Gazing outward, inward, and Godward

News flash: the world is not always a fair place. You try to do the right thing, but sometimes bad things happen. You make sacrifices for others, but few people if any appreciate it. You play the game by the rules, but others win because they cheat.

Justice is not always done. The innocent are victimized and the guilty go free. People with power lord it over others and get away with abuse, pushing the powerless even further into the margins.

At times, it’s enough to make you wonder why believers should keep believing, or indeed, why anyone would want to believe in a good and omnipotent God in the first place.

. . .

This is not the place to try to “solve” the question of theodicy, or how one reconciles the goodness of God with the existence of evil. Instead, this post will take a last look at Psalm 73 to answer a different but related question: how was the psalmist’s hope and trust in God reawakened when his devotion seemed so pointless?

Here again is the depth of the psalmist’s frustration and sense of futility:

Look at these wicked ones,
    always relaxed, piling up the wealth!

Meanwhile, I’ve kept my heart pure for no good reason;
I’ve washed my hands to stay innocent for nothing.
(vss. 12-13, CEB)

The psalmist was getting nowhere trying to puzzle it out himself. But then, there was a shift:

But when I tried to understand these things,
    it just seemed like hard work
    until I entered God’s sanctuary
        and understood what would happen to the wicked.
(vss. 16-17)

As we saw in the previous post, the psalmist becomes convinced once again that the wicked will someday receive their just deserts (vss. 18-20). He admits that because of his resentment of the wicked, he wasn’t thinking straight; indeed, in the Hebrew, he describes himself as something like a stupid cow (vs. 22). His trust in God is restored, and he expresses it with some of the deepest words of devotion in the entire Psalter:

But I was still always with you!
    You held my strong hand!
You have guided me with your advice;
    later you will receive me with glory.
Do I have anyone else in heaven?
    There’s nothing on earth I desire except you.
My body and my heart fail,
    but God is my heart’s rock and my share forever
. (vss. 23-26)

What changed? It’s not as if God suddenly destroyed the wicked or took away their riches. The only difference seems to be that the psalmist, full of bitterness and confusion, entered the sanctuary to be in the presence of God.

. . .

One way to appreciate the change is to watch how the psalmist’s perspective shifts as the psalm goes on. To some extent, the pronouns tell the story. The first part of the psalm is dominated by “they, them, their”: the psalmist’s gaze is directed outward. He is preoccupied with the wicked, and what he sees makes him bitter and resentful.

We know what that’s like, don’t we?

Then the psalmist shifts to “I, me, my”: his wasted life, his afflictions, his mental conflicts. We know this, too: how easy it is to slide back and forth from being resentful of “them” to feeling sorry for “me”; the outward gaze turns inward.

But finally, in the sanctuary, the psalmist’s gaze turns Godward. What changes, in other words, is not that he receives a proper answer to his question of why the wicked prosper; rather the question loses its urgency when he takes his gaze off the wicked, off himself, and focuses instead on the character of God.

He already knew what to believe about the fate of the wicked and the destiny of the righteous. He may have brought his anger and confusion with him into the sanctuary — but he probably also brought an open heart. Thus, the psalmist is able to say that “it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord GOD my refuge” (vs. 28).

From the outward gaze of bitterness, to the inward gaze of self-pity, to the Godward gaze that allows us to let go of unanswered questions… We will never have all the answers we seek, and until God finishes the work of restoring this broken world to wholeness, we will continue to see and suffer unfairness and injustice. But if we can come into God’s presence with an open heart, we may at least find the refuge we seek.