Somehow this sermon got missed in the shuffle, so it’s a little our of order and the illustrations are a little dated. Sorry!
Every year I watch the SuperBowl. It’s the only football game I watch all year long. I don’t watch the CFL or the NFL at all. I don’t keep track of teams, scores, standings, or the players. And yet, every year for the past decade or so, I’ve sat down to watch the SuperBowl. I don’t care who wins, so I arbitrarily choose a team, grab some snacks, and watch the spectacle. I actually enjoy it a lot, but I know that I’m missing a lot of what’s going on.
One problem is that I don’t even really know the rules that well. While I’m starting to get a hang of it, I know I’m missing a lot. The ref blows the whistle, flags fly, the people I’m sitting with throw their hands in the air, and I just sit there waiting for someone to explain what’s going on – which doesn’t really help anyway because I have no idea what “an incomplete handoff by the backfield in the red zone after a false start which instigated a pass interference” even means. I usually just say, “Oh!” and eat another Taquito.
I feel the same way when try to follow politics. I know that I don’t understand enough to know what’s going on, but I find that more and more these days, perhaps because of my age or the moral insanity our nation is experiencing, I feel the need to at least pay more attention. And a recent event was an interesting one to watch. Did you see what happened? It was all my Facebook Feed was talking about.
During an important vote a while back, Prime Minister Trudeau felt things were taking too long, crossed the floor, grabbed the Conservative Opposition Whip Gord Brown and cussed and pushed him through a group of NDPers that were blocking his way. In his anger he elbowed NDP MP Ruth Ellen Brosseau in the chest, hurting and shocking her enough that she ended up leaving the House of Commons and missing the vote. It got very dramatic as people left their chairs to shout foul language and point fingers at each other. But again, just like with football, there’s so much jargon, politics, media spin and parliamentary procedure, I barely know what happened and I’m sure what’s supposed to happen now.
All I know is that after watching the video a few times, I found myself disappointed with everyone involved. It was frustrating to watch the drama unfold and sin rule the moment. I was grieved by all the parties and angered by the wholesale immaturity I witnessed from people who are supposed to be discussing the incredibly serious matter ophysician-assisted suicide! Instead of giving it the gravity it deserved, as the lives of so many vulnerable Canadians hang in the balance, they turned the floor into a gong show of pride and political maneuvering.
Thankfulness in Tough Times
So, how am I to react to things like this? Should I leap into action, and send letters to the heads of all the parties? Maybe. Should I turn to social media and complain about it to everyone? Maybe – and in fact, I did. What should I do though? Or more importantly, what should I do first?
As a Christian, my first response should be to pray. I’ll admit I didn’t do very good on that. I hopped on the internet and wrote a Facebook post, and then I visited my MP’s office and talked to whoever was there about it a bit, but my first reaction wasn’t to pray. I’ve done it since, but it wasn’t my first instinct.
But what’s even more personally condemning is that when I did pray, I didn’t start in the right place. I jumped straight into asking God to fix the hearts of the MP’s, bring order to the nation, and put Christians in influential positions. I asked for forgiveness for the times that I’ve been impatient, immature, and hot-headed too – but after some reflection and study, I realized that I missed a crucial part of my prayer. I missed what was supposed to be the starting point. I didn’t thank God for what happened.
That’s a confusing statement to a lot of people. What is there to thank God for in a group of adults acting like kindergarteners when they were supposed to be talking about suicide? That’s a tough question, isn’t it? But the Bible says we are supposed to be thankful.
I think this is something that I forget too often, and I’m fairly certain that a lot of other Christians do too. Most praying people are pretty good at confessing their sins, asking for forgiveness, and then asking God for what they need – but a lot of Christians fast forward past the thanksgiving part of prayer so they can get on to the part where they ask God for things.
Sure, we say grace at meals (which I think is hugely important, by the way) or start out with a “Dear God, thanks for this day.”, but really the meat of our prayer life are often requests. Even unbelievers often find the words, “Thank God.” spilling out of them when something good happens, but how much of us really dwell on the thanksgiving portion of our prayers. Not that there’s anything wrong with asking God for things. He tells us to do that. But, I hope what we are going to learn today is that when we pause and get very specific about giving God thanks that we can allow the Holy Spirit to change our perspective on a lot of our deepest hurts and confusions.
It’s easy to thank God for the beautiful sunshine, the rain that feeds the flowers, the joys of our life and all the other good things that come our way, but what about when bad things happen? Are we to thank God then? Isn’t that strange, or even a little masochistic, to thank God for the pain we feel? And yet, over and over in scripture, we read that we are supposed to give thanks to God “continually” and in “all things”.
- 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 says, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”
- Ephesians 5:20 says Christians are to be “giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ…”
- Colossians 3:17 says, “And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.”.
- In Psalm 136, which tells the story of the plagues of Egypt, wandering for decades in the wilderness, international wars, and oppression by their enemies, begins, “Oh, give thanks to the Lord, for He is good! For His mercy endures forever.”
- The author of Hebrews, writing to a group of people who were suffering so much because of their faith in Jesus that they were considering turning their backs on God says, “…let us continually offer the sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to His name.” (Heb 13:15)
That doesn’t make sense, does it? It seems unreal, almost illogical, for the writers of scripture, who are giving us the very Words of God, to tell us that no matter how bad things get, no matter how much we suffer, or are rejected, or are forgotten… no matter how much evil we see in the world… to be thankful. How is that even possible?
The Problem With “Count Your Blessings”
I know that there are some here that are going through some really difficult times and it’s hard to find things to be thankful for. For some, your loved ones are physically, emotionally and spiritually suffering; how are you to be thankful for that? Others are regularly witnessing evil acts all around you that make you feel powerless and like the world is out of control. Sure, the sun comes up every day, but that doesn’t make up for the stains of sin that permeate the lives around you. Some of you fight depression, anxiety, fear and worry every day. Your mind is against you, and no matter how much you argue with yourself, you can’t force yourself to be the faithful, joyful person you want to be – and think everyone else is. Some feel lonely and forgotten. Others feel like total failures and it colours every aspect of your life. No matter how good things seem on the outside, it gnaws at you that you have failed in your relationships, failed in your spiritual life, failed in your pursuit of purity, failed in your parenting, failed as a student, failed as a son, daughter, husband, wife, or friend.
And the idea of being thankful for that part of your life doesn’t make any sense. How? How can you be thankful for the pain you have caused yourself and others? How can you be thankful for an accident? How can you be thankful for someone purposefully hurting you?
These are complicated issues, and I don’t intend on giving you some kind of simple solution today. I’m not going to tell you to “count your blessings”, because inherent in that advice is almost a tacit denial of your pain. It’s almost as though the advice to “count your blessings” is saying, “Pretend that the bad things aren’t happening and only think about the god things.” That’s denial, and it’s unhealthy and unbiblical. I’m not going to do that.
What I want to do instead, for the rest of our time today, is examine what God has done in Paul’s life here and how he has learned to be thankful during difficult times. I want to draw a few things out from what he says he thanks God for, and perhaps give ourselves a couple of new thoughts about ways we can look at our own hurts and begin the process of healing our souls through thanksgiving.
Remember the Context
First, and as always, remember the context here. Paul is one of the most passionate followers of Jesus in history. He went from being a man who hated Jesus so much that he would track down Christ-followers to have them arrested and even killed to being Jesus’ most effective missionary and apologists. The moment when Jesus met Paul on the Road to Damascus altered his life forever because he had experienced the amazing and abundant grace of a loving Saviour. He knew he didn’t ask for it or deserve it, but Jesus saved him anyway.
He brought that story to Corinth, one of the most corrupt and spiritually messed up cities in the world. No one there was giving God a second thought, because they were too busy relishing in every form of darkness and deplorable sin imaginable. And yet, just like Paul, God worked a divine intervention, giving grace to those who didn’t deserve it or ask for it, birthing a Christian church in Corinth. Paul’s conversion, and the conversion of every member of that church – from the pagan Greek man who was addicted to all the forms of sexual perversion the city had to offer – to the Jewish men who rejected Paul’s message so violently that they had dragged him before the proconsul and beat their own leaders for failing to have Paul persecuted – were a miracle. No one wanted, had asked for, or deserved to be saved by Jesus – and yet, there they were.
This letter comes about because Paul had been receiving reports that this church full of saved people, that Paul had been pastoring for a year and half, who were supposed to be loving Jesus, loving each other, and following God’s Word weren’t doing any of that. Instead, they had forgotten Jesus, were fighting with each other, were being corrupted by their environment, and were on the verge of telling the Apostles and the Bible to get lost. Paul’s heart was certainly broken over and over as he heard more bad things coming from the church in Corinth, and we know that he had a lot to say to them.
And yet, Paul doesn’t start his letter with a reprimand, does he? I probably would have. People in the church are fighting, calling Paul a fool, are up to their eye-balls in sexual perversion (one guy is even sleeping with his step-mom)… there were things that needed to be addressed. And yet, he doesn’t start there. Instead, he begins by reminding them of their special calling and sanctification through Jesus Christ. And then, instead of jumping straight into a lecture about all the messed up things they were doing, Paul tells them why He spends so much time giving thanks for them. Let’s read it together:
“I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus, that in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge—even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you—so that you are not lacking in any gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” (1 Corinthians 1:4-9)
1. Thank God for His Grace
Let’s see what he’s thanking God for her, and see if we can learn from it.
The first thing we see him giving thanks for is “the grace of God that was given [them] in Christ Jesus.” He starts with the most important thing. No matter how bad things get, this is where we should start: thanking God that He has given everyone in that situation grace, and continues to extend it despite all the pride and sin.
Jesus said, “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” (Matthew 5:44-45) God isn’t up in heaven zapping people who do bad things, but instead is giving more and more grace.
2 Peter 3:9 says, “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some understand slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”
An old proverb says, “Where there is life, there is hope.” As long as we are on this side of the dirt, we are experiencing the grace of God. Every breath we take is overseen by our Divine Creator. He knows all of our thoughts, deeds and motives, and yet He loves us anyway.
That’s the first place we need to start, by thanking God for the grace that He has shown us, and for the grace He has shown to the person or group that has hurt us. Even if it’s a natural disaster like an earthquake or flood, we can still know that we are experiencing the grace of God because His final judgement has not come.
I think this helps us because, no matter what happens, when we start with a realization that we are people who have received God’s undeserved grace, being bought by the shed blood of Jesus, it gives us a better perspective on our problems, and increases our ability to love, forgive, and offer grace to others. (Col 3:13; 4:32; 1 John 4:19)
For example, once we recognize God’s grace in our lives, we can begin to pray “God, thank you for saving me and forgiving me even though I didn’t deserve it. I’ve received your grace in innumerable ways, and I know that I’m continuing to receive your grace now. I could be in hell, but I’m not because you loved me. And that person, or group, or situation, which seems so hurtful, is also receiving your grace. It’s not out of control, because You are in control. I thank you for the relationship I have with that person, or group, or church… my wife, husband, father, mother, child, or friend… because them being in my life wasn’t my idea, it was yours. And even though I don’t feel it right now, I know you put them in my life as an act of grace. Thank you for giving me grace, help me give them grace too.”
2. Thank God for His Activity
The second thing we see Paul thanking God for are the gifts that God has given. The grace we receive from God isn’t just our salvation, but also daily gifts that show up every day. He says he gives thanks because, “…in every way [they] were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge—even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you—so that [they were] not lacking in any gift.”
This forces us to take a moment to realize Who is in charge of this situation? Who is in charge of enriching this church? Paul or God? God. Who is in charge of fixing their speech? God. Who is in charge of changing their knowledge, or the way they think? God. Who is in charge of giving them what they need to repair whatever problems they have? God is. And further, who has been at work since the beginning of time, making sure everything works towards His end, His glory and has the best in mind for His people? God.
What about your problem? Who is in charge of it? You or God? God is.
But consider for a moment those four things Paul is thanking God for: their “speech”, their “knowledge”, “testimony” and “gifts.”
This is a bit ironic considering that one of the criticisms that Paul gives later is that they were putting far too much emphasis on having the gifts and not nearly enough on loving the One who gave them! They were treating the gifts God had given them like if at Christmas a family member gave you a new iPad and instead of saying “thank you” to them you completely ignore them and instead start showing off to everyone how cool you are now, and how many awesome things you can do with it. We know it’s wrong to forget the gift-giver in favour of the gift itself, right? That’s what the Corinthian church was doing. They were using and abusing God’s gifts, but forgetting the Gift-Giver.
And yet, Paul still thanks God that He gave them those gifts. Why? Because He knows that without God having changed their hearts, their “speech” and “knowledge” and “testimony” would be as corrupt as everyone else’s in Corinth. But now, because of the work of Jesus, they knew the One, True God. They now had greater knowledge and understanding of spiritual things than anyone else in Corinth. And even though they had gone wrong, that didn’t take away from the fact that God had given them this gift and He should be thanked.
The challenge is to ask ourselves what God-given gifts we can see in the difficult situations. We can say things like, “God, even though that person or group or situation is driving me crazy, I can see that you’ve been at work. You’ve given us your Word, your Spirit and Your Truth. And yes, they’re not listening to it, but the truth is available to everyone. And, you’ve even given that person gifts. They are here for a reason. They are good at this, they can do this, they have done this in the past. They couldn’t have done that without you, which mean you are to be thanked for their existence. I can see you at work and I thank you for it.” Even in a disaster, like Fort McMurray, we can see God at work.
Mr. Rogers, who was a Christian pastor at one point, said that when he was young and there was bad news on the radio or in the newspaper, he would get scared and his mother’s advice was, “Always look for the helpers. There will always be helpers.” And this brought him hope.
The point is sound and I would expand it for our purposes today: When we are faced with difficult times, and we go to pray, we need to start with thanksgiving. How do we do that? We look for how God has already been at work in the situation, who God has already provided to help, and what good has already happened. The Corinthian church was pretty messed up, but Paul says, “I can see God has been at work in you, that He has changed you on a fundamental level. Yes, things are a mess right now, and darkness is casting a shadow, but God’s light is still present, just as it has always been.”
Thanking God for that changes our perspective and allows us to pray, “God I’m thankful you are in charge and at work. I’m not the one who can change their minds, only You can. I’m not the one who will change how they talk, how they think, how they conduct their lives. Only you can do that. You are good, your love endures, and I’ve already seen you do good things. For that I’m thankful. I look forward to seeing what you will continue to do. You are writing a story here and I’m only in the middle of it.”
As Philippians 1:6 says that God will finish what he started. “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” Who began the good work? God did. Who will bring it to completion? God will. For that we can be thankful.
3. Thank God for Sustenance
The third thing that Paul thanks God for is the sustaining power of the Lord Jesus Christ. He says, “…you are not lacking in any gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ…”
This is similar to the previous point, with an important difference. We are here reminded that in our thanksgiving prayer to God, the power to deal with the situation is not in our hands. We do not have the ability to save anyone – even ourselves.
We are reminded in Ephesians 6:12-13 that
“we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm.”
Our salvation is not in our hands. Our guiltlessness before God is not of our making, but because Jesus’ blood has covered our sins. Similarly, the weapons we fight evil with are not of our own creation. Our sustaining power to face, combat and overcome the evil in our life and around us is not something we can generate within ourselves. Every self-help book that says you just need to “tap into your inner strength” is utter garbage because you do not have the equipment within yourself to combat the “cosmic powers over this present darkness.” There’s not enough willpower in the world to conquer our sinful nature. You need a Saviour who will dress you in His armour and give you the strength to “withstand in the evil day”.
And so, in our prayer of thanks, we can say, “Lord Jesus, thank you that I am not the one who has to keep this person from the fires of Hell… but You can. I’m not the one who has to defend their mind and their hearts… but You can. I thank you that you have taught me that by myself I am utterly powerless and witless to withstand my real enemy… but You can. And you generously give me all I need to face this trial when I trust in Your strength. I know you’ll never quit on me, or quit on the person or situation I’m struggling with. All of humanity is one prayer away from accessing your power. You say that not even the gates of hell can prevail against Your people (Matt 16:18). You say that if You are for us, no one can be against us (Rom 8:31). This is your world and your work, God, not mine. For that I am thankful!”
So, my encouragement to you this week, as you face the difficulties of the world around you, the relationships you are in, or the ones inside your own heart, is to pray about it, of course – but to begin that prayer with thanksgiving. Before Paul started to address the many and varied problems he was facing, he got on his knees and got his heart in the right place by thanking God. It was the right thing to do, and we are commanded to do it too. Why? Because willing ourselves give thanks radically changes our own hearts in regards to whatever we are facing. It takes our eyes off of the problem and puts God back on the throne of our universe.
As you begin to pray about this trouble, ask yourself, or even ask God, these three questions:
First: What free grace (undeserved favour) have I, and everyone involved, already received?
Second: Where have I already seen God at work before and during this situation? God is consistent. He will send help, hope and healing. He will continue to complete the good work He began. Ask, where can you see Him at work?
Third: What resources has God given me to combat this evil? He offers wisdom beyond your ability, peace that passes understanding, spiritual protection, and the fruit of the spirit which are “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (Gal 5:22-23) They are offered to all who ask.
I don’t follow the NFL, but I do enjoy watching the spectacle of the Superbowl each year. Unfortunately, in my mind, the fun and excitement that comes with the word Superbowl, will always be attached to a much more ominous word: suicide. I can’t remember where I heard it, but at some point in my past I read or saw something that connected the success of winning the Superbowl to depression and suicide.
Why Successful Young Men Commit Suicide
One would think that reaching the pinnacle of their sport – or the pinnacle of anything – would have exactly the opposite effect. Watching them on the field after the game, you’d assume that sadness would be the last thing they would be feeling. Well, perhaps for that moment they are elated – but it doesn’t last. In fact, for some, getting to the top is exactly what sets off some of the darkest parts of their life.
I read an article this week called “Why Successful Young Men Commit Suicide” and it had some startling things to say. It started with the story of a successful, 37 year old man, who had reached his goal of becoming a hugely successful salesman, wore the best clothes, drove a Mercedes, collected antiques and art, threw lavish parties in his mansion, and appeared on the cover of some magazines.
One day, on September 15, 2000, he was confronted by his debt when his sister confronted him about his extravagant lifestyle. Then when he got to work he saw a terrible performance review and thought it was about him – but it wasn’t – and he went home thinking he was going to lose his job. He came home to learn that his long-time relationship was in absolute shambles. That night, he drove to a nearby park and committed suicide.
This may surprise you, but the greatest share of people who attempt suicide (in the US) are white males between the ages of 21-39. It is the second leading cause of death after accidental injuries. Most of these guys are fit and healthy, but are racked by dark depression which they mask with extravagant lifestyles, workaholism and substance abuse. The place where this comes out most, unsurprisingly, is Wall Street, Washington and Hollywood.
It’s not much different in Canada. I found a December 2011 article in the BC Medical Journal entitled “The Silent Epidemic of Male Suicide”. Not many people know this, and it doesn’t get much press. One startling statistic I read was that in 2005, 45 Canadian men died of AIDS, while 2857 men died of suicide. But we hear far more about AIDS, don’t we? The suicide rate for men is three times higher than that of women. We’re talking about men who, by worldly standards, are successful men. Most are middle-aged, and they’ve achieved what the world has told them is what life is all about. One article I read called this phenomenon “success-depression”, “success-induced burnout” or “executive suicides.”
The Spiral Of Hopelessness
The most ironic thing about this is that their achievements don’t make them happy. In fact, reaching the top only makes them more insecure, anxious and depressed. It makes them more critical and more afraid. Climbing the ladder often means selling a bit of their soul and leaving peace and quiet behind. The huge amount of commitment it takes to achieve a high level of success often means sacrificing meaningful relationships along the way, which means they often feel very alone.
Throw in the fact that many of them come from abusive and broken homes and you get a recipe for depression. Their worldview has no concept of a loving Creator, divine purpose, forgiveness or grace. It’s dog-eat-dog. And so, though they have achieved their dream, and are living a life that many would envy, they live detached from real life, have no joy in what they have, and lose their drive and direction. A sense of emptiness overwhelms them and paranoia seeps in. Sleepless nights mean taking stimulants in the morning and sleeping pills at night so they can function. Which compounds the depression and increases the anxiety.
Sadly, most of these men don’t have the emotional intelligence to know what’s happening inside of them. They’ve spent too much time building their brand and their lifestyle, and not nearly enough building their character or faith. They put on an amazing show for everyone – looks, money, success, smiles, and an enviable lifestyle – but they are hollow, hollow people, and they don’t even know it. Their hunger grows, even though they have fulfilled their deepest desires. So they buy more, work more, make more, climb higher, try riskier things, and the emptiness remains.
Which makes them angrier and angrier, more frustrated– but don’t know why – and they push away any heathy influence that is trying to tell them to come back. They drown their feelings in distractions like competition, sex, alcohol and drugs, which spirals into addiction, rage, exhaustion and self-pity.
Then something unexpected happens – like a bad job review, a broken relationship, or something even smaller – and it goes off like an atomic bomb in their heart and it breaks them apart. They realize that everything they have poured into the vacuum of their soul has amounted to nothing. All of the promises that the world made to them about how achieving their dreams would make them happy turns out to be a lie, which causes them to despair that there is nothing in this world worth living for except pain. They have more than anyone – and it’s nothing. It doesn’t take much to make the next, logical step to simply end the pain by ending their lives.
A Phenomenon and Epidemic
The article says:
“…a growing phenomenon called ‘success depression’ is now fueling the problem. ‘People have this notion that ‘If I only make CEO, if I only become the top talent agent, if I make my first million, that will do it, all my insecurities will go poof…. You hit the pinnacle, then you wake up the next day and you’re still the same insecure [person] you always were.”
And of course, this isn’t just about men – though I did want to shine a special light on them today. Women are under more stress than ever too. Modernity has thrust incredible pressures onto women – perhaps more than any other century. They also have a predilection for climbing the ladder of success, leaving their heart and soul behind them.
I read another article this week on Mental Floss that gave a “Surprisingly Long List of [Famous] People Who’ve Attempted Suicide”. It floored me. Most of us know about Kurt Cobain, Marilyn Monroe, Chris Benoit, Hunter S Thompson , and the like, because they actually died. But Owen Wilson, Halle Berry, Mike Wallace, Elizabeth Taylor, Drew Berrymore, Danny Bonaduce, Sammy Davis Jr, Princess Diana, Walt Disney, Eminem, Ken Griffey Jr, Michael Jackson, Mindy McCready, Ozzy Ozborne, Britney Spears, Mike Tyson, Brian Wilson… all attempted suicide at some point in their career… the list goes on and on.
By Any Other Name…
Why am I telling you all of this? Because there is a terrible, terrible, demonic lie that has seeped into a lot of people’s minds that is at the very root of this problem. It goes by a lot of names. The classic, theological word is idolatry, but we can also call it consumerism, discontent, envy, or jealousy. Which is all tied to pride (what we think we deserve).
It has plagued mankind since the very beginning of time. Adam and Eve were standing in the perfect environment – and there was only one rule: Don’t eat the fruit. It was God’s line. He said, “Here is every good thing. This one thing is the only bad thing. Don’t do it or you’ll die.”
And the scriptures say in Genesis 3:4-7,
“But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’ So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened…”
The serpent says, “God’s holding out on you. You deserve more. Take it. There is pleasure beyond God’s promises. Take your life into your own hands. Get out from under God. Do things your way. Take it.” And they do. And their eyes are opened. And God’s promise comes true. Now they know good and evil. Before they only knew good. Now they know evil. And Satan laughs as death and suffering come into the world.
I just read the story of Abram and Lot in Genesis 13. They come to a place where their families and flocks are too big and they need to split up. Abram says, “You pick the countryside you want and I’ll take the other.” Lot looks around and sees some amazingly fertile ground in the Jordan Valley and goes straight toward it – right next to the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. He wanted the better land, and didn’t care that to get it would mean surrounding placing himself next to two of the most wicked cities to ever exist.
Abraham gets tired of waiting for God’s timing to give him the child of promise – and makes a baby with his wife’s servant – setting off years and years of trial and turmoil between their families.
Jacob steals Esau’s birthright because Esau couldn’t care less about it. He trades God’s promise for a bowl of soup.
Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery because they are jealous that he is the favoured son. He gets something they don’t, and they are jealous, so they get rid of him.
And that’s just the book of Genesis! Person after person, generation after generation, who refuses to be content with what God has given them, goes outside of His will, takes something for themselves that they think they deserve, and brings suffering and pain upon themselves and many, many others.
Jesus Disappoints Us
Fast forward to the New Testament and it’s not any better. The people following Jesus, including all of the disciples, were, without a doubt, just as prone to this. They had the exact same problem as the people who we’ve been talking about, and the same problem that man y of us have. Jesus disappoints them.
They look at Jesus, and their mindset was: What can I get from this guy? What can I get out of Him? He keeps telling them that He’s going to Jerusalem to suffer many things. That doesn’t compute with them because their picture of God, their picture of the Messiah, their worldview understanding of how everything is supposed to work, was completely different than Jesus’. Jesus was supposed to come in, overthrow the Roman government, elevate the Jewish Nation, and make all of His closest followers into positions of power and influence – and probably rich too.
They hated the Pharisees because they already had what they wanted: political power. They hated the Romans because they had what they wanted: wealth and military power. Jesus is our conduit to get all these things that we want: therefore we’re going to follow Him. They never, never grasp that Jesus isn’t going to give them that.
Right after Jesus has told them, once again, says that He will take up his cross, suffer many things and be delivered into the hands of men, the disciples start arguing about who is going to get the best seat when Jesus takes the throne. (Luke 9)
Judas is perhaps the best example. He thinks, “I’ll follow Jesus as long as He gets me what I want.” Judas was in His absolute glory when Jesus rode into town on a donkey on Palm Sunday, proclaiming Himself to the entire city of Jerusalem as the Messiah and rightful heir to the throne of David. He was ready to take His place alongside him.
But then, Jesus gets into town, drives everyone out of the temple, causes a huge scene, makes everyone mad, and then takes off to where no one can find Him. He doesn’t maximize His exposure, He doesn’t bask in the adulation. No, Jesus is weeping and angry. (Matthew 21)
ThenJesis spends the next few days giving the most difficult, offensive, hard-to-understand teachings of His entire ministry. He takes on the Pharisees, Sadducees, Herodians, and every other power group in the city – and offends them all. He tells parables that say that the promise of Abraham will pass away from the Jews and be given to the Gentiles. He implies that there is no one, not one person, not even his closest followers, that understand why he’s there and that even though He is the “cornerstone”, that everyone will eventually reject Him. (Luke 20)
And, of course, he’s right. The crowd that worshipped Him on Sunday, turns on Him and crucifies Him on Friday. He’s not giving them what they want. He’s not saying what they want. He’s not doing what they want. The crowds turn on Him. Judas is incensed by what he sees as betrayal, and sells Jesus out for money. At least he’ll get some coin after all this wasted time. Early Friday morning the crowds are chanting: “Crucify Him!”
The disciples flee, Peter denies Him, and his followers experience a depression like they’d never experienced before. Why? Because Jesus was not the conduit to worldly blessing that they thought He was. He didn’t elevate them to the status they expected.
What did Judas do? He killed himself. He throws the money He traded for Jesus back into the temple – not even his ill-gotten gain brings him any comfort. He goes to the priests and confesses to them, but they don’t care. They’re happy. Jesus didn’t give him what he wanted. A lifetime of theft didn’t. The 30 pieces of silver – equated to half-a-year’s wages for a single night’s work – they didn’t give him what he wanted. The priests didn’t give him what he wanted. So his only solution was either to change what he wanted and turn to God, or kill himself. He chose to hang himself. (Matthew 27)
“I Was Envious”
With all this in mind, let’s look at Psalm 73:
“Truly God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart. But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled, my steps had nearly slipped. For I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.” (Vs 1-3)
This psalm expresses the exact same theme, which is one that we are all guilty of in some measure. It’s the root of the problem for the ones who get depressed after the Superbowl, the wealthy, young men who achieve success only to find it hollow, the superstars and celebrities who look to all the world as the picture of happiness, only to be hiding a deep and secret pain. Desire out of control. Consumerism. Idolatry. Envy.
The psalmist starts with a direct statement that God is good: He knows that in his head. He’s studied it all his life. Asaph, the author, was an important temple musician during King David’s reign. He wrote worship songs. He knew God is good and told people all the time.
“But”, he says, he “almost stumbled”. He hit a time of depression and frustration with God. His head was saying one thing, but his heart was saying another. He was conflicted. He was frustrated with God. Even though he was a great worship leader, and had the ear of King David – a superstar and celebrity in his own right – he hit a dark time.
From where did that dark time come from? He says, “I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.” Envy at other’s prosperity. A desire to have something God hasn’t given him. Let’s keep reading.
The “Good” Life
“For they have no pangs until death; their bodies are fat and sleek. They are not in trouble as others are; they are not stricken like the rest of mankind. Therefore pride is their necklace; violence covers them as a garment. Their eyes swell out through fatness; their hearts overflow with follies. They scoff and speak with malice; loftily they threaten oppression. They set their mouths against the heavens, and their tongue struts through the earth. Therefore his people turn back to them, and find no fault in them. And they say, “How can God know? Is there knowledge in the Most High?” Behold, these are the wicked; always at ease, they increase in riches.” (Vs 4-12)
Of what is he envious of? Everything! They are healthier, better looking, getting away with everything, full of every pleasure they could want, surrounded by entertainment. They have wealth, power, influence – everyone turns to them for advice. They think they’re smarter than God! They don’t have to lift a finger and they get richer! They’re living the good life! Everything they want they get.
The Prosperity Gospel
Implied here is that the Psalmist isn’t getting those things.
“All in vain have I kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence. For all the day long I have been stricken and rebuked every morning.” (vs 13)
Something bad happened to him. God wasn’t keeping up His end of the deal. He tries so hard to do right – and he’s being stricken. He’s totally innocent – and he’s rebuked. Every day brings a new problem, another fight, another issue to deal with – and he doesn’t deserve it! He’s a good guy!
What this is called, at it’s core, is the “Prosperity Gospel” which essentially says that God exists to give us what we want. God wants us to be happy, and happiness is found on earth. Therefore, any bad things that happen to you are a result of your lack of faith. It is woefully unbiblical and anti-gospel, but it is taking root in many churches around the world. Joel Osteen, TD Jakes, Creflo Dollar, and many other big names promote this.
This is where we get the “word of power” and “name it and claim it” prayer nonsense. The idea being that since God wants us to be happy He gives us His divine power to speak things into existence. He spoke the world into existence, therefore I can speak a new car into existence.
The lighter version of this which people are calling “Prosperity Gospel Lite” which essentially says, if you work hard, do good, live a moral life, then God will make sure things will work out for you – happiness, wealth, and all the rest. In other words, you are your own saviour, happiness on earth is the norm for believers, and God blesses your efforts to save yourself. That’s the opposite of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
“If I had said, ‘I will speak thus,’ I would have betrayed the generation of your children.” (vs 15)
He almost went and preached the Prosperity Gospel to people… almost… but he caught himself. He essentially says, “If I would have used my influence to go to a group of people, who are hurting as much as me, and used my influence to tell them that God wants us to be happy so we should go make our own happiness — or God wants us to be happy, so we should go take it from the wealthy — or God wants us to be happy, and there is no purpose to suffering — or God is unfair, God’s not pulling His weight, God is disappointing us, let’s go get a different God — then I would have betrayed everyone.”
We live in a world full of people who are spreading that message. Betrayers of the Gospel and of Jesus. And they are destroying an entire generation because they have no concept of the true Gospel, the suffering Jesus, the disciplines of the faith, the fear of God, or the idea that God sometimes chooses to put His people through suffering so they can become more like Jesus and move closer to Him.
The End Matters
But He didn’t tell people that. Look what he does instead:
“But when I thought how to understand this, it seemed to me a wearisome task…” (vs 16)
He tried to figure this out, as we all have, and he came to the same conclusion: He can’t. He didn’t understand how God distributes wealth and influence, or why some people suffer while others don’t, why this world seems unjust.
“…until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I discerned their end.” (vs 17)
He figured out that eternity matters. Being with God matters. It’s not just what we can pile up that makes a life, but what happens after this life. He realized that there is a judgement at the end of time, and that’s going to be the day that it all makes sense and works out. He went and stood in the sanctuary of God – he went to church – and he worshipped and prayed, and God gave him a very special thought: It’s not about right now… it’s about eternity.
Waking From a Dream
“Truly you set them in slippery places; you make them fall to ruin. How they are destroyed in a moment, swept away utterly by terrors! Like a dream when one awakes, O Lord, when you rouse yourself, you despise them as phantoms.” (vs 18-20)
No one is on flatland. We are all on a slope that leads to eternity. Things are heading towards an end. We will all die and face God, and we will stand before the judgement seat of Christ and need to make account for our actions. We will be asked what we put our faith in, where our foundation is. Anyone who has not put their faith in God, who does not have a reconciled relationship to Him through the work of Jesus Christ, will be swept away by the terrors of hell.
This world, and all the things that we hold so dear, will be like a dream. Have you ever woken up after an intense dream? You were chasing something, or someone was chasing you. You needed to find something and it was incredibly important. While you were in that dream it was absolutely real, completely absorbing, the focus of everything you had.
And then you woke up and you can hardly remember what you were doing. You think: “Wow. That was weird. Why am I sweating? Why am I so worked up? Whew!” Then you go shower and completely forget about it.
That’s what it’s going to be like when we die. All the worldly things that we are so terribly concerned about now, that we are jealous of, that we fight for, and trade our health and relationships for — will all pass away like a dream. And when we wake up – really wake up – we will wonder why we spent so long chasing those things when they turned out to be nothing but phantoms and dreams.
“When my soul was embittered, when I was pricked in heart, I was brutish and ignorant; I was like a beast toward you.” (vs 21-22)
As he stands in the sanctuary, having his God-given epiphany, he realizes something. The drives that he had – all the whole list of things he was so envious of – were primal drives. He wasn’t acting like a human being, created in God’s image for greater things, but like an animal, a beast. He is ashamed of himself. He was his own tormentor because it was his own flesh that he was fighting against.
He wanted a full tummy, physical pleasure, a comfortable place to sleep, to be the big-dog, and to howl as he pleased. He realized all at once that those things are base, animal, small in comparison to standing in the sanctuary of God, being in His presence, knowing His love, and acting upon the impulses of His divine will.
[I wish I could say more about this, but we’re running out of time. But meditate on how many good, spiritual, gifts we are willing to give up (love, peace, kindness, family, friends, worship, service, discipline, character, joy) in the pursuit of animalistic desires like food, sex, and comfort. I don’t want to live like an animal.]
God is My Portion
“Nevertheless, I am continually with you; you hold my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me to glory. Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. For behold, those who are far from you shall perish; you put an end to everyone who is unfaithful to you. But for me it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord GOD my refuge, that I may tell of all your works.” (Vs 23-28)
May this be the case for you and for me. Let’s pray and live to this end. That we have our mind cast heavenward and desire the presence of God more than anything. That we are guided by God’s word and not our animal instincts. That the things of earth grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace. That though our heart fails us and we hit depression and fear… that though our flesh fails us and we succumb to sickness and age… that our strength would not be in ourselves, but in God.
Let us remember that the closer we are to God, the closer we are to life. Real life. Let’s keep spreading the message of the true Gospel to those who have bought into the lie of the Prosperity Gospel, and shine our light into the dark places. And let us have the discernment to know that even though some people’s lives seem very wonderful, and we envy their wealth and status, that it is far better to be with God than to be anywhere else without Him.