Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Psalm 73: A Few Thoughts

* The following are my notes from a recent Sunday School class going over Psalm 73.

Psalm 73—A Few Thoughts

1.     Verse 1—a basic theological profession of the goodness of God.  This becomes the baseline from which the troubled thoughts begin.  If God were not good then there would be no problem.  It is the fact that God is good and good to the pure in the heart that serves as the foil against which to see the problems around the psalmist.

2.     Verses 2-16—the problem of the wicked prospering and the righteous suffering

a.     Like the book of Job in miniature.

b.     Raises the existential problem of evil—“this is not the way the world is supposed to be!”

c.      Issue of doubt[1]

J. P. Moreland and Klaus Issler have written a wonderful book entitled In Search of a Confident Faith: Overcoming Barriers to Trusting God (IVP, 2008).  In this book Moreland and Issler tackle these categories of “intellectual” and “experiential” challenges in an insightful manner.  They begin by making some important distinctions that are helpful:

First, one must distinguish among (1) unbelief (a willful and sinful setting of oneself against a biblical teaching), (2) doubt (an intellectual, emotional or psychological hindrance to a more secure confidence in some teaching or in God himself—I believe something but just have doubts) and (3) lack of belief (I don’t believe something but know I should and want to—I need help).

Second, as we shall see, not all doubt is explicitly intellectual.  There are deep affective, psychological issues involved as well.  For example, if you had attachment issues as a child and were not regularly connected to warm, strong, loving parents, you may have difficulty believing that God the Father is tender and kind.  If so, then what is essential for developing greater confidence in God includes participating in healthy relationships and engaging in spiritual formation exercises, perhaps also being involved in therapy.

Third, confidence is not an all-or-nothing affair.  If one doe not have confidence in something, he or she may lack trust to varying degrees.  The same may be said for having trust in something.  (pp. 21-22)

These are important distinctions that people need to be made aware of for their spiritual health.  The pangs of doubt are not an indication of sinfulness that needs to be suppressed.  Confidence in God is something that ebbs and flows because it is a relational category.  We are in relationship with God and we have the ability to grow closer to him or move away from him.  Failure to understand these distinctions leads to problems in the church, as Moreland and Issler point out:

Thus, we now have a stifling, stagnating situation in the evangelical community: People do not feel safe in expressing doubt or lack of belief about some doctrinal point—even the question of whether they actually believe in God.  The result is that people hide what they actually believe from others, and even from themselves, all the while continuing to use faith-talk to avoid being socially ostracized in their local fellowship.  Because we do not fully understand assensus (and fiducia; see below), we have unintentionally created a situation in which people do not know how to distinguish what they believe from what they say they believe.  Thus, they substitute community jargon for authentic trust.  

This is a powerful point!  The language of faith (“community jargon”) is not the same as faith.  Unless we recognize the potential dangers of this our churches will not be healthy communities of authentic faith.

To effectively address this situation, we must create safe, honest, nondefensive fellowships in which people are given permission to be on a faith journey, with all the warts, messiness and setbacks that are part of such a journey.  We must also address general and specific intellectual doubts, provide insights about the affective, emotional hindrances to growth in confidence in God, and become more intentional about bearing credible witnesses to each other regarding answers to prayer and other supernatural experiences that strengthen faith. (p. 22)

That last sentence lays out three categories to be addressed: (1) intellectual doubts, (2) emotional hindrances, and (3) the need to share with one another God’s active presence in our lives through answered prayer and other supernatural experiences.  We must beware of attempting to focus only or, even primarily, on the intellectual issues to the exclusion of these other areas.  Later in the book Moreland and Issler make these important comments:

If you had to guess, what would you identify as the most prominent source of doubt in America today?  Is it certain discoveries of science?  Incredulity about some stories in the Bible?  The intolerance of Jesus’ claims to be the only way?  These are not even close.  In his study of doubt and defection from Christianity, sociologist Christian Smith claims that far and away the chief source of doubt comes from God’s apparent inactivity, indifference or impotence in the face of tragedy and suffering in the respondents’ lives and in others’ lives, and the apparent lack of God’s interventions and help in the toil and fatigue of daily troubles.

Notice that this is not simply the traditional “problem of evil.”  It is the “problem of evil” personalized.  It is the “hiddenness of God”—his seeming indifference and aloofness—that is the main issue.

In light of his study, Smith claims that spiritual experiences are a major source of development in trust in God and strengthening of that trust: “Very many modern people have encountered and do encounter what are to them very real spiritual experiences, frequently vivid and powerful ones.  And these often serve as epistemological anchors sustaining their religious faith in even the most pluralistic and secular of situations.”

With two qualifications, we believe Smith is onto something very important.  First, spiritual experiences in themselves can be dangerous and misleading, so they cannot sustain on their own the weight of religious, especially Christian, conviction.  However, given a framework of objective biblical revelation (e.g., Jesus’ promises developed in the last chapter) and a biblically pregnant view of God-confidence that includes the various factors covered in this book, experiences of the triune God, his love and mercy, and his responses to prayer are powerful sources of encouragement and confirmation of reliance on God.  Second, since Christian growth is a communal and not merely an individualistic endeavor, we would expand Smith’s frame of reference from personal experiences of God to include hearing of, even experiencing, his presence and actions vicariously in and through the lives of others.  (pp. 133-134)

d.     What the wicked say in verse 11—“How does God know?  And is there knowledge with the Most High?”  (cf. Psalm 10 for more statements from the wicked)

e.     Verse 15—almost falling into unbelieving despair and thus causing others to stumble

3.     Transition: verse 17 “Until I came into the sanctuary of God”

a.     Context is one of worship; corporate worship provides perspective on life (cf. Hebrews 10.23-25)

b.     We need a longer perspective; an eternal perspective

                                               i.     Romans 8.18
                                              ii.     2 Corinthians 4.16-18
                                            iii.     1 Peter 5.10

c.      Verses 18-20: God will bring judgment and justice

4.     Verses 21-24: Pain, confusion, and, yet, God holds us and guides us!

a.     Verse 24: “and afterward receive me to glory” as indicator of life after death[2]

5.     Verse 25-28: God is the ultimate blessing

a.     “my portion”: Psalm 119.57; 16.5; contra the wicked whose portion is just in this life (Psalm 17.14)

     [1] From my blog: “On Doubt, Apologetics, and Affections” (March 8, 2013) http://whiterosereview.blogspot.com/2013/03/on-doubt-apologetics-and-affections.html
     [2] Although the issue of the afterlife in the Old Testament is debated, OT scholars such as Walter Kaiser and T. D. Alexander argue that Psalm 73 does affirm such a belief in the afterlife for the righteous.  See Walter Kaiser Hard Sayings of the Bible (Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity Press, 1996), 105; T. D. Alexander, “The Psalms and the Afterlife” Irish Biblical Studies 9 (1987), 11-16; online: http://biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/irish-biblical-studies/09-1_002.pdf