected and unrecoverable. The rebel against God, the faithless person may go all his life from strength to strength, everything getting better, everything coming up as roses. Or his life may fall apart mid-career. Either way, Asaph says all his pride, all his carefree confidence will be swept away in a moment, in an instant, at God's eternal judgment. There will be no recovery at that point. Like a man slipping in the mud or on the ice, there's nothing to grab hold of, nothing to break his fall.
In high school I lived near the Smoky Mountains, where there are many wonderful, freezing-cold streams that you can swim in. There was one stream that we used to go to a lot when we were in high school, because that's where the college students went. There was a deep pool, and above that, a scary cliff. If you could get to the top of the cliff and jump out far enough, it was a great ride. But to get to the top you had to carefully crawl along very slippery rocks and ledges that were just inches wide. And if you slipped, there was no recovery. There were just rocks below you. That's what it's like. The ride may be fun, ten times getting up to the top of that cliff and coming down. But when the slip comes, there is no recovery.
It may seem like God doesn't know or care, but God is not impressed with our carefree, rebellious lives. On the last day, all the prosperity we've had, all the fun we've enjoyed will prove to be no more lasting, no more real than a dream.
If you're here this morning and you're not a Christian, this is the condition of your life. Like me on that little ledge, life may seem solid, life may seem fine—and in fact it is—but you are on slippery ground. The worst thing that could happen to you is not the loss of your fun in this life, not the loss of your sexual liberty or financial freedom or whatever it is that you're pursuing. No, the worst thing that could happen to you in this life is that God never allows you to feel the precariousness of your situation, that God leaves you alone in your peace. Pray that he does not do that. Ask God to not leave you secure in your sin.
The end of the faithful
On the other hand, Asaph sees the end of the faithful, and it's better than their beginning. Verse 24 says, "You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me into glory." God is with his people. Sure, rebels are having more fun, but right now God is with his people. God is holding on to us. God is guiding us with his Word, and with his people by his Spirit, through the troubles and trials of this life. But the day will come when the veil of tears parts. Far from being overwhelmed with the tears of God, we will be wrapped up and received into glory. In verse 24 we have one of the clearest expressions of hope in the resurrection anywhere in the entire Old Testament. But we have more. We have Jesus' resurrection as a guarantee that this is not just words, this is not just hope. Our bodies will fail. But God is not holding on to us now and he is not guiding us now with his Word just so that we can lead a good, moral life here on earth. If that's the end, if that's the goal, if that's all there is to it, go have fun. But God does these things so that he can give us himself. That's what he's done in the gospel. That's what he's done in Jesus Christ. He has given us himself; he is actually with us so that he can bring us to him, so that he can give himself to us fully. The faithless have an inheritance, a portion. They get it in this life—real joy, real happiness, real fun. But it ends. Our portion, our inheritance isn't finally here. It's with God. It is God.
Again, if you're not a Christian, understand the choice that is laid before you in these last two verses: "Those who are far from you will perish; you will destroy all who are unfaithful to you. 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." To be far from God now does not mean that you're going to have a terrible life now; it means that you will have a terrible life forever. It means eternal destruction, it means eternal death. But it does not have to be that way. Because today you who are far from God can come near to God. Not because of who you are, not because of anything you've done, but because of what God has done. Through Jesus Christ, God has come near to sinners like us. Through Jesus Christ, God has put on flesh. He has clothed himself with our nature. He has lived the life that we should have lived: a life of faith and worship, perfectly pleasing to God. And then he has taken that life and offered it as a sacrifice on the Cross, bearing on the Cross this destruction, this judgment that we deserve. He knew the terrors of God. Not because he deserved them, but because he was taking them for anyone who would turn away from their sin and put their faith in him.
If you trust in God, in Christ, today you can be brought near to him. And on the last day you will be taken into glory. Your desire for happiness and pleasure is not too great. It can't be. God made you to want pleasure and happiness. Your problem is that your desire is too small. God made you to find happiness in him. Stop settling for the momentary pleasures of this world, the small joys of this life. Do not settle until you have found God and the joy that knows no end.
Christian, can you say with the psalmist in verse 25, "Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you"? If you have God, then what do you need with everything else? The joys of this world are real but they are nothing in comparison to the joy of having God. Here is the answer to the problem that rebels have more fun. If nothing else, death brings the fun to an end. But for the one who has God, the best is yet to come. And when it comes, it does not end. So do not struggle with envying the wicked, the worldly. It's not that what they have isn't real. It is real. What you have now is even more real and so much better. You have God. You have his love, favor, wisdom, and strength. He is your refuge. When life disappoints the faithless, where do they turn, since they put all their hope in life? But when the pleasures of this world grow dull to the faithless—and they always do—where do they turn, since all their hope was here? Not you, Christian. God does not disappoint. He never grows dull.
Christian, I suspect that like me, your vision of God is too small. Your sense of his glory is too weak. Your perspective, like mine so many days, is short-sighted. Fill your eyes with the vision of God, and the things of this world will grow strangely dim. I started by saying that it is a burden to follow God. But look where Asaph ends. There's no burden. There's eagerness. Eagerness to be near God. Eagerness to tell others of his deeds. There's confidence. As it turns out, verse 1 isn't the problem; it's the conclusion. Seeing the end makes all the difference. Surely God is good to the pure in heart. Rebels don't have all the fun because rebels don't have God. Do you?
Michael Lawrence is pastor of Hinson Baptist Church in Portland, Oregon, and author of "Biblical Theology in the Life of the Church" (Crossway).