When life isn’t fair (part 1)

Have you ever told your kids, “You can do anything if you just put your mind to it”? Or, “You can be anything you want if you just work hard enough”?

We know, of course, that we don’t literally mean “anything.” Not everyone, for example, is going to be able to dunk a basketball like they see on television, no matter how hard they work. These phrases of encouragement are simply a common way of saying, “Never underestimate what you can accomplish with focused effort.”

But one of the reasons that the phrases are common is that they embody certain myths of American culture. By “myth,” I mean a broad story about what life in America is supposed to be like. America, for example, is touted as a land of boundless opportunity where anyone can pull themselves up by their bootstraps, where virtue and hard work will eventually be rewarded.

The word “myth” doesn’t mean that the story is inherently untrue. Rather, it’s a myth because it’s assumed to be true. The myth functions like an article of faith, deeply embedded in the cultural imagination. Sometimes, things do in fact play out according to the script: we love our rags-to-riches stories. But we’d prefer not to hear from people with riches-to-rags stories. We’d rather blame them for their misfortune than question the myth, or recognize the ways in which the playing field in our land of opportunity isn’t level.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that results are not related to effort. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t encourage our kids to dream big dreams. But the more the bootstrap myth and its cousins have a grip on our imagination, the more we will feel cheated when our efforts don’t “pay off” as expected.

When we get tired of trying and trying and trying some more to no avail, we’ll get frustrated and angry. Life will seem unfair, and we’re apt to resent the people who have what we think we should have.

The psalmist knows what that’s like, and has a word of wisdom for us.

. . .

Psalm 1 puts forward its own “mythological” view of the world. Again, that’s not to say Psalm 1 isn’t true; quite the opposite. It teaches what life and the world are supposed to be like, from God’s perspective: the way of righteousness leads to prosperity and blessing, and the way of wickedness leads to destruction. That article of faith runs through the entire Psalter.

But, of course, things don’t always work out that way. Sometimes, it’s the wicked who seem to prosper, who get away with lying, scheming, and violence. Sometimes, it’s the righteous who suffer, even to the point of death. Even those who wouldn’t claim to believe in God know that there’s something amiss here. (Ironically, they might also say that this is why they don’t believe in God; but then one wonders why they would expect things to be just and fair.)

The Psalms recognize and wrestle with the disconnect, and the wisdom of Psalm 37 is a prime example. Three times in the first nine verses, we’re told not to “fret.” “Do not fret because of the wicked; do not be envious of wrongdoers… Do not fret over those who prosper in their way, over those who carry out evil devices,” the psalmist says (vss. 1,7b, NRSV). The phrase “prosper in their way” echoes the language of Psalm 1 — and therein lies the problem. It’s the righteous who are supposed to prosper, not those who carry out evil.

The righteous are then tempted to fret and ruminate when the world seems so out of kilter. And fretting can lead to resentment: “Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath. Do not fret — it leads only to evil” (vs. 8). It’s one thing to be angry at wickedness and injustice the way God is, and certain psalms reflect this kind of righteous indignation (e.g., Ps 139:21-23). But this too easily shades over into jealousy and covetousness when the wicked have what we think is rightfully ours. At that point, the psalmist warns, we’ve wandered from the path of righteousness ourselves.

“So don’t fret,” the psalmist advises. Throughout the psalm, we’re encouraged to remember that even if the situation seems topsy-turvy, it’s only temporary. The wicked “will soon fade like the grass, and wither like the green herb” (vs. 2), and as we’ve seen in a previous post, they will also be “cut off” while the righteous inherit the land (e.g., vs. 9).

That’s the wisdom of what not to do. Does the psalmist have any wisdom about what we should do instead?

As a matter of fact, yes, as we’ll see in the next post.