Monday, March 21, 2011

The strange prosperity of the ungodly 2

Psalm 77:17-20

17 Then I went into your sanctuary, O God, and I finally understood the destiny of the wicked.

18 Truly, you put them on a slippery path and send them sliding over the cliff to destruction.

19 In an instant they are destroyed, completely swept away by terrors.

20 When you arise, O Lord, you will laugh at their silly ideas as a person laughs at dreams in the morning.


Siffleur Falls and Canyon come to mind when reading this portion of Psalm 77. One side of the canyon is a sheer, jagged drop while the other is a smooth slope. The mist from the falls and churning river below keep the sloped side moist and very slippery. The hike up to the falls features danger signs about standing too close to the slippery slope. Some have actually died from foolishly stepping too far out on the slope only to be swept into the icy rapids below. 

From his new perspective, Asaph sees the ease, wealth, comfort, good health, and security of the ungodly are clearly temporary. A life of worldliness is its own undoing; it contains the seeds of its own destruction. Gradually, then suddenly, the ungodly will be faced with the emptiness and consequences of their life’s pursuits

Asaph had no reason to envy the ungodly. Ironically, their prosperity would contribute to their downfall.

25 Whom have I in heaven but you? I desire you more than anything on earth.

26 My health may fail, and my spirit may grow weak, but God remains the strength of my heart; he is my portion forever.

This psalm puts the spotlight on the struggles believers have concerning disparity of lifestyle. After all, shouldn’t it make sense that the godly should enjoy life while the ungodly should go with less!? To persist in trusting God when the ungodly prosper is a maturing test of faith. In those times, the believer can struggle with envy, futility, and weariness (c.f. Psalm 73).

Asaph’s renewal underscores the importance of regularly placing yourself in the path of God’s influence, especially in times of great doubt. The mature understand, albeit with difficulty, that the immediate benefits of the “good life” the ungodly live will come at the price of the eternal “better life” with God. Oh, what a challenge these times can be!

“Do not let your heart envy sinners, but always be zealous for the fear of the LORD.
There is surely a future hope for you, and your hope will not be cut off.”
(Proverbs 23:17-18)

Monday, March 14, 2011

The strange benefits of temptation

According to Luke’s gospel, after being anointed with the Spirit (3:22), Jesus is now “full of the Holy Spirit” and “led by the Spirit into the wilderness” to be tempted (4:1-13). Why was this event important for Luke’s reader? The lengthy genealogy and wilderness setting portrayed by Luke evoke images of Adam and Israel’s disobedience and their failure to resist temptation. For the reader, these allusions are contrasted by the victory of Jesus as God’s faithful Son.


The story brings out a faith dilemma for modern Christians: Why does God allow Satan to tempt us?

The biblical writers did not sharply distinguish between tests and temptations. We often separate these as if they are different experiences. However, the biblical writers had no problem using one word to mean tests in one verse and then using the very same word to mean temptations just a few verses later.

Temptations are a normal part of the Christian life. They are part of God’s curriculum for us. Either you are in one now, you are just ending one, or you are getting ready for the next one (Amen?!).

God seems to present us before a test/temptation so that by following him and by trusting his Word in those circumstances we become stronger. Our faith is confirmed and we become an example to other people of victory over the world, the flesh, and the devil.

Because of this, we would do well to recognize when we are in a temptation, especially when Satan’s comments are like those said to Jesus: “If you are…” Here are some I have learned to recognize along with some scriptural responses:

1. “If that is what Christians are like this, why bother? You are a better person than they are.”

a. It is written: God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble (Prov. 3:34); Have mercy on me Lord, a sinner (Luke 18:13); Christ Jesus came into this world to save sinners of whom I am the worst (1 Tim. 1:15).

2. “God is silent to you. It seems you are on your own.”

a. It is written: Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you (Heb. 13:5)

3. “God helps those who help themselves. You need to do something now!”

a. It is written: They that wait on the Lord shall renew their strength. (Isa. 40:31)

4. “Maybe all this “faith” stuff is a little immature. Perhaps it’s time to put away childish things and take responsibility for your own life.”

a. It is written: “Lord, to whom else shall we go? You alone have the words of eternal life. (John 6:68)

Heart Bible

5. “You need to keep building your qualifications, accomplishments, and reputation. That’s the only way to get the respect of your church leaders.”

a. It is written: “But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ (Phil. 4:7-9); Am I now trying to win human approval, or God’s approval? (Gal. 1:10)

6. “You’ll have time to focus on your spiritual life later. It’s time to make relationships with those who can further your career. Besides, you won’t be affected by their questionable ethics. That’s what you can look back on and be proud of.”

a. It is written: Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere; I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of the wicked. (Ps. 84:10)

7. “Look at all you have invested in your education, your connections, and your accomplishments. You deserve more reward than this.”

a. It is written: Those who love money never have money enough; though who love wealth are never satisfied with their income (Eccl. 5:10); the love of money is the root of all evil (1 Tim. 6:10).

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The strange prosperity of the ungodly 1

A frequent strategy in my teaching is to contrast the Christian life with the worldly life. Aspects of our struggle with worldliness always seem to arise. This often causes a faith dilemma for those who trust in God’s goodness but also witness an odd disparity in lifestyle with some of those who dismiss God but are quite wealthy.  The dilemma leads to the question: why should the people who reject God be better off than those who trust Him?

This situation reminds me of the expression “Keeping up with the Joneses”, which refers to the comparisons people draw to their neighbours as a benchmark for social or financial success. Their homes, cars, clothes, and other possessions are the evidence of such success. To fail to "keep up with the Joneses" is perceived as inferiority.


In Psalm 73, Asaph describes his mental and emotional struggle when he compared his life as one committed to the LORD with the lives of his acquaintances who did not put God first. It causes him deep discouragement:

1 Truly God is good to Israel, to those whose hearts are pure.

2 But as for me, I almost lost my footing. My feet were slipping, and I was almost gone.

3 For I envied the proud when I saw them prosper despite their wickedness.

4 They seem to live such painless lives; their bodies are so healthy and strong.

5 They don’t have troubles like other people; they’re not plagued with problems like everyone else.

6 They wear pride like a jewelled necklace and clothe themselves with cruelty.

The evidence before Asaph challenged him to his very core. Is godly living a joke? Were the irreligious and ungodly enjoying the only real goodness available? Was he missing out on the actual “good life”? He goes on to describe this:

12 Look at these wicked people—enjoying a life of ease while their riches multiply.

13 Did I keep my heart pure for nothing? Did I keep myself innocent for no reason?

14 I get nothing but trouble all day long; every morning brings me pain.

15 If I had really spoken this way to others, I would have been a traitor to your people.

16 So I tried to understand why the wicked prosper. But what a difficult task it is!

Consider the parallels today:

  • A single Christian remains lonely while their promiscuous friend never seems to be without a romantic relationship.
  • An ambitious co-worker who “doctors” reports and curries favour receives a promotion while an honest man of integrity is laid off.
  • A wealthy celebrity retains legions of adoring fans despite blatant acts of irresponsibility and disregard for the law.
  • An incompetent politician is elected to office because of their charisma then proceeds to mismanage the budget and dole out patronage appointments.

How can we learn to nurture our desire for God and his ways? Especially when there’s such an onslaught of messages, desirable material goods, relationships, and influences around us every day. What a difficult task this is!

Saturday, March 5, 2011