Psalm 73: A Case Study of a Spiritual Illness and Recovery
In the Bible we often encounter people who stood for God, yet sometimes floundered and fell. They had their trials as well as their triumphs. They knew the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, and their experiences provide valuable insights to all believers in the life of faith.
In Psalm 73, Asaph, a priest, honestly and perceptively details a personal faith crisis. One of the valuable lessons of this passage is that a faith crisis can happen to anyone who takes a stand for God, whether the individual is a religious professional or a layperson.
It is not wrong to have faith crises. However, it is wrong to fail to learn from them, and foolish not to seek to resolve them. It is right for believers to seek help from others in the family of God and to find mutual benefit from one another’s experiences.
Note Asaph’s candor as he relates the saga of his spiritual crisis and recovery. The experience may be likened to a bout of spiritual sickness, a fever, outlined in three broad sections.
The Illness and Its Symptoms: (vv. 1-14)
In verses 1-3, the psalmist describes the primary symptom of his spiritual illness—envy. He states that despite God’s faithful goodness his own feet were almost gone; (his) steps had almost slipped. For (he) was envious of the foolish, when (he) saw the prosperity of the wicked.”
Contemplating the creature comforts of the wicked can create spiritual problems. Truly, this problem of envying the wicked is a common one. In this world there is a constant tension between what we see and what we are called upon to believe. It’s not that what we believe isn’t true or real; but there are many areas where we are called to “walk by faith, not by sight,” and the sights with which we must contend often seem to contradict our faith.
Verses 4-11 describe what caused Asaph to stumble in his walk of faith. He saw the wicked as apparently prosperous in their wickedness, comfortable and proud. Their lives appeared better and easier than the righteous. Despite their arrogance, God mysteriously seemed to spare them from judgment and give them increase. From this the psalmist concluded that the final word on the ungodly was success. (They) “prosper in the world; they increase in riches” (v.12), while the final word on the godly was futility: “Verily, I have cleansed my heart in vain, and washed my hands in innocence. (v.13)
Asaph’s faith crisis is characterized by observational difficulties that led to generalized and exaggerated perceptions. The psychological discipline called Cognitive Therapy teaches that depression can be, and often is caused by distorted thinking. Pioneers in the field, such as David Burns in his seminal book Feeling Good, speak of common motifs of distorted thinking.
One of these is overgeneralization, such as seeing a single negative event as a never ending pattern of defeat. Another distortion is mental filter: picking out a single negative detail and dwelling on it exclusively so that one’s vision of the rest of reality becomes darkened. A third is absolutism, or all or nothing thinking: perceiving issues entirely in black and white categories. All of these distorted viewpoints are portrayed in the writings of the psalmist, who complained, “…all the day long have I been plagued, and chastened every morning.” (v.14)
Considered in this light, one can begin to discern something of the nature of the malady—this “faith sickness” from which the psalmist suffered: it is primarily a distortion in perception.
This is indicated from the outset. At the very beginning the psalmist says “Truly God is good to Israel, even to such as are of a clean heart. But as for me, my feet were almost gone; my steps had almost slipped.” (vv 1-2) In other words he’s saying, “Even though God is good to Israel, I lost sight of that and focused instead upon those things which I perceived to be reality, and those distorted and limited perceptions upset my life of faith and worship.”
The Turning Point and Cure: (vv 15-17)
In every fever there is the point at which the fever breaks, indicating that the crisis is over. Note the evidence that the psalmist was pulling out of his delirium and coming to his senses. Note also the steps he took to get well and to keep from infecting others.
1. He sensed that he was sick and was careful not to spread the contagion. So should the believer be. “If I say, I will speak thus (i.e. from a sour and resentful attitude, as in verses 1-14) I should offend against the generation of thy children.” (v.15)
2. He pondered to understand this: he sought to diagnose the problem. So should we, rather than wallow in our crises. “When I thought to know this, it was too painful (difficult) for me.” (v.16)
3. He called for expert advice. “…I went into the sanctuary of God; then understood I their end.” (v.17) Going to the sanctuary involved going not only to the place of worship, but also to the place of instruction. Often, especially in time of crisis, believers need to call upon spiritually astute friends and others for insight and objectivity which they may not be able to discover on their own.
4. He took care of his “diet of worship.” He participated in public worship even though he was feeling spiritually sick. When people go into a spiritual tailspin they often make matters worse by absenting themselves from the public worship of God. This, of course, only serves to worsen their condition.
5. Through seeking instruction, through participating in worship, through the jolting of his consciousness which came from going to that familiar and holy place, he had his perception corrected and restored.
The Characteristics of Restored Spiritual Health: (vv. 18-28)
In these verses, the psalmist tells the symptoms not of his illness, but of his restored health.
1. His restored perception of the actual state of the wicked. (vv. 18-20) He sees that contrary to appearances, their feet actually are set in slippery places; their apparent security is just a move away from tumbling into the righteous judgment of God. These wicked, who seem so secure and impervious to harm, will in the end prove to have been as temporary and insubstantial as a dream that one remembers upon awakening.
2. His restored perception of how spiritually sick he had actually been. (vv. 21-22) Contrary to his former protestations of innocence and righteousness (see verses 13-14), he now recognizes that while in the grip of his envy, he had been foolish, ignorant and brutalized in his spiritual sensitivities.
3. His restored recognition of his own blessedness as a servant of God. Before, he had viewed himself as an innocent sufferer who was getting nothing but abuse and deprivation for his righteous pains. Now, he saw that he had been and always would be a blessed man because of God’s constant grace and goodness; “Nevertheless, I am continually with thee; thou hast held me by my right hand. Thou shalt guide me with thy counsel, and afterward receive me to glory. Whom have I in heaven but thee? And there is none upon earth that I desire beside thee. My flesh and my heart fail, but God is the strength of my heart, and my portion forever.” (vv. 23-26)
4. Concluding summary statements. Concerning the wicked, they are surely not to be envied, “For lo, they that are far from thee shall perish; thou hast destroyed all those who play the harlot departing from thee.” (v. 27) Concerning the righteous, they are never to be pitied, as was the psalmist’s viewpoint when he was vexed in his heart. On the contrary, “it is good for me to draw near to God; I have put my trust in the Lord God, that I may declare all thy works.” (v. 28)
Lessons to Remember and Apply for Spiritual Health:
1. Trouble in the life of faith and worship often involves giving credence to distorted perceptions. Therefore, God’s people must be on guard, lest their perspective be distorted. As Yeshua said in the Sermon on the Mount, “The lamp of the body is the eye; if, therefore, thine eye be healthy, thy whole body shall be full of light. But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness. If, therefore, the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness!” (Matthew 6:22-23)
2. There are certain kinds of statements a believer should never allow himself to make. The psalmist realized that while in the grip of his vexation he was like a beast toward God, and that if he were to give vent to his vexation and distorted ideas, he would create faith problems for others. (vv.15, 22) The believer should “monitor his mouth” and not give voice to the corrupting emotions of bitterness toward God. The writer to the Hebrews put it this way: “Looking diligently…lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble you, and by it many be defiled.” (Hebrews 12:15) “Heart trouble” is not sufficient excuse for not governing one’s mouth.
3. Sometimes a believer MUST go outside of self to find the diagnosis and input that will break the fever of spiritual sickness. Just as the psalmist went to the Temple and found renewed perspective there, the believer ought to depend upon wise friends for “reality checks” that will help to correct distorted perceptions.
4. A believer should never neglect the means of grace, especially when he is spiritually sick. If there was one time for Asaph not to stay away from the Temple, it was when he was experiencing spiritual problems. When spiritual malaise strikes, many reduce or eliminate church participation because they “don’t feel like going.” That is just the time they ought most to go!
5. Believers should monitor their attitudes toward God lest they give way to a brutish and insensitive attitude. Not only should we watch our mouths for our brethren’s sake, we should watch our hearts for our own sakes. As the writer of Proverbs puts it, “Keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life.” (4:23) There ought never be a time or circumstance that would cause us to get beyond “hallowed be thy name.”
6. The basic prerequisite for worship is humility—a deep, abiding sense of privilege. The basic enemy of worship is pride—an unwarranted sense of entitlement. The psalmist was a religious professional. Yet, by his own admission, there was a time when his heart was not right with God, a time when he was consumed with envy of the wicked on the one hand, and a sense that his own righteousness merited better treatment on the other. When at last his spiritual fever broke, and like the Prodigal Son he “came to himself,” he realized that he was not a victim, but a privileged servant of God. Believers who walk in that sense of gratitude will more likely escape the kind of spiritual malaise that afflicted the psalmist, and will think and live as children and servants of the true and living God.