When Good Things Happen to Bad People
We need a new perspective—one that looks up.
One of the strangest lawsuits in US court history was filed on September 14, 2007. Nebraska Senator Ernie Chambers—one of the first African-American senators in Nebraska history—was seeking to stop evil and injustice in the world, and he actually filed a lawsuit against God. The lawsuit sought a permanent injunction against God's interference in this world.
Senator Chambers said of God, "[He] has allowed certain harmful activities to exist that [have] caused grave harm to innumerable people in the world." The lawsuit charged God with causing fearsome floods, egregious earthquakes, horrendous hurricanes, tornadoes, plagues, famines, devastating droughts, genocidal wars, birth defects, and the like. Chambers continued in the lawsuit, saying that God has allowed "calamitous catastrophes resulting in the wide-spread death, destruction, and terrorization of millions upon millions of the Earth's inhabitants including innocent babes, infants, children, the aged, and infirm[,] without mercy or distinction."
Eventually the lawsuit was dismissed with prejudice. The Nebraska court ruled they could not properly notify God because they did not have his address. Senator Chambers disagreed with the ruling, claiming that because God is omniscient and knows everything, he should have known he was being sued and appeared in court to defend himself.
While we may ridicule Senator Chambers for his ill-reasoned accusations, we might want to honor his honesty. Chambers is not alone in seeking to put God on trial; for centuries, people have put God on trial. Whenever humanity is faced with the incongruities of life—that bad things happen to good people, or worse, that good things happen to bad people—God goes on trial. Some of you have put God on trial, too.
Psalm 73 in context
That is where we meet Asaph in Psalm 73. God is on trial in this lament psalm, but ironically, the psalmist functions more as the defense attorney than the prosecuting attorney.
Psalm 73 begins the third book of the Psalter—the collection of some of Israel's prized hymns, ballads, and congregational hymns. It reminds us of the importance of music in both corporate and individual worship. It reminds us, more importantly, that the subject of our music should be more of God and less of us.
Not every psalm was composed by David. In fact, not all of the psalms, as we have them in our English Bibles, are recorded chronologically. They are compiled in an instructive theological order: an order that is designed to shed light on the unpredictable path of life. That's why the psalmist can say in Psalm 119, "Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path."
Book three is the smallest of the five, with 17 psalms. Much like Leviticus, the third book of the Pentateuch, this third book of psalms focuses acutely on the holiness of God. That it opens the third book is important for our application of the holiness of God to the ugly aspects of life.
When the Psalter opens at number one, it does so as an invitation to consider the path of wisdom. Psalm 1 stands as a road sign to contrast two paths of life: one is the way of wisdom, the other the way of wickedness. It makes no assumptions as to which way you will choose; it only invites you to pick the path of wisdom. One might think, based upon the promises of Psalm 1, that those who choose wisdom—that is, those who continue as students and practitioners of the wisdom found in the Psalter—would have lives that bleed prosperity. Not so. Through the corridors of time, Psalm 73 echoes forward to us that even those who live wisely face difficult questions. Wisdom is no sure prevention from trouble, but it is a cure for heartache.
Psalm 73 is written by Asaph, whose name rings with cheerful familiarity. According to 1 Chronicles 23:2-5, the 38,000 Levites were divided by David into four divisions. To the last division of 4,000 was assigned the musical side of worship. Out of this division, a select company of 288 singers was singled out and divided into 24 courses. These were placed under different song leaders, and of these leaders, Asaph was the chief of sacred music (1 Chron. 16:5).
Of all people, why would Asaph—the chief worship leader—write something so indicting, scathing, and envious as this psalm? I'll tell you why. It is because the existential experiences of life can deceive your vision and disrupt your faith. It is the same reason many of us don't pray, don't read the Word of God, don't give, and don't trust. It is because a misplaced perspective is our enemy's tool to keep us away from God.
This psalm argues that if you cannot see good in your future, then the problem is not with God, but with your vision. This text raises the question of perspective: how do we view life when good things happen to bad people?
Therefore, the text is tailored to teach us that the incongruities of life will destroy your faith unless you regularly enjoy God's presence. When the incongruities of real life and right theology trespass on the domain of your theological comfort, don't look down, around, or within, but look up. When the harsh realities of life disrupt your neat theological categories, get to the sanctuary.
God is good
In the sanctuary, you realize that God is good.
As the curtain rises on Psalm 73, its premise leaps forward. Verse one says, "Surely God is good to Israel, / to those who are pure in heart." In other words, God is nothing but good to his covenant people. Asaph came to realize that in spite of the incongruities of life (described in verses 3-14), God is good.
Though the truth is that God is good, life has real circumstances that force doubt upon us. Perhaps you have said it, too: "God is good!" Yet you and I don't always see life match up to that proclamation. Feel the tension in Asaph's lament. See the comparison. The good news is that the Christian has the privilege of addressing perceived contradictions to God.
Scholars tell us that the grammatical construction of verse two intentionally disjoins the thought. There is a clean break at verse two. In it, Asaph sets in contrast his own thoughts and experience against verse one. "But as for me" is intended to suggest that his experience contradicts the declaration of verse one.
Is this not how life sometimes goes? There are moments when our experience doesn't line up with what the Bible says should be. When wickedness seems to win, when the high courts rule against the will of God, when reckless police officers shoot the unarmed, and when evil men grow in power and influence, the experience of life does not appear perfectly aligned with the providence of God. In these moments, we can inadvertently trade what we know for what we see. We can know truth, but experience can cause us to doubt truth. This psalm reminds us that not all truth is visible in its final application. Some truth is like fruit. It is there and alive in seed form, but it has not yet expanded into its final size.
One must appreciate the honest response of the psalmist to the apparent prosperity of the wicked. Can you feel the toil in his reflection? "[M]y feet had almost slipped" (Ps. 73:2).
Verses 4-12 run a list of why he almost stumbled. These are benefits antithetical to the promises of Psalm 1.
The bodies of the wicked are "healthy and strong" (v. 4). The old rabbis used this word "firm" or "fat" to describe the columns that supported big buildings. They suggest that the wicked are strengthened, not weakened. They are firmly entrenched.
The wicked enjoy visible happiness. Externally, they parade their pride like necklaces. They show off their violent deeds, including those they got away with, like clothes.
The wicked enjoy internal prosperity just as much as their external happiness. What a combination! They have been so satisfied that their eyes bulge out from fatness. They want for nothing. Their wicked imaginations come to life. Not only are they free from external threats, but they even enjoy peace of mind, completely untroubled by a good conscience.
The wicked strut through the streets and have taken the place of God in this world. You can sense that the psalmist is haunted by this. He is tempted to believe that his dedication to God is for naught.
Do not, for one moment, think these sentiments are unreal. One but needs to live in certain parts of the world, where injustice rides the coattails of the wicked, to see just how real this is.
What are we to do with this blatant success of the wicked? A shift in Asaph's language is on the horizon. He based his assessment on what he believed goodness to be. He argued that the goodness of God was demonstrated in a person's life by their material possessions and their physical health. Asaph then begins to reckon that the proper criterion for understanding the goodness of God is not health or wealth, but rather the character of God. To know God is to know that he is good. To know that God is good, you have to know God.
I can identify in a lesser, lighter way. In the seventh grade, I asked my mother for a particular brand of cologne: I needed it to make the right impression on the girls. You should know that my mother was a single parent. She cared for my two brothers and me on a meager schoolteacher's salary. She worked hard to ensure that we had a clean place to stay, food to eat, and healthy boundaries to observe. More than this, she loved us.
She could not afford the brand of cologne that I requested, so she purchased one of the imitation brands. It was the bottle that read, "If you like Cool Water, then you will love this." I have not forgotten the deep disappointment I felt when she gave me the cologne I did not ask for. To say that I was upset and frustrated would be just the start of my strong emotion.
Anyone could see that I had a good mother, but if you were to ask me that question—"Charlie, is your mother good to you?"—on the day she purchased the wrong cologne, I know what my response would have been: "My mother is not good to me."
It is not that my mother wasn't good; it was that I was not looking in the right place for a demonstration of her goodness. After a while, Asaph was able to say that God is good because he started looking in the right place to see God's goodness. He looked at God's abiding character and faithfulness.
Life needs upward perspective
All of life is lived from a chosen point of view. That is not to say reality is determined by perspective, but it is to say that reality is shaded by perspective.
Asaph examined his personal sacrifice for God and counted it wasted. In vain he kept his life from the stain of vice. His faith seemed worthless. In honest reflection, he came close to resignation; the burden of the wicked enjoying mass prosperity was too much for him. Verse 16 is his personal confession: it was too painful for him. Literally, it was iniquity in his eyes.
After lengthy contemplation, God's way still seemed tainted by iniquity. What do we do with good things happening to bad people and bad things happening to good people? I don't know if this is a fair question, as it assumes some people are good. Nonetheless, the idea is clear: there is a proper expectation that the people of God have of his faithfulness to them and his consequent rejection of the wicked.
But life still happens. In this world, we do not always see the righteous on top and the wicked at the bottom. This is an implication of the problem of evil. Trying to unravel the perplexity of the problem of evil can often result in unresolved disappointments. There is one solution to the problem of evil: get to the sanctuary of God. Go to the place of God's presence. You will see something there that capitol hills will never show you.
You can hear Asaph lamenting, "When I tried to understand all this, / it troubled me deeply / till [emphasis added]" (Ps. 73:16-17). "Till" is the point of contrast and change. "Till" points to a break in the proceedings. The sanctuary is the place of equilibrium. It is the place where the topsy-turvy nature of life sets itself on the solid rock.
The contrast between verse two and verse 18 could not be more vivid. In verse two, Asaph says he almost slipped because he saw how carefree the wicked lived. Now, in verse 18, he sees that the ground on which the wicked walk provides no sure footing. It may seem that the wicked are riding high, but give it time. After a while, those who disregard God will come crashing to the ground. The converse is our blessed assurance. We do not merely rejoice at the rejection of the wicked: we celebrate that their rejection indicates the eventual prosperity of the righteous.
The spiritual altitude of the sanctuary is the perch from which we see life as it actually is. It is as if you can hear Asaph saying in postmodern vernacular, "When I walked in and the choir was singing 'How Great is our God,' my vision started to even up with God's vision like the lenses of a digital camera. What was fuzzy became clearer." It takes what we see and hear in the sanctuary to help straighten life out. We all need a "till" moment.
In Chicago, traffic can be the most difficult part of a commute. Every time I leave for the divinity school, I turn on the radio to listen for the traffic reports. I don't listen to them for my listening pleasure: I tune in for pertinent information relative to my commute. Periodically, while listening to the radio, I can hear the helicopter choppers moving in the background. The person giving the traffic report is flying in a helicopter, which privileges them to a larger vantage point.
The traffic report doesn't change the congestion; it just tells me when I can expect relief. The traffic report doesn't move the accidents; it just tells me how to avoid them. The traffic report doesn't eliminate my problematic commute; it just tells me how to navigate through it.
I may not be in the helicopter, but the station pays a reporter to get in there for me and stream back down to pavement level what's going on ahead of me. You may not be able to get into the helicopter of life today, but the station pays the preacher to get in there for you—and report to you the findings.
We come to the sanctuary every Sunday to hear the reporter stand at this sacred desk and announce their findings. Each week, this is a high moment. We go up in worship and see things as they really are.
We get to see that every valley will be exalted, and every mountain will be made low. We get to see that every rough place will be made plain, and every crooked place will be made straight. We get to see that the workers of iniquity will soon be cut down and that they will wither like cut grass. We get to see that one day, every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord. We get to see that the wicked—though on top now—will soon be cut down, and we will be done with the trouble of the world.
God alone satisfies
Psalm 73 gives us the blessed assurance that the faith of believers will one day be vindicated. Our faith is confirmed when we realize the hope of glory. The future discloses the activity of God: he will expose the wicked as fantasies. Allen Ross says it this way: those who rebel against God will perish, but believers will find joy and safety in God's presence. We will know that the prosperity of the wicked was a sham. It was form without substance. When the wicked awake, they will see their prosperity was a bad dream.
Our conclusion is this: God is our strength and our portion. This may be why this psalm was left on record. We cannot give up on God.
The solution to Asaph's dilemma is the cure for our own. The nearness of God is our good (Ps. 73:28). Theologians call this the transcendence and immanence of God. Though God is so high that you cannot touch him, he has come so near that he touches you. You can encourage the nearness of God. In the New Testament, James says that if we draw near to God, he will draw near to us (James 4:8).
Those who reject God will face the force of spiritual gravity. Those who cling to God—though, at times, life seems to contradict the promise of his Word—will find a victorious outcome.
Once I was watching a college basketball game in the living room of a local pastor's home. It was a game charged with excitement and intensity: my alma mater fighting to stay in the NCAA tournament. As a faithful fan of the Illinois Fighting Illini, I was watching every play with scrutiny and intensity. I wanted Illinois to win. I sat there in my orange and blue, pretending as though I were sitting in the stands.
As the camera panned the crowd, you could see the people in the stands visibly moved. They were jumping, leaping—some crying. I didn't move an inch. In fact, I sat and watched calmly. Given my passion for the school and its athletic program, one might wonder how I could sit so cool and collected.
A friend walked into the living room and said to me, "Hey man, you're watching this again?"
There it is: I was watching a replay. I felt no need to get stressed, to sit on pins and needles, because I already knew the outcome. It was not because I did not care, but because I could see the future.
The saints can see the future, too. Friends, we live life knowing the outcome. God judges the wicked because he is good. Don't forget that God also rewards the righteous, because he is good.
Charlie Dates is the senior pastor at the historic Progressive Baptist Church in Chicago, Illinois.