Psalm 52: Flourishing

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1

“Why do you boast of evil, you mighty hero?
    Why do you boast all day long,
    you who are a disgrace in the eyes of God?

2

You who practice deceit,
    your tongue plots destruction;
    it is like a sharpened razor.

3

You love evil rather than good,
    falsehood rather than speaking the truth.[c]

4

You love every harmful word,
you deceitful tongue!

5

Surely God will bring you down to everlasting ruin:  He will snatch you up and pluck you from your tent;
    he will uproot you from the land of the living.

6

The righteous will see and fear;
    they will laugh at you, saying,

7

“Here now is the man
 who did not make God his stronghold 
but trusted in his great wealth 
and grew strong by destroying others!”

8

But I am like an olive tree 
flourishing in the house of God;
I trust in God’s unfailing love 
forever and ever.

9

For what you have done I will always praise you
in the presence of your faithful people.
 And I will hope in your name,
    for your name is good.”

-Psalm 52, NIV (emphasis mine)

 

To be completely honest, this Psalm was a little aggravating.

 

I was able to meet him half way. Once I read the whole story about who Doeg was and how he convinced Saul that a priest had betrayed him and aided his now enemy David, which was all a lie, and lead Saul to order the deaths of over eighty priests, I understood the violent, vindictive language. I understood it even more so when I learned that Saul’s soldiers refused the order, driving Doeg to carry out an extermination on his own of an entire town, including women and the elderly and children, just to advance himself into Saul’s good graces.

 

Once I knew that Doeg was to the world then what a terrorist is to us now, I was fine with David getting AT him… even though David was far from perfect himself. I was okay with the hypocrisy and the faint smell of an inflated ego, because in the end, I’m happy something was said about Doeg.

 

“But I am like an olive tree 
flourishing in the house of God;”

 

What frustrates me though, above all things, is the premise that God is always good to those who follow Him. That David, because he believes in God, is going to be just dandy. That may strike you as unchristian, but hear me out.

 

From what I have seen of this world, blessings don’t seem to fall on the good and curses on the bad. It’s more complicated than that. And it bothers me.

 

I think about Casey Anthony, who very likely killed her baby girl and yet, got off scot-free. Or O.J. Simpson getting away with the murder of his wife. I think of the thousands of innocent children dying every day from malnutrition. And the one billion in the world that lack access to clean water. I think of Newtown and the drug lords and Anne Frank and Goldman Sachs.

 

Why isn’t Casey getting plucked out of her protective tent?

Why aren’t the children of Uganda flourishing?

 

Here’s the small bit of sense I can make of all this. When I lose everything, when it seems like my life is imploding, I am able to fling out a fraught cry to God because… where else am I to go? I can’t imagine putting all of my security in possessions alone, because those can all be gone in a moment’s time. I know God as something of an anchor that I cling to tightly for hope of something changing, because I understand and I know that He is always there.

 

But I struggle to grasp how he is always good.

 

I believe there is an explanation out there- that he must be good, but I can’t make heads or tails of it. Seems like evil is so pervasive today and quite often, I’ve seen devoted Christians bear the brunt of some truly difficult heart-shattering decisions of life. Tragedies that have Shriveled families, not made them Flourish. And the whole time, I watched these poor friends recite, through gritted teeth, feel-good clichés about God’s providence.

 

This is a bit of a rant. A bit of projection. A slice of my confusion with the goodness of God.

But most importantly, these are the honest doubts that replay in my mind.

 

So help me.

What are your thoughts?

How do you reconcile God’s goodness with evil in the world?

What does it mean to flourish?

 

RR

 

~~~

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  • Ford1968

    Hmmm. This is an ageless, confounding question with an interesting twist. Rather than “why do bad things happen to good people?”, you ask “why *don’t* bad things happen to bad people”. Here’s my entirely inadequate answer:

    Knowing there is a real disconnect between Old and New Testament conception of divine justice, I tend to set the Old Testament aside and focus on the New. I believe to my core that we are all inextricably interconnected; turning the other cheek, then, is at least as liberating for me as it is for those who have wronged me. Retribution might feel good in the moment, but compassion and forgiveness are, in my experience, more redemptive and empowering (when I’m actually able to muster them).

    • registeredrunaway

      See- I get the God that is compassionate even to the very worst among us. That forgiveness is indiscriminate. I get that.

      What I don’t understand is the idea that being good or pure or innocent delivers us from the clutches of this world. Which makes me question the concept of blessing.

      Because, if God is all powerful, why is he allowing such suffering to fall on Africa? Why do blessings seem to fall indiscriminately? It doesn’t matter if youre good or even Christian, you are, it seems, only protected in the eternal sense. But the here and now? It can feel like we are all on our own. I chalk this up not to definitive statement “that we are on our own” but just to my confusion about how God is actively good to us. Am I making any sense?

      • Ford1968

        OK …so, what I’m about to write is going to sound trite. And, once again, entirely inadequate. Apologies in advance.

        First, you are asking questions that have been mulled over infinitely by the greatest philosophers and theologians throughout time. Anyone who tells you they have it all figured out is a charlatan. I certainly don’t.

        I think it may be a little dangerous to use our conceptions of blessing as an indicator of God’s divine justice. In an easy example, a man can be materially rich but emotionally impoverished. Would we say that this man is blessed or not? In a more difficult example, the genocide in Rwanda was horrendous, but there are beautiful things happening in the reconciliation process. Would we say Rwandans are blessed or not?

        When we use the framework: “all men should get what they deserve”, are we in any position to understand what those just deserts are?

        I certainly don’t think God withholds blessings from non-Christians. I don’t believe that God requires us to believe a certain way in order to receive a fullness of life. We are, after all, created in His image and loved unconditionally.

        But none of that offers an answer to the African AIDS epidemic or the wide-spread starvation.

        As Christians, it is our obligation to reduce the suffering in the world. But that doesn’t answer the question of why God allows suffering in the first place. The harsh reality is that sometimes our only choice is to have faith or not.

        Your question is the genesis of Reinhold Niebuhr’s serenity prayer. That’s perhaps the best answer to this question I’ve ever seen.

        • registeredrunaway

          I agree. And I love the serenity prayer.

          This is why I normally don’t delve too much into theology because it can breaks my brain! I think the questions of suffering are ones that we won’t be able to answer, or at least, not fully. Which is always a cop out response to me, but what else am I to do! Thank you, as always Ford, for bringing me a bit closer to understanding. God is a frustrating mystery.

  • This is one place where it helps to read through the Psalms, I think. Though this psalm talks about flourishing, other psalms ask God why He has abandoned. Platitudes about God’s goodness feel false when they are constant. Real life has ups and downs- in our experiences and in our faith.

    One of the most difficult things that has happened to me is the premature birth of my first son. I was terribly sick with pre-eclampsia, and the doctors ended up inducing labor 8 weeks early. (I’m pretty sure 100, or even 50 years ago, we both would have died…) It felt infuriating to me when people quoted Romans 8:28 while my son and I were in the hospital. In the background of my soul, I definitely still had faith that God was good. But at the time, I didn’t need that verse- I needed someone to sit with me in the ashes.

    But here’s what’s interesting: 6 1/2 years later, I see so very much good that came from this experience. The way that friends were there for me, the way I learned about trust at a core level, the way I felt God’s Spirit hold me up when I didn’t have the strength to go on.

    When we talk about God’s goodness, I think it’s important to see it as a life-long and eternal characteristic that intermixes with a sinful and broken world. It is true, but it is also complicated and beyond pithy statements. It takes wrestling, just as you do here, when we see so much brokenness in the world.

    I’m glad you didn’t shy away from addressing the disconnect. When Christians do that, I think we do a disservice to what a life of faith really looks like.

    • registeredrunaway

      That’s so true. Perhaps, that is why the psalms are a favorite of believers, they lament over the frustrating mystery of God. Why he sometimes feels right up in our face and sometimes feels like he is a world away. I guess I heard, when I read David’s words, the same refrains of God blessing his followers with so much and punishing those that are not following him. Not really considering all that lies between the lines of that psalm, all the context and history and relationship of David to God. It is a lifelong process personally, and a terribly frustrating dilemma worldwide.

      I worry what this God looks like to the mother of a child dying from diarrhea. Or the kid lying on his bed in his skin and bones body. What do we do with that? I think Ford (comment above) fleshed it out really well in how we talk about blessings and who receives them.

      The serenity prayer may be the best response to this question.

  • So… I have time to write, so I’m indulging this question—because it’s one of my favorite.

    Probably THE most popular question of doubt: “How do you reconcile God’s goodness with evil in the world?” Personally, I think it is important to ask this question to ourselves everyday and others whenever appropriate. I know that I can’t help but ask myself this at some point during my day—there always comes a point where I stop and think, “God, why this? This can’t be right… right?” Of course, I have no proven answers and we know the Bible definitely work like a textbook or a self-help book.

    First off, to me, justifying the ups and downs of Life as “simply the way real life works” is dangerous. By merely sitting back and accepting that fatalistic view, it leaves a lot of room for ambiguity on something you have now said “is meant to be.” Unless you’re willing to actively engage in seeking the truth on everything in your life, you are leaving a gaping hole in your heart’s defenses for evil to unleash all kinds of deception. It’s worth mentioning, before even this, you need to actually believe evil is an active force in the world. And that’s just the thing: some people choose to consciously accept that life is meant to have up and downs, and they also choose to not engage in the hard questions—the ones that are painful and scary to consider. It’s no wonder then there are so many religions in the world that reject dualism and attribute all good and evil to God. So really, you have to believe evil—the same evil we see over and over again in the Bible—is real before you can pit the “Why this, God?”-question against Him. It’s harder than it sounds. Many Christians—especially in the Western world—really don’t want to touch the questions about God’s judgment on an individual level (that is, talking to God about it) because we’re usually so afraid of admitting that we aren’t perfect. We’re therefore left with the loudest ministers deciding what God’s judgment “does.”

    With that out of the way we can fathom ideas of “why” the evil is there. Right now, I’m currently satisfied in part with remembering that there is a war going on. Terrestrial earth is not only staging ground of this war. It may seem that way because of what our five senses tell us, but the Holy Spirit inside of us knows better—and in spending that powerful moment in tearful prayer, we know better too. I don’t think this means God is not sovereign nor does it mean He is lazy. I simply believe it means the divine plan has a lot of complexities to it that even lie outside of what he know so far. It’s easy for us as humans to think “Okay, God. You love us, we love you; can’t we just be together now?” Then we point our finger at the gates of Heaven, look up at God, and say “Waitin’ on you, bud.” That design “makes sense” to us because we came up with it. …but then again I can’t say I have ever been very good at consciously considering every single person in the world’s heart AT THE SAME TIME, let alone even one or two of my friends. Clearly, my ability to discern the best course of action is not up to snuff.

    So fine, we know there is evil, we know God is contested by it (or them), and we know we can’t discern a decent plan that will get us out of this mess. Newsflash: we probably already knew that! While those factors do satisfy quite a bit of questioning, it doesn’t really make us feel any more loved. … Until we remember we’re able to freely think about them at all. There is a Psalm I became obsessed with about a year ago when I was beginning to see my sexuality face-to-face after years of fearfully suppressing it: Psalm 88. If anyone has read this, you know it is completely negative. When I first read it I literally thought it was a misprint … in the Bible (I know, right?). It is accusatory of God for all the pain He *caused* the prayer. The prayer is BLAMING God for his agony. Now I could talk for hours about this Psalm and how it is so very telling of God’s grace, but I think mentioning it is enough for this discussion on why God allows evil.

    As a musician and more specifically a composer, I often read the Psalms from the perspective of the author—as in the moment he is sitting down writing it out. For someone to take the time write a psalm about this one thing it also means this thing had probably been bothering them for some time and it likely lingered for a bit more after they finished the psalm. Empathizing with that we also know the VAST MYRIAD OF THOUGHTS that run through our brains when we’re suffering. It feels like if we don’t finally center ourselves, we’ll spiral down into insanity and be lost there forever. That is certainly what evil tries to do in those moments. Yet regardless of how we reach out to God, the fact is we do.

    See, throughout the psalms regardless of what the prayer is about, we often see a trend of “Dear LORD, help me with this thing I want…” or “Dear LORD, save me from people who are less righteous than me…” or “Dear LORD, I’m losing my faith…” or “Dear LORD, nobody likes me everybody hates me…” followed by “…but I still reach out to You.” Why reach though? Which is essentially asking “Why God?” which in turn points to the Cross.

    Sometimes I ask the question “God, why do You keep creating people when You know the evil world is trying to kill them all?” The question sounds hauntingly familiar to “Michael, why do you keep writing music even though you know you won’t make money?” The only answer I can give them is “I don’t really know, I love it” or to have them listen to music. Words fail to scratch the surface of the reasons, but deep down I know the art I make matters for some weird reason that is spirals off into endless questions—except this spiral feels like the exact opposite of the spiral of death I mentioned before.

    So God, “why evil?” And He might reply (as we popularly know from Job), “Why create You?” We’ll reply back stammeringly, knowing we’re beaten, “Yeah, but… This sucks! Why create me at all!? Can’t You do a better job?” From that I think of a God—tears in His eyes—responding back to a harsh accusation, “That hurts… I know you love your friends and you want to love them more… but can’t I be your friend? …Don’t you love Me, too?” Perhaps the question we’re asking as Christians shouldn’t be “why evil?” it should be “God, can I be with You? Can I help You help us?”

    • registeredrunaway

      K, I love this, and, as always Michael, it is brilliant and above me. So thank you! This actually helps me quite a bit.

      I understand that for me, God is going to bring me up and the world may bring me down and that this is just the rhythm of life. That faith is not a promise to keep us from hard times. That I can’t expect, once I become a Christian, to walk sweetly through my day to day. People are going to get sick and die. I can lose my job. My house could foreclosed. My world may become near unbearable. And, as Steph’s story illustrates above, there seems to be a divine long-term plan at play. And that makes sense to me.

      But what about the third world? Why is it that the all-powerful God allows such evil to overtake subsaharan Africa? Why Human Trafficking? Why all these things, taking away the lives of the poor much more than the rest of us? That’s where I really struggle.

      And I know… this will not be answered in any theological sense. It is a question that is at the heart of what we call the “mystery” of God. And even though that works, to say God simply works on another plane of reasoning than I do, it is still so frustrating. It makes little sense.

      Thank you, again, Michael. Promise you will never stop leaving me incredible comments like this.

      • The question of evil is also a double-edged sword. If we are to believe we are redeemed through Christ’s blood to share in a covenant relationship with him, a divine friendship; then the nature our relationship is a two-way street. We also play a hand in why there is evil by way of free will—because God wanted us have the choice to deeply love Him back. For there to be evil at all in the world implies that we have chosen to do evil (sin) and fallen short of unfailing faith.

        Logically (though impossibly prior to Christ’s return) if EVERY single person on earth turned to God and took up the individual path of loving others they were made for—whether that be being a plumber, a minister, or whathaveyou—then evil would either be dead or in a void. But that obviously doesn’t seem to work here on earth, so I’m led to ask a few questions:

        1) Are there people that are actually demons in disguise (and not people)?
        2) Does God create people who are meant to be damned?

        If angels and demons really do walk among us under the guise of humans, then it’s no wonder that evil/suffering is able to spread despite people’s good intentions. If not and there really are humans who are born to be evil (outside the ambiguous “elect,” if you will), then we are even more in the dark as to what God is doing altogether (and also seriously disturbed by the thought of being inherently damned).

        I believe both of these answers are false simply based on the fact that humans have a natural capacity to love others—this is, like, THE artist’s signature of God. From what the Bible tells about evil, we know it does not have any concern for *insert holy trait here* (see Proverbs). So if there are such evil beings within our population that are dispelling the chance for over-all Church unification, they would have to have absolutely zero capacity nor desire for love. … We’d also have to be able to see into the hearts of people to know who is who to get past the deception of evil. …But honestly, who dares to see into the hearts of others?

        I know I’m doing a lot of hypothesizing here and not really expanding on the question, but I’m stuck at this point too like pretty much everyone else. I will say, however, that the moment we stop considering this question of “why evil?” as important, we will stop finding reason to help those who are tormented by it.

        (Hahaha! And I promise I’ll keep being thorough. I can’t really stop if I wanted to.)

  • “I believe there is an explanation out there- that he must be good, but I can’t make heads or tails of it.” I’m totally with you there. I believe those sort-of-cliches about how “God is good all the time” but I don’t even understand what they mean.

    And this question and uncertainty has totally changed my faith and my view of God recently. Last year I got really sick and had to have surgery… what was with that? How could that be “God’s plan”? I guess before, I thought I was immune, that bad things wouldn’t happen to me, they just happen to “other people”- that my life would never be out of control like that.

    And also feminism has taught me to see ways that the world is really messed-up, that innocent people are victims of abuse and oppression and violence- and it’s not okay. So why should I even pray? Why should I think God’s going to help me with the mundane things I pray for, when he’s busy NOT helping other people with much greater problems? Why would I even want to pray to a God like that?

    BUT lately I’m thinking about what “trusting God” means, and how in general God is good and gives good gifts to his children, so it’s best to be optimistic and have faith even though there’s always uncertainty. (Not to downplay people’s suffering- but lately I’ve been over-emphasizing it so much that I’m scared of the world.)

    Like I said, I’ve been struggling with this “why does God allow evil” a lot lately- and I’ve blogged about it some:

    Greater Faith “Faith doesn’t mean you don’t question. Faith means after you question and object to everything, after you challenge every detail you read in the bible, after you call God all the names you can think of (and I don’t mean the nice ones like “King of Kings”), you come back and say, “I still believe in the goodness of God.””

    The Bible Is Less Naive Than Me “I thought the bible presented a naive religion that couldn’t handle anybody asking questions about God letting evil things happen. I thought it promised puppies and rainbows and had nothing to say about sickness and tragedy. But nothing could be further from the truth.”

  • registeredrunaway

    Thank you for both those posts, they actually did help me quite a bit!

    I will say, I am still uncomfortable (as I’m sure you and every one else commenting here is) with the lack of clear answer as to how God can be good and allow bad to happen. In my opinion, to be Good is to actively engage with suffering. To eradicate it in the here and now. But, not being sarcastic, I really don’t know much about the theology of God and good and evil and I certainly need to address this in my faith, as you can see, its becoming a bigger and bigger stumbling block.

  • I am glad you used the word “aggravated” in your post. I too felt this way when I read this particular Psalm. To me, David sounded arrogant. The tone bothered me, especially the words expressing laughter. I told my husband I felt sinful for feeling this way. I like you, then read the story of Doeg and got it…sort of. The imagery of the righteous laughing at evil still felt and still feels in this moment without grace. Maybe this is because David didn’t know grace as we do from the cross?
    I say all of that to say that I am glad we are wrestling together. It is healthy. Thank you for writing with conviction.

    • I wanna just tack on here that I totally get where you’re coming from, Spiritual Glasses. I’ve always felt… bad reading the psalms that talk about being more righteous than others because I’m certainly not! Sometimes I figure it better to read them from the perspective of Jesus, but that doesn’t ‘always’ work well because these are still words written by flawed men and not Jesus himself. It does, at least, help the perspective a little. (Just a theory)