When life isn’t fair (part 2)

The good guys win; the bad guys lose. People who work hard succeed, but not the slackers. Loyalty is rewarded. Always do the right thing, and you’ll be vindicated. Faithfulness yields blessing. Be kind to others, and they will be kind to you.

We have a deep sense that all of these things are supposed to be true. This is the way things are supposed to work. And often, they do.

But when they don’t, it’s disorienting. We’re tempted to think, “Then what’s the point?” Why strive to do the right thing when the people who cheat get all the goodies? Why be loyal to an organization that refuses to promote you? Why make sacrifices for your kids when they don’t seem to appreciate anything you do?

As we’ve seen, the psalmist warns that when the scales of justice seem out of balance, when the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer, the temptation is to stew over the unfairness of it all, to be angry and envious. “Don’t fret,” the psalmist advises. “I know it seems unfair, but the situation won’t last forever.”

Yes, but it’s being going on for a while now, and I don’t see any sign that things will change. Are you telling me to just grit my teeth and put up with it? You’re telling me not to get mad. But what am I supposed to do instead?

Glad you asked.

. . .

As we’ve seen, in the first nine verses of Psalm 37, the psalmist repeatedly says “Don’t fret,” culminating with a triple prohibition: “Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath. Do not fret — it leads only to evil” (vs. 8, NRSV). But nestled in the middle of these negative commands are also some positive ones:

  • Trust in the LORD, and do good (vs. 3a);
  • Take delight in the LORD (vs. 4a);
  • Commit your way to the LORD (vs. 5a);
  • Be still before the LORD, and wait patiently for him (vs. 7a).

If you’ve ever tried to tell someone “Don’t worry,” or “Don’t get mad,” you know it doesn’t work. In fact, it can make things worse. Nor does it help to just tell ourselves not to feel what we’re feeling or think what we’re thinking. We need redirection. We need something else to focus on, or we’re likely to obsess over what’s upsetting us even more.

Thus, there is a positive and encouraging side to the psalmist’s wisdom: “Don’t fret — but do this instead.” When life seems unfair, what can we do to cultivate the belief that God is trustworthy, so that we can continue to do what’s right and good? For the psalmists, it’s meditating on God’s past faithfulness, and sharing those stories with others.

What can we do to cultivate delight in the LORD? For the psalmists, it can be drilling down below God’s acts of faithfulness to the wonders of his faithful love. It can be looking up at a starry sky and marveling over the vastness and artistry of creation. It can be pausing for a moment to reflect in astonishment that out of all that vast universe, God chooses to care so deeply for us human creatures.

Trust and delight help ground our commitment to God’s way. We can keep going because we trust that it’s not mere futility. We obey because we take delight in this God, a God we know to be faithful and loving.

Then, just before the psalmist crescendos with “Don’t fret, don’t get mad; don’t get mad, don’t fret” (vss. 7b-8), we’re told, “Be still before the LORD, and wait patiently for him.”

But what if patience isn’t our long suit?

. . .

Cultivating trust, delight, and commitment will certainly help us develop patience and endurance as well. But I also want to make sure that we don’t create some unrealistic scenario in which we’re not supposed to have upsetting emotions in the first place.

The psalmist’s language here is interesting. In English, the phrases “Be still” and “wait patiently” might give us the image of imperturbable calm — the long-haired psalmist/guru sitting in the Lotus position on a lofty mountaintop, eyes closed, dispensing pearls of wisdom from above.

But the Hebrew can paint a different picture. Being “still” is less about being calm than silent. Here, I imagine the righteous complaining to God, over and over, “It’s not fair! It’s not, it’s not, it’s not!” The psalmist’s message isn’t “Calm down” (which, again, isn’t terribly helpful), but “Shhh.”

That much we can do.

And what about “wait patiently”? Here, too, the Hebrew is interesting. Consider, for example, Psalm 29: “The voice of the LORD shakes the wilderness; the LORD shakes the wilderness of Kadesh. The voice of the LORD causes the oaks to whirl and strips the forests bare” (vss. 8-9a). The psalmist envisions God coming upon the earth like a mighty storm; his voice shakes the very ground and twists the strongest of trees. Indeed, some translations, like the New American Standard, have that the voice of the LORD “makes the deer to calve” instead of twisting the trees, picturing the writhing of childbirth.

Shake, whirl, twist, calve: this is the same word that is translated as “wait patiently” in Psalm 37:7.

Bet you didn’t see that coming.

But as we’ll see in the next post, I think the apostle Paul would agree with the psalmist about what it means to wait patiently.