Disillusionment, Doubt and Delight

Chatswood Baptist Church https://www.chatswoodbaptist.com.au

Psalm 73

Responding to Disillusionment

Why do you think a Christian might begin to doubt their faith? What do you think might cause youto give up on following Jesus if you’re a Christian? 

For most people, I don’t think it’s going to be intellectual questions. Most people don’t abandon their faith in God because someone has demonstrated that there is no rational basis for it. In fact, it’s technically impossible to prove or disprove the reality of God through science or philosophy. I’m not saying people don’t have sincere intellectual questions about God and the Bible, or that reason has got nothing to do with faith. It’s just that these issues are often not the real issue.

The real reason most of us would be tempted to give up, or why some do, is disillusionment with the life God has given us. As time goes on, we become frustrated or disappointed with our lot – what we don’t have or what we do have to put up with – and we look around and see others who don’t care at all about God seemingly enjoying the life we want for ourselves… and we wonder, what’s the point? 

And that’s when the intellectual questions and problems seem to loom large. That’s when bit by bit, and then more and more quickly, it all just seems a misguided waste of time. The problem starts with our heart, with disillusionment, with frustration, with envy… and it moves into our head and we can end up re-writing our beliefs to justify our desires.

The key issue you see, is not whether we experience any disillusionment or disappointment, but how we respond to it. Do we assume the problem is with God or the ‘product’ of Christianity, and embrace the pathway of cynical doubt? Or are we open to possibility that the problem lies in us? That perhaps our expectations had been wrong all along? That perhaps we have failed to appreciate what we have in Christ whilst getting frustrated with God hasn’tgiven us? 

Psalm 73 is a psalm of confession and reorientation, designed to help us respond rightly to the temptation to give up on God. It invites us into the journey of disillusionment and doubt – to face these realities in our life – and then to come out the other side with a renewed delight in God himself as we re-orientate ourselves around him and his good purposes for us. 

Psalm 73 has been my favourite Psalm for a long time. And I’m not alone. Many Christians – and I’m sure Old Testament Israelites before us! – have identified so easily and readily with the struggle described in this Psalm. The frank confession of envy, confusion and frustration is so refreshing. And whether or not we have experienced these thoughts and struggles ourselves, the way the Psalmist leads us to a renewed appreciation of what we have in God over and against what we might be tempted to chase after in the world is profoundly helpful. So I pray as we step through this Psalm of Asaph, God might draw each of us to a deeper trust and delight in him, wherever we are at…

Faith and Doubt (verses 1-3)

The Psalm begins in verses 1 to 3 with a summary statement, which reflects both the faith the psalmist is seeking to hold on to, as well as a statement of the problem – a confession of how closely he had come to letting go of this faith and why.

“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.”

The very first word, ‘Surely’, is a key word in this Psalm, used in three key places. It’s a word that somehow bridges the worlds of both certainty and doubt. It expresses conviction about the way things are – surely this is the case. But we often use it to express conviction despite the circumstances. And here in verse 1, it carries that sense – “SurelyGod isgood to Israel, surelyhe does have the best interests of his people at heart… we cantrust his promises… even though it’s hard to see sometimes.”

And so it sets up the statement of the problem: The psalmist admits he had almost let go of this conviction. He had began to wonder if he was so sure after all. He had nearly lost his foothold on the difficult, rocky pathway of faith in God’s covenant promises. Why? Because he envied the arrogant. He looked around and he saw the prosperity of the wicked, and he wondered if God wasso good to those pure in heart after all when those who were proud and selfish at heart seem to have the good life. 

The External Problem (Verses 4-12)

Then from verses 4 thought to 12, the psalmist explores this phenomenon that has led him to doubt and disillusionment – 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.’ 

Where we might expect a just God to bring sinful, selfish and ungodly people down and give them what they deserve; instead it can so often seem like the very opposite! They don’t even seem to catch a cold! There seems to be no consequences for their rejection of God and his word. Just the opposite. It almost seems to be the secret to the good life!

And so, the psalmist observes, the wicked are emboldened in their sin. Because pride and sin seem to have paid off, they embrace pride and sin all the more! 

“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.” (v6-9)

Some people really are like this. There are of course the obvious candidates – the dictators and gang leaders and the like – those who have grabbed at power over whole people groups and exploited them for their own gain. Those who only seem to climb higher and higher up the ladder of arrogance and oppressive self-interest the longer they live. Those who truly seem to think they own the earth; those who live and speak as if they were gods on earth, even if they hold off actually claiming they are in fact divine…

But then there’s the people we encounter in daily life who have simply embraced the philosophy of putting themselves first and squeezing what they want for themselves out of life. People who may or may not believe in God, but who ignore or reject what God says about how we should live and relate to others because it doesn’t suit them. People who speak and act as if they really are more important than others. People who simply do what they want, because they want to, and so… why not?

And as the psalmist obverses in verse 11, these people who live for themselves and who seem to be getting away with it, they naturally conclude that God doesn’t really know what’s going on, or at least he doesn’t seem like he’s going to do anything about it. Where is god? He’s no concern of mine… I do what I want.

As he sums up in verse 12, ‘This is what the wicked are like–always carefree, they increase in wealth.’ This is the external problem the psalmist is observing – the troubling reality around him that he sees and grapples with. The wicked just do what they want, and they only seem to go from strength to strength.

The Internal Problem (v13-14)

But the real problem is the internalproblem – the impact of all this on the psalmist himself. Because of what he sees around him he’s led to the point of exasperation and disillusionment… “Surely in vain have I kept my heart pure; in vain I have washed my hands in innocence.” 

This is the second instance of that key word, ‘surely,’ and here it’s used to convey a very different point! Verse 1 states that ‘Surely God isgood to… those pure in heart’, and now in verse 13, the psalmist shares how he had become – or almostbecome – convinced of the exact opposite! ‘Surely in vain I’ve kept my heart pure…’

He’d come to the point of wondering whether all his efforts to honour and obey God have been a big waste of time. ‘What’s the point?! What good is it doing me?? The wicked are always free of care, amassing wealth day after day! And here I am, all day long I’m afflicted! Every morning brings new punishments! Doesn’t God even care about me? Why am I bothering with him!?’

Notice the heart of the problem is not the abstract problem of evil or injustice in the world. It’s that he wants and feels he deserves better for himself. He nearly slipped and lost his foothold… why? Because he enviedthe arrogant. He saw the prosperity of the wicked, he wantedit for himself, and he wondered why God wasn’t giving it to him… 

You see the problem of evil and suffering in the world is at the top of the list of intellectual issues that cause problems for faith in God. Any book exploring abstract questions and issues around faith and reason will tackle the problem of suffering, because it bothers most of us. But the abstract question of evil and suffering is rarely the real issue. It’s when it becomes personal that people find their faith rocked and we wonder if it’s all been in vain. 

And it becomes all the more acute when we notice that people around us who are totally ignoring God – perhaps people who are wilfully rejecting God – when these people seem to be healthier, wealthier and happier. 

Like the psalmist, we can find ourselves thinking, this has all just been a waste of time! What’s the point? Maybe it hasall been in vain? Why do I bother with the sacrifices I make to obey God and deny my sinful impulses? Why do I bother giving my time and money to serving God and his people? Why make the difficult choices of living God’s way when it doesn’t seem to pay off? Why not just do what I want?

It becomes tempting to listen to the voice of the arrogant and just stop worrying about God – just give up on him and put yourself in his place. Back in 2009 there was a bus campaign in the UK funded by atheists and the British Humanist Society which aimed to encourage the public to do just that. Buses drove around the UK with the slogan, “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” It was a clever approach. Don’t claim too much (which is often the mistake of people like Richard Dawkins) – just sow the seeds of doubt and invite people to just enjoy themselves, to do what they want, and stop worrying about what God wants. And when we see the prosperity and comfort of people who embrace this path, and that there doesn’t appear to be any consequences for them… it’s tempting to think maybe they’re right. 

False Expectations

But do you see the assumption underneath this reaction? The reason the prosperity of the godless and suffering or hardship in our own lives creates such a disturbing problem for many of us is because we assumed things would be different. We expected God to deliver a better deal for us if we gave him what he wanted. The fact is that we become disillusioned with God and the Christian life because we have the wrong expectations. 

Paul Tripp explains in his book on marriage (What did you expect??) that the biggest problem he sees in marriage counselling over and over again is unrealistic and misdirected expectations. Yes, of course, there are other issues with behaviour and attitudes, but the underlying issue is that people enter into marriage expecting it to be something it isn’t – they expect their partner to be someone they are not and to fulfil them in ways they simply can’t. And so disillusionment and disappointment sets in…

It’s so often the same with Christian faith. People sign up for following Jesus thinking God will sort out their personal problems, give them the aspirations of their hearts and protect them from the horrors of life in this fallen world. Even those of us who know that the so called ‘Prosperity Gospel’, which explicitly proclaims all these ideas – that if you trust and obey God (and above all, give lots of money to the church) – that if you do the right thing by God, then he will bless you and give you health and wealth and establish you in this life; even those of us who know this is all a lie, we can still become disillusioned when things don’t turn out how we wanted, because deep down we really did believe that God would give us a better deal in life. The disillusionment leads to doubt, and at this point it’s tempting to throw in the towel – to give up on God; to ‘stop worrying’ about him and just start taking what you want out of life.

The Turning Point: God’s Sanctuary (v15-17)

In the context of this disillusionment, the psalmist had almost lost his footing, but not quite. He’s confused – he’s deeply troubled as he tries to think it through, as he explains in verse 16. But he didn’t give up all together. He didn’t give himself over to the mindset of the godless who mock God and boast in themselves. 

No, he did the opposite. He brought his doubts and confusion to God. When God’s action in the world confused him, instead of running from God, he came to him. He entered into the God’s sanctuary, and that’s where everything became clear.

Now there’s a couple of important points to understand about verses 15-17, which are really the crucial turning point of this Psalm.

Firstly, in verse 15, he’s not saying that it’s wrong to speak about your questions or doubts. In fact, this Psalm overall is encouraging us to be honest with ourselves, with God and with others about the things that trouble us and the questions we have. Because it’s only as we face them and bring them to God that we can come out the other side with renewed and deeper faith. Hiding or ignoring doubts and questions doesn’t help at all…

Verse 15 could be more literally translated as ‘If I had said, “I will speak thus…”, I would have betrayed your children.’ If he had began proclaiming these thoughts and doubts as his new religion, if his doubt had led him to embrace the message of cynical atheism and promoted it to all around… then that would have been a betrayal of his fellow believers. But that’s not what he did. He’s shared his doubts and he’s come with them to God for answers. 

And secondly, we need to appreciate the original context of what it means for the psalmist to ‘enter the sanctuary of God.’ One of the writers at DesiringGod.org, Tony Reinke, explains, “Asaph [the psalmist] did not enter a temperature-controlled sanctuary with a glossy pulpit, upscale band setup, gel-filtered lights, and a smoke machine. No, Asaph more likely stepped into God’s sanctuary to the sight of knives and gore and priests flicking blood off their fingers.” 

You see the sanctuary of God is the holy temple of God, the place where he symbolically dwelt amongst them and where sacrifices were made on behalf of the people so that they could approach their holy God. To enter God’s sanctuary is not to enter a quiet place with candles and gentle piano music where you can put your thoughts in order. It’s to be confronted with the holiness, the justice and the mercy of God. As the psalmist watches the sheep or the bull led by the priests to the alter and sacrificed for his sins and the sins of all God’s people two things become clear: 1) this is the terrible future for anyone who doesn’t take shelter in God’s mercy, and 2) he lives every day under the profound blessing of God’s mercy and gracious presence. ‘If it wasn’t for the animal taking my place and God’s mercy, that would be me… and one day, that will be those who scoff and clothe themselves with violence. God does know. And one day his judgement will fall, not on the sacrificial lamb, but on all those who reject God’s rule over them.’

Now we don’t enter into a physical temple with animal sacrifices any more, but we have something that speaks an even clearer word to us in the midst of our confusion. We come to the cross of Christ. We come to the ultimate reality of God’s wrath poured out on human sin as he himself suffers in our place, so that we might experience his mercy and love. In the cross of Christ we are assured of both God’s justice and his love. It strips away any misconceptions about God’s attitude towards sin – he couldn’t possibly take it more seriously. It points to the judgement people willface if they don’t seek mercy in Christ. But it also speaks of God’s love for us and the blessing of forgiveness and reconciliation with our creator and judge.

As we look around and see proud, selfish and godless people seemingly getting away with whatever they want to do and living long and happy lives, and as we look at our own lives and wonder whether we’ve been short changed, we only need to look to the cross to know the justice and love of God. How do we know God has our best interests at heart? That he really is good to the pure in heart? Not by looking to our circumstances and success or how easy we have it in this life, because God has not promised to give us comfort and success here and now. No, it’s by looking to the cross, where God’s love is poured out for us. You see the answer is not to lowerour expectations of the Christian life to avoid disillusionment… it’s to reorientateour expectations and our perspective around the cross – to see things as they really are.

Judgement and Joy (verses 18-28)

Then with the psalmist we can see with clarity both the judgement of God that overhangs the wicked and the joy of fellowship with God that is our privilege. 

The last section of the psalm, where the psalmist now sees everything clearly, begins with the final ‘surely’ in verse 18, and here it takes on the confidence of faith once again. “Surely you place them on slippery ground; you cast them down to ruin. How suddenly are they destroyed, completely swept away by terrors! As a dream when one awakes, so when you arise, O Lord, you will despise them as fantasies.” As surely as it seems like the wicked are getting away with it, they are actually heading towards ruin.

And as clearly as he can now see the destiny of the wicked, he can see that he completely failed to appreciate what he has as one of God’s people, both here and now, and into eternity. He can see, from verse 21, “When my heart was grieved and my spirit embittered, I was senseless and ignorant; I was a brute beast before you.”

He was complaining bitterly to God about what he didn’t have, failing to see the profound blessings he did have: experiencing God’s mercy and presence day by day. From verse 23, “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.”

The psalmist has not just learnt to ‘put up with a hard life’ – he’s experienced a complete reorientation of his desires and priorities. Where he once envied the prosperity of the wicked, he now delights in the presence of God. ‘Earth has nothing I desire besides you.’ He can see clearly now, from verse 27, that those who are far from God will perish – there is no good future down the path of rejecting God. “But as for me,” he explains, “it is good to be near God.” That’s my good. Being near to God. Enjoying him and his mercy. Though he came close to slipping and giving up on God, he can say “I have made the Sovereign Lord my refuge; I will tell of all your deeds.” Rather than proclaim the pointlessness of serving God and trusting in him, he will proclaim the goodness of God and his actions towards him.

The irony of envying the prosperity of the wicked is that we know fame, fortune and satisfying any and every physical desire is empty and unsatisfying in the end. The world knows it! Singer and songwriter John Mayer reflects in his song ‘Something’s missing’ on the fact that even though he has literally got it all, friends, love, money, possessions… something’s missing and he doesn’t know what it is. He almost wishes he was lonely or poor, so at least then he’d know why he felt the way he does.

Whatever sacrifices we have made for the sake of faith in Christ are not in vain, because it’s not about securing material blessing here and now. It’s not about doing what God wants so that he’ll give us what we want. It’s about getting HIM! It’s the joy of knowing we belong to God, we are his child, and we can come to him with every care and concern. We are united to Christ in all his glory by faith, and his Spirit is with and in us always. It’s about the hope of seeing God face to face as he takes us into glory. 

In Christ we have what the world is missing, and when we have our expectations right, we realise just how good this is. Why envy those who have possessions when you have the God who spoke the universe itself into being. ‘My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.’ With the Apostle Paul, we can say that we ‘consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things.’ (Phil 3:8). The Christian life is a life of hope – waiting for glory and justice to come. But it’s also a life of joy and privilege here and now as we grow to appreciate the love God has shown us in Christ and poured into our hearts through his Spirit.

Disillusionment, Doubt and Delight

No matter where we are at in our attitudes towards God and the Christian life, Psalm 73 helps reorientate us towards the truly good life. 

If you’re exploring Christianity and trying to figure out what you believe about God, this psalm offers both a warning and an invitation. It’s a warning not to read too much into the apparent prosperity of the arrogant and godless in this world and certainly not to embrace that path – God’s judgement is coming. It’s also a warning not to come to Christianity as a way of getting what you want in this world – that’s only going to end in disillusionment. And it’s an invitation to make God your refuge, and to appreciate that when you do you receive something far more precious than anything you could have hoped to get out of God. You get God himself.

For those of us who are Christians, we’ll fall into two broad groups with regard to this Psalm. Either we’ll feel like this are ok, and we’re not necessarily struggling with doubts or disillusionment like Asaph, or on the other hand, his struggle might resonate quite strongly with you. Either way, we can appreciate how this Psalm redirects our expectations and desires towards the good things that God does offer us in this life in Christ and reassures us that his justice and salvation is coming to set everything to right.

But if we are experiencing doubts, we need to know that this is not necessarily a bad thing. God doesn’t want you to hide them or cover them up. Realising you’re disillusioned with God or the Christian faith is not necessarily a bad thing either. In and of itself it’s not great. But it’s an opportunity. It’s an opportunity to reflect on your expectations of God and of the Christian life and consider if perhaps you’ve been expecting something that God never promised you. And perhaps you’ve been missing something profoundly good right in front of you. Doubts and disillusionment can be an opportunity to reorientate yourself around the blessings we have in Christ and to kindle a deeper delight in him than we’ve ever experienced before.

If you’re experiencing doubts or disillusionment as a Christian the answer is not to give in to them and chase after what you feel you’re missing out on. But neither is it to squash them and pretend everything’s ok. The answer is to bring them to God, to cry out in frustration, even in bitterness… but as you do so, to cast your vision to the cross of Christ. There’s only so long we can complain to God and doubt his goodness or intentions for us or whether the Christian life is worth it while we’re gazing at his love and justice poured out in the cross. Take the opportunity to push through and come out the other side to a renewed sense of the preciousness of living this life hand in hand with your God, who has laid down his life for you so that you might live forever with him in glory.