When suffering, there is a temptation to compare one’s life and situation with others. The ease, prosperity and wellbeing of others is sometimes incorrectly viewed as God’s blessing to them and/or His discipline to you. The presence of suffering does not necessarily mean something is wrong in the believer’s life and the absence of suffering does not necessarily mean God is pleased. One can be completely in the will of God and experience great suffering (1 Pet. 4:19), whereas one can be completely in sin and be free from any form of suffering at all (Ps. 73:1-12). Prosperity or suffering proves neither godliness nor sin.
Asaph was a godly man who sought the nearness of the Lord, but his righteous living resulted in hardship and lack of material wealth, which many of the ungodly in his periphery enjoyed. Seeing the wicked prosper and live in ease almost caused Asaph to abandon his righteous living, and he wrote about this in Psalm 73. Asaph declared, “as for me, my feet came close to stumbling, my steps had almost slipped. For I was envious of the arrogant as I saw the prosperity of the wicked” (Ps. 73:2-3). For a time, Asaph was “envious” of the wicked because they were living lavishly in sinful lifestyles and seemed to be getting away with their sinful choices without any consequence for their thoughts or actions. Regarding the wicked that Asaph saw on a regular basis, he stated:
For there are no pains in their death; and their body is fat. They are not in trouble as other men; nor are they plagued like mankind. Therefore pride is their necklace; the garment of violence covers them. Their eye bulges from fatness; the imaginations of their heart run riot. They mock, and wickedly speak of oppression; they speak from on high. They have set their mouth against the heavens, and their tongue parades through the earth. Therefore his people return to this place; and waters of abundance are drunk by them. And they say, “How does God know? And is there knowledge with the Most High?” Behold, these are the wicked; and always at ease, they have increased in wealth. (Ps. 73:4-13)
As Asaph began to look at his own life and compare his suffering with the prosperity of the wicked, he began to question whether righteous living was worth it, saying, “surely in vain I have kept my heart pure and washed my hands in innocence; for I have been stricken all day long and chastened every morning” (Ps. 73:13-14). To pursue righteousness and suffer while others turn away from the Lord and prosper can tempt any man to throw up his hands in frustration and ask, “what’s the point of living righteously if I’m only going to suffer for it?”
I find the honesty of the Bible very refreshing. What is noble is that Asaph did not stop with his questions about the righteous and the wicked, but took those questions to the Lord at His holy place in the sanctuary, and there realized that the final destiny of the wicked is terrible. As a mature believer, Asaph came to accept the temporary injustices of life, knowing that the supreme court of heaven will eventually render a final verdict on the lives of men and determine their final fate and reward. As a mature believer, Asaph concerned himself with the pursuit of holiness and left the matters of justice, both in time and eternity, to the Lord. Asaph declared:
When I pondered to understand this, it was troublesome in my sight until I came into the sanctuary of God; then I perceived their end. Surely You set them in slippery places; You cast them down to destruction. How they are destroyed in a moment! They are utterly swept away by sudden terrors! Like a dream when one awakes, O Lord, when aroused, You will despise their form. When my heart was embittered and I was pierced within, then I was senseless and ignorant; I was like a beast before You. Nevertheless I am continually with You; You have taken hold of my right hand. With Your counsel You will guide me, and afterward receive me to glory. (Ps. 73:16-24)
It was only in the light of God and His wise counsel that Asaph was able to see the wicked properly and to determine their final outcome. Looking away from this world and fixing his eyes upon heaven Asaph declared, “whom have I in heaven but You? And besides You, I desire nothing on earth. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Ps. 73:25-26). Asaph knew that the wicked may prosper for a short time on earth, but their lives were mere shadows compared to the substance of eternity that belongs to believers. Asaph realized that “those who are far from You will perish; You have destroyed all those who are unfaithful to You. But as for me, the nearness of God is my good; I have made the Lord GOD my refuge, that I may tell of all Your works” (Ps. 73:27-28). The believer is to live in the eternal-now where he sets his mind on the Lord and lives every moment in the reality of eternity.
Everything we experience in this life is designed to prepare us for the life we will come to know when we leave this world and enter into God’s eternal presence. The challenge before every Christian, especially during times of suffering, is to view all aspects of life in the light of eternity. We must constantly live in the eternal-now, never divorcing our current experiences from our eternal destiny that is assured to us who are in Christ. The apostle Peter tells us “to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing, so that also at the revelation of His glory you may rejoice with exultation” (1 Pet. 4:13). The apostle Paul shares a similar mindset when he says “for I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:18); for “momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison” (2 Cor. 4:17). Suffering becomes bearable when the Christian sees it in the proper context of eternity to which he belongs right now. I say he belongs to eternity “right now” because as a Christian he possesses eternal life at the very moment he believes in Christ as his Savior (John 10:28). Eternal life is not what the Christian can have, but what he does have at the moment of salvation. However, it is only at the moment he leaves this world and all its sorrows and enters into the presence of God in heaven that eternal life has its greatest experiential expression. The flow of time ceases at death, and all life’s sufferings associated with this world come to an end when the believer passes into eternity. More so, at the end of time itself, God will put an end to all suffering and evil when He destroys the existing universe and earth and creates a new universe and new earth (Rev. 21:1). At such a time “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes [believers who have suffered]; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4). Until then, we must look to the Lord. (Steven R. Cook, Suffering: A Biblical Consideration, pages 147-151)
Steven R. Cook, M. Div.
Volunteer Pastor at Word ofTruth Bible Church, Arlington, Texas