My Feet Had Almost Slipped” Psalm 73 January 16, 2011

SI: Please open your Bibles to Psalm 73.

Two weeks ago, when I started this sermon series,

I read a quote from John Calvin about the book of Psalms.

I want to read it again because it’s a good introduction to this particular Psalm.

There is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented as in

a mirror. Or rather, the Holy Spirit has here drawn all the griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts,

hopes, cares, perplexities, in short, all the distracting emotions with which the minds of men

are wont to be agitated. . . . all the lurking places are discovered, and the heart is brought into

the light.”

That’s what this Psalm is about.

It’s about a believer whose mind and emotions are greatly agitated

with severe doubts about the goodness of God.

He’s been committed to the Lord. He’s been living a faithful life.

But he’s having health problems and financial problems.

But that’s not the thing that bothers him the most.

It’s when he sees godless people, who don’t give a hoot about living right

enjoying health and wealth and admiration and a trouble-free life.

He goes through a severe spiritual crisis in which he asks if it’s really worth it.

If he really believes in the goodness of God.

As Calvin puts it, he has a lurking place in his heart that is dark and troublesome.

But then, by the grace of God, that lurking place is exposed,

it’s brought into the light, and he passes through the crisis.

INTRO: We have some friends in the ministry who have been very faithful in a

difficult church in a difficult community. When I compare their church and their

town with Christ Covenant and Cullman, I think I’ve died and gone to heaven!

But they’ve stuck it out because of a deep sense of calling.

They truly believe the Lord has them there and that he is at work.

About eight years ago, when their son was in middle school,

he started getting headaches. These weren’t ordinary headaches.

They sickened him. He would vomit as much as 20 times when one hit.

And they were utterly debilitating. He couldn’t go to school or do anything.

That began a medical odyssey, doctor after doctor, clinic after clinic.

Countless trips to the emergency room when he was in severe pain.

They live in a large metropolitan area and have access to many physicians,

but none of them could identify their son’s problem.

So they tried to treat the symptoms. They tried drugs of every kind.

Some of them made him depressed.

Some of them were so strong that he became like a zombie.

They tried putting shunts into his brain to change pressure.

Some would work for a time. But the headaches always came back.

Finally, they diagnosed the problem. He has what’s called a pseudo-tumor.

He doesn’t have a brain tumor, but his brain acts like he does.

That gave them some hope at first. But there is no way to treat a pseudo-tumor.

So they were back to the drugs and other attempts to relieve his pain.

In the meantime, years passed. He was through middle school, into high school.

But he has missed so much school, that he was severely behind.

He tried studying at home. But how do you study when head pounding?

And then as their son neared his senior year he began to ask: Is this my life?

I’ve missed school. I don’t have a proper education.

I can’t work. I’m in pain. I’m a burden to my parents.

What reason do I have to live?

All this time, our friends had stood strong in their faith.

Not a question, not a doubt about God’s goodness and providence.

In all the disappointments, all the medical dead ends they had stood firm.

But when their son started asking these questions, it shook them.

And for the first time, in their emails to their friends, there was a different tone.

How do I describe it? They still believed in the Lord,

but their confidence in his goodness was being shaken.

The dictionary defines a crisis as a turning point, a critical time or occasion,

the point in a story at which hostile elements are most tensely opposed,

the point in the course of a disease at which a decisive change occurs,

leading either to recovery or death.

Our friends were having a spiritual crisis. It was a critical time, a decisive point.

There were things they believed about God and had stood on for years that

were shaken by the contradictory experiences of life.

Psalm 73 is about a spiritual crisis.

It’s a song, written by a believer, about a critical time in his life

when he questioned the goodness and wisdom of God,

when he questioned whether it was really worth it to follow God.

He didn’t write it during the crisis. He wrote it later.

When he was able to look back

So in the Psalm he traces the way this problem developed in his mind.

And how it made him think and act. His dark doubts.

But then there was a turning point—

and the Lord led him through the crisis, to a new level of understanding.

This Psalm is beautiful.

The structure of it, the turns of phrase, the insights into the psyche,

are truly the work of an artist and a poet.

The writer, Asaph, was a singer and song writer,

a music and song leader in Israel. I’ll tell you more about him later.

He was a man who had a way with words.

This is as beautiful as anything David wrote.

And in addition to being beautiful, it’s extremely practical.

Because it shows you how to work through a spiritual crisis.

It shows you how you are thinking and acting, and where you have to go.

And it shows you how to help a fellow Christian work through a spiritual crisis.

It helps you understand your friend, and what you need to do for him or her.

Let’s consider how to work through a spiritual crisis.

This is a very deep passage of Scripture, but in a sense it’s simple. Three points:

1. The way down

2. The turning point

3. The way back up

MP#1 The way down

Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart.”

Asaph starts by affirming his fundamental belief in God’s goodness to his people.

This is where he starts, and this is where he is going to end.

But he falls very low in between.

Even so, he wants us to know from the beginning that this is not a song about doubt.

It’s the song of a man who doubted, and came through it and reaffirmed his faith.

Surely God is good to Israel . . .

but as for me, my feet has almost slipped, I almost lost my foothold”

So how did he almost slip? That’s the question.

The first thing that happened to Asaph was something unstated but implied.

He suffered a loss of some kind.

A loss of financial security, or health, or a loss of respect and affirmation.

It might have been a sudden loss of these things, or it might have just been

a long-term deficit of them that wore on him. Like my friends I mentioned

a moment ago who dealt with their son’s bad health year after year after year.

Something bad happened to Asaph. We know that because of what he says next.

I nearly lost my foothold because . . .

I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.”

It wasn’t just the loss or the long-term lack that threw Asaph into this crisis,

it really started when he looked around at other people, unbelievers.

He looked at people who didn’t care about God and were living for themselves,

And what did he see?

He saw people who were prosperous, they had plenty of money,

they had no financial worries, they were enjoying the finer things of life.

Their businesses were flourishing. Everything they touched turned to money.

And he envied them. He coveted their prosperity.

Not only that, they were healthy.

They have no struggles. Their bodies are healthy and strong.

They are free from the burdens common to man; they are not plagued by human ills.”

Wealth and health went together in those days just like it does in ours.

These were people who could afford the best doctors,

who could spend days in leisure and then get a massage to work out all that stress.

He envied their health.

And there was another thing that really bothered Asaph.

That was how these people were admired and followed.

Their success made them popular.

Therefore their people turn to them and drink up waters in abundance.”

People were just lapping up everything these people did and said.

Here I am, a believer, serving in the church, working as a music minister,

and my people don’t treat me like that. They don’t admire me and appreciate me.

Asaph still had a clear enough mind to see the true character of these people.

Saw they were proud, arrogant, callous, scoffers, threatening, malicious—

but that increased his inner conflict because instead of all of these destructive

character traits knocking them down, they were prospering! He sums it up:

This is what the wicked are like—always carefree, they increase in wealth.”

So there was a sudden loss of financial security or health or affirmation,

or a long-term lack of those things that wore him down.

And then there was an envy, a covetousness, a discontentment with his life.

This is not the life I want. This is not the life I deserve.

Those things came together to push Asaph to his lowest point, in verse 13.

Surely in vain have I kept my heart pure; in vain I have washed my hands in innocence.

All day long I have been plagued; I have been punished every morning.

What’s the point of being a Christian if those who are not Christians get

the blessings I want and I get troubles instead.

It actually seems like I’m being punished for trying to be good.

I remember years ago hearing a Christian woman whose husband had left her

tell how her ex-husband was enjoying a life of ease with his new wife,

traveling, living it up, and she was toiling along to faithfully raise her children.

Coping with the struggles of life alone and a greatly reduced standard of living.

She was the faithful one, and she was the one suffering. He had the good life.

So the big question that comes to mind is—

Why keep up the struggle and fight of the Christian life?

It’s sort of like Job’s wife telling him: Why are you holding on to your integrity?

Curse God and die! Serving him certainly hasn’t gotten you many blessings.

What are the faith lessons Asaph wants us to gather from his downward slide?

A couple things—one for ourselves,

and one for fellow Christians who we sense are starting to slip.

I think the lesson for ourselves is that painful losses may come,

but we have to guard our hearts and avoid envy and discontentment.

It wasn’t the loss or the lack that sent Asaph into this spiral—it was his heart.

He named his problem. Envy. And it came from looking.

That’s where envy always comes from. From looking and comparing.

Isn’t it fascinating that the tenth commandment is,

Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s

wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant nor his ox nor his donkey, nor

anything that is thy neighbors.

The law of God ends with a law of the heart.

So for ourselves, there must be firmness and severity.

You can’t let yourself go down this path. Fight it. Repent of it.

The bitterness and self-pity that come with envy feel so good.

Don’t let yourself fall into them.

What about your Christian friends?

Should you give them a slap and say—Quit coveting! Maybe.

But I think that gentle encouragement and prayer is best at first.

Because we also learn from Asaph that there are stages of a spiritual crisis.

Skip ahead and look at his assessment of his mindset during this slipping stage

When my heart was grieved and my spirit embittered, I was senseless and ignorant.”

You can’t tell a senseless person to snap out of it—

even a born-again senseless person. Gently encourage them, pray for them.

Get them to read Psalm 73 with you and talk through it.

The thing you are praying for and hoping for is a turning point.

That’s what we come to next.

MP#2 The turning point

What was the turning point for Asaph? There were two phases:

The first phase of was a realization he had. A realization that reigned him in

from his wild gallop into self-pity and negativity.

It wasn’t an answer to the questions that were troubling him,

it was a thought that checked him and brought him up short.

He’d just said to himself: Following God isn’t worth it. But realizes in vs. 15:

If I had said, “I will speak thus,” I would have betrayed your children.

If I speak my doubts about God’s goodness and the futility of being a believer . . .

if I let my negativity come out, it could do eternal harm to young believers.

When he says “your children,” he might even be thinking of his own children

who were young and tender in their faith.

If I express my doubts and negativity it’s going to sow a seed in my own

children’s hearts that is going to bear bitter fruit when they get older.

When they face trouble later in life, they will turn against God.

So he realizes, I’ve got to keep this to myself and work it out.

This is an important balance to the value we American Christians place on

transparency and “being real.” There’s a sentiment that comes from psychology

that ways you shouldn’t bottle things up, it’s unhealthy, you need to let it out.

Maybe that’s true. But here is a man who says:

In the midst of my worst spiritual crisis, God gave me the grace to keep my

mouth shut and keep my feelings to myself for the good of tender believers.

The problem is still in his mind. His crisis is unresolved.

He’s still questioning the goodness of God and the prosperity of the wicked—

but this is a significant turning point, because he’s starting to think about

bigger and more eternal things. The souls of other people. Their eternal state.

One preacher explained verse 15 this way:

Here is the spirituality of the man. From unseen depths, even in a time of great doubt and

spiritual discouragement, his truest self is still asserting its rights. He sees his duty, but still

the main question remains: What about the wicked and their prosperity?”

That brings us to the second phase of the turning point. Verse 16.

When I tried to understand all this, it was oppressive to me

till I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny.”

He was still in spiritual turmoil. But he went to church.

Lots of times when Christians get into a funk, they quit going to church regularly.

You don’t want to be there. You don’t want to see people.

You don’t feel like you’re going to get anything from it.

Maybe you feel like you are being fake.

Your depression makes you want to stay in bed on the Lord’s Day morning.

Here’s more of God’s grace in Asaph’s life. He had to go to church. It was his job.

He was a song leader. 1 Chronicles tells he was also a percussionist.

It reminds me of the one about the man who says to his wife on Sunday morning:

I’m not going to church. I don’t like the people, I don’t like the music,

I don’t like the preaching. I’m not going.

She says: Honey, you have to go to church.

He says: No I don’t. Tell me one good reason I have to go!

She says: Honey, you’re the pastor.

That’s how it was with Asaph. He had to go. So he went to worship.

And it was while he was in the sanctuary, with God’s people worshipping,

that he experienced the second phase of his turning point.

I understood the destiny of the wicked.” I understood their end.

God drew near to him. And Asaph saw with his faith the things he already

believed. Things that had become invisible to him during his crisis.

He didn’t have any new revelations or understandings—

but the old things come flooding back to him.

The glory of God, and God’s love and grace, his own salvation, heaven and hell.

And these great realities overwhelmed his doubts and envy.

The first thing he sees is that his envy of the wicked is so wrong

because the wicked are destined for destruction.

So what that they have money and health and the admiration of people?

Their future will undo everything they ever lived for. Their lack of faith in God

will eventually cause them to lose all they have and face God’s wrath.

They are on slippery ground. They will be cast down to ruin.

Completely destroyed, swept away with terrors. Despised as a fantasy.

It’s not at all that he’s glad people are going to hell—

it’s that his view of eternity and God’s final judgment has been restored.

He knows again that as a believer, his future is bright with hope and joy.

We aren’t told how long this second phase took—whether it was weeks or months.

It’s a poem so everything is compressed and he presents it like a bolt of lighting.

But it might not have happened that way. Could have been more gradual.

We aren’t told what God used—the singing of a hymn, a prayer, a Scripture

reading, or a sermon. Old Testament worship was more like ours than you think.

But it was in worship, making use of the ordinary means of grace,

that Asaph got a clear sight of God again.

His petty unbeliefs and doubts were swallowed up in thoughts of eternity.

Do I really need to spell out how this applies to you? It’s so plain.

Think about your children.

Think about younger or weaker believers who look up to you.

Are you going to harm them with your doubts?

Doubts you may have, but for the eternal sake of the people you love,

you must hold those close to the vest and seek to overcome them.

Share them with stronger brothers and sisters by all means.

But not to complain or vent—ask for and listen to their counsel.

And don’t forsake the corporate worship of God’s people.

If there was ever an argument for faithful attendance at worship, this is it.

This is where the Lord will meet you if you are there.

How many times do you suppose Thomas kicked himself for the rest of his life,

because he wasn’t with the other disciples on that first Easter Sunday?

He skipped worship because of his funk. He didn’t get to see what they all saw.

He couldn’t remember for the rest of his life what they got to remember.

The Lord brings about the turning point in a spiritual crisis—

but you have to put yourself in the right place.

And then, when you have turned, you have to move back up.

MP#3 The way back up

James Boice was the pastor of Tenth Presbyterian in Philadelphia for many years.

He’s with the Lord now. He was a great preacher and Bible scholar

and he made a wonderful observation about the end of Psalm 73.

I want to read his comment. It’s a little long, but it’s good.

Note “the progression of the dominant pronouns in the psalm. In the first section, as far as verse 12, the emphasized pronoun is they, referring to the wicked. The psalmist has his eyes fixed on them. In the second section, verses 13-17, the dominant pronoun is I. Having seen the prosperity of the wicked, the psalmist looks at himself and falls into unjustified comparisons. In the third section, verses 18-22, the dominant pronoun is you. Here the psalmist has stopped comparing himself to other people and is thinking about God. Then, in the final section of the psalm, verses 23-28, you and I are combined . . . Asaph now recognizes that God has been with him all along and indeed always would be with him. We need to learn that lesson in the deepest possible way, for if we learn it, all life will be transformed and we will find ourselves always content in God.”

You can’t look at other people and envy them.

You can’t look at your poor self.

But the way up is not just looking at God either.

You have to take one more step.

Look at the many ways the Lord is with you and has promised to be with you.

What’s Asaph doing at the end of the Psalm?

He’s quit listening to himself and he’s preaching to himself.

He’s quit listening the doubts and fears that rise up in his soul.

Instead he’s preaching the Gospel to himself.

He’s bringing to mind and affirming the blessings of God in Christ.

Let’s look these “you and I” affirmations by Asaph the poet.

These are some of the finest expressions of true spirituality in Bible.

Verses 23 and 24:

I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand.

You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me into glory.

No matter what your age,

it’s precious when someone who loves you holds your hand—

to comfort you, to help you, to affirm you.

Don’t be scared—the daddy says.

And he reaches down and takes his little girl’s hand.

This way grandma—says the young man.

Let me hold your hand and help you down these steps.

The husband squeezes his wife’s hand and it communicates—

I’m enjoying this moment with you.

Asaph says: Why was I envious of ungodly people for their heath and wealth?

No one holds their hand through life. And at death they are utterly alone.

But my hand his held in life and death by the living God himself.

Verses 25 and 26

Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you.

My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”

This word “portion” was a loaded word for the Hebrew people.

Because it was used most often to refer to the share of land that was

apportioned to a particular Israelite tribe or family or individual.

You remember that when the Promised Land was conquered,

it was divided among the Israelites by casting the lot.

Whatever they received was their portion.

But the Levites, who were the priestly tribe, did not receive a portion of the land.

The Lord said to them: I am your portion. I am your inheritance.

It was to be a visible lesson to Israel that their priests relied on the Lord.

Asaph was a Levite, and he confesses that fact. The Lord is his inheritance.

The Lord is his piece of the Promised Land.

And by connection, Asaph is affirming that every good thing in this life,

every bit of wealth or health, all prosperity, lands, crops, families, long life—

is just a pointer to the true riches every believer has in Jesus Christ.

What’s Asaph doing?

He’s preaching to himself the blessings of God in Christ Jesus.

Do you remember our friends I told you about, and their sick son?

They came through that crisis of faith.

That very low time right around their son’s high school graduation.

Their emails to their friends regained and reaffirmed the goodness of God.

That was a couple years ago. Their son is still sick. Still seeking treatment.

In an email over Christmas they told how they had heard of a new

neurosurgeon who sounded promising. It was very hard to get an appointment.

They finally did. And after meeting, realized he had little new to offer.

This is what the mother wrote:

Overall, it was a pretty discouraging visit. It’s not like there is a hopeful treatment. I just have to continue to remind myself that the Great Physician is not a mere man. It’s his birth that we celebrate this time of year, and his life, death, and resurrection. He is our hope for healing and for live everlasting. Please pray that our family has that hope impressed in our hearts this Christmas, as we pray the same for you and your family. We wish you a very Merry Christmas. As always, I’ll keep you posted. Still in His strong grip, Leslie

She’s channeling Psalm 73. “Still in His strong grip”

What is that but another way of saying: You hold me by my right hand.

And then there is this marvelous way she contrasts their discouragement

with this new neurosurgeon with the Great Physician.

And the way she expresses their hopes for physical treatment and healing

for their son, but at the same time looks beyond to the certainty

of eternal healing and life everlasting.

What is that but her way of saying: The Lord is my portion forever.

What about you? Are you listening to yourself or preaching to yourself?

Are you telling yourself every day that you are held by God,

that you are forgiven by Jesus Christ. That you are adopted as a son.

That you have a home and a calling in the new creation.

If you’ve gone through a crisis of faith,

if you’re in one now—it’s time to move up.