7. Pain and the Presence of God (Psalm 73) (death of a young mother)
Background: This is probably one of the most crucial funerals I have done. This was a young wife and mother, who died of cancer.
A book has recently been written entitled, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. I do not agree with its message, but the problem which is raised is surely a valid one. Mary Smith was a good person, and her cancer was surely a bad thing. We must agree, in a sense at least, that a bad thing has happened to a good person. The answer to the problem of pain is not found in a contemporary book, however, but in an ancient book--the Bible. It is found in many places in the Bible, but none quite as precious to me as in the 73rd Psalm.
This psalm is the testimony of an ancient Israelite, but it is also the testimony of Mary Smith. The last time that I read Scripture to Mary, I chose to read this psalm. When I finished the psalm Mary told me that this text beautifully described her relationship with God as she struggled with the reality of her cancer. It is our prayer that you will find the same comfort from this portion of God's Word that Mary has, along with countless men and women down through the centuries.
Psalm 73 is the honest confession of a faithful Israelite, concerning his own struggle with the problem of pain. Asaph, the author, is the choir leader, whose occupation placed him in constant contact with the people of Israel, and with the sanctuary of God, the temple. He was, I believe, a godly man during the time of his personal struggle. He was a more godly man afterwards. Let us consider the confession of Asaph with the purpose of understanding how a good God can allow pain and suffering to come into the life of the saint.
The Psalmist's Problem
The Premise: The Goodness of God -- Verse 1
The first half of the psalm (verses 1-14) describes the problem of the psalmist in detail. His problem stems from a premise, a fact about the God whom he loved and served, a fact which was foundational to his faith:
Surely God is good to Israel, To those who are pure in heart! (v. 1)
This truth was fundamental and foundational to the faith of every godly Israelite. God is good, Asaph believed. In particular, God is the God of Israel, and is good to those Israelites who are pure in heart.
Asaph's Perceptual Problem: Envy -- Verses 2-3
In and of itself, there is nothing about this fact that would trouble Asaph, since he considered himself an Israelite who was pure in heart. The problem is that this foundational truth seemed to be contradicted by the reality of life which Asaph had observed. In verses 4- 9 Asaph's practical problem is detailed, but before telling the reader what troubled him, the psalmist first made a confession, which should cause us to question the objectivity of Asaph:
But 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 (vv. 2-3).
The practical problem with which Asaph wrestled was the "prosperity of the wicked," but let us take note that Asaph's observations which follow are those made through the eyes of an envious man, a man who was angered because he did not possess the prosperity which the wicked were experiencing.
The Problem: The Prosperity of the Wicked -- Verses 4-9
Asaph's problem was the result of an apparent contradiction between his faith (as founded in the principle of verse 1) and the "facts" (as reported in verses 4-9). God was supposed to be good to the Israelite who was pure in heart, and yet it appeared that He was good to the wicked. The wicked seemed to have no pain, and their prosperity was painfully evident in their sleek, even fat, bodies (v. 4). The adversities of life seemed to pass them by. They seemed immune to the problems of life.
If this was not enough, the attitudes and actions of the wicked were such that they "rubbed salt in the wound" of the righteous. They were violent and cruel, and rather than being shamefaced, they were proud and arrogant. They boasted of their wickedness and their minds continued to conjure up further evil. They not only boasted before men, they even seemed to shake their fists in the face of God.
The Skepticism of the Saints -- Verses 10-14
I am not certain whether all of the "wicked" who are described in the preceding verses were Israelites, but I am convinced that those described in verses 10-14 are. As the people of God looked about and saw that the wicked were prospering, they wrongly reasoned that if God was supposed to be good to the pure in heart something must have gone terribly wrong.
God's people seem to have adopted the same evil practices as the pagans. They, too, doubt that God either knows or cares. They see prosperity as something which they bring on themselves, and more by practicing evil than by living righteously. They prosper in their wickedness and are always at ease, even while they dare God to act in judgment.
Asaph is close to joining the wicked among his brethren, and this he frankly confesses to the reader:
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 (vv. 13-14).
The premise seemed to promise that the righteous would prosper and that the wicked would suffer pain and adversity, and yet the (apparent) reality was that the wicked prospered and the righteous suffered. Asaph was thus tempted to forsake righteousness and to join the wicked. Asaph was dangerously close to forsaking his faith because it appeared that God was not good to the pure in heart.
A New Perspective -- Verses 15-28
Asaph is intensely honest in revealing his innermost thoughts and temptations. He was considering giving it all up, and joining the wicked. He suffered great agony of soul, until he had a change in perspective. This change took place when he entered the sanctuary of God (v. 17). This was the dwelling place of God in the Old Testament days. This was the place where time met eternity and where appearances could be distinguished from reality. This was the place where the present "realities" could be viewed in the light of eternal "realities."
Here, Asaph was reminded that the prosperity of the wicked was only momentary. The feet of the wicked are on slippery ground. There destruction had not yet come, but it would come, and quickly, suddenly, irreversibly. The present prosperity of the wicked was but a dream, and their ultimate destiny a dreaded reality. God does despise the wicked and He will judge them. There is nothing to envy here!
In contrast to the fate of the wicked, the psalmist now views his own circumstances in an entirely different light, from a divine perspective. His present state was one of bitterness and anguish. He was senseless and ignorant. His perception was wrong, and yet even in this spiritual state God was with him. Better still, God would always be with him, in time and in eternity:
Nevertheless I am continually with Thee; Thou has taken hold of my right hand. With Thy counsel Thou wilt guide me, And afterward receive me to glory (vv. 23-24).
The Ultimate Good: The Presence of God -- Verses 25-28
The psalmist closes with the only appropriate response to this new perception of life's circumstances--praise. The presence of God is the only ultimate good. In the light of this, present prosperity is of no great value, and thus the desire for material prosperity diminishes:
Whom have I in heaven but Thee? And besides Thee, I desire nothing on earth (v. 25).
Thus, even physical pain and bodily deterioration are no longer dreaded:
My flesh and my heart may fail; But God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever (v. 26).
The temporary prosperity and pleasure of the wicked will shortly come to an end in their destruction:
For, behold, those who are far from Thee will perish; For Thou has destroyed all those who are unfaithful to Thee (v. 27).
Asaph's problem with the "goodness" of God and the prosperity of the wicked is now seen to be rooted in a defective definition of "good" and "evil". Before, he had equated "good" with "prosperity" and "evil" with adversity," but now he understands "good" in terms of the presence of God:
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 Thy works (v. 28).
The experience of Asaph as recorded in the 73rd psalm conveys three vital principles, which I believe are the basis for our comfort in the suffering and death of Mary Smith.
(1) First, the ultimate good in life is not prosperity, nor the absence of pain, but the nearness of God.
The miraculous healing, for which many of us prayed, would not have brought Mary as close to the Lord as her prolonged pain. I cannot fully explain why pain drives us closer to God than prosperity, but it is so. The prosperity of the wicked in Psalm 73 only caused the wicked to become more arrogant and to draw farther away from God. Asaph's pain was the instrument which God used to draw him even near to Himself than ever before. I, along with Jim and the others who spent time with Mary during her illness, can testify that Mary's pain drew her and Jim closer to God than they have ever experienced in the past.
If Mary's illness and its pain brought her nearer to God, her death has brought her even nearer. This is what the psalmist has said. He could look death and eternity in the face because it could only bring him into the full and timeless presence of God (cf. vv. 24-26). While death has separated Mary from us, it has brought her into the very presence of the God, whose presence is her highest good.
(2) Second, pain serves the good purpose of putting life and death, pain and prosperity into perspective.
Asaph found that the problem of pain served to reverse his priorities. Before, Asaph saw prosperity as the highest good, and to be sought at any cost. Now, Asaph can see the nearness of God to be the ultimate good, and worth the cost of suffering, pain, and death. Physical freedom from sickness and pain, from poverty or adversity, came to mean little to Mary, while God's presence became her highest goal. Her sickness and death changed her priorities.
(3) Third, we can see from Asaph's experience that dealing with the problem of pain is a process.
Asaph had to work through the prosperity of the wicked and the suffering of the righteous. It was only after time and agony that he could profess the goodness of God and the preciousness of His presence. So it is for all of us.
I want to tell you that Mary could identify with this psalm because she was able to identify with the process. Initially she was inclined to think that if God was good to her He would heal her, delivering her from pain and from death. In the last days of her life, when her body began to reflect the ugliness of cancer, she radiated the beauty and glory of God.
Mary told me that on one of her darkest days the sustaining reality was that God was nearer to her than He had ever been before. Her last words to Jim were to tell the children not to fear death. I believe that one of the reasons why Mary's illness was so prolonged was that God was giving her the time required to complete the process which Asaph and every saint experiences in their pain.
May I ask you, my friend, can you, at this moment find the comfort and the joy in Mary's cancer and death which she and Jim have found? Is the nearness of God dearer to you than material prosperity, than the absence of pain, than deliverance from death? As we conclude this funeral service I want to share with you as candidly as I can the way you can experience the nearness of God in your life. This was Mary's desire, and it is the desire of Jim and all who know the goodness of God as well.
Men are not near to God, but they are, according to the Bible, "far off." The reason is that men have sinned. The intimacy which Adam and Eve experienced with God in the garden of Eden ended with their disobedience. They hid themselves from the presence of God were put out of the garden, where God's presence was once so sweet. From that day on, men have experienced alienation, separation from God. Nearness to God is not something which we are born with, not something which comes naturally. The Bible says that we were born as enemies of God, fighting against Him and struggling to get away from Him. Sickness, suffering and death are some of the tangible results of man's sin.
The beautiful story of the gospel is that consequences of sin--sickness and sorrow and death--are the very things which God has ordained as His instruments to bring men back into the enjoyment of His presence. Jesus Christ came to the earth, adding humanity to His deity, so that He could experience suffering and death. He suffered and died on the cross of Calvary, not for His sins, but for ours. His words from the cross, "My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me," are testimony to the alienation from God which He suffered for us, in our place.
If you would have the nearness to God which Mary experienced, then you must first recognize that your sin has separated you from God, has made you His enemy. If you would be brought near to God, you must draw near by trusting in Jesus Christ as the one who experienced suffering and death in your place, for your sins. I pray that you might do that this very hour, and find the nearness of God to be your highest good.