Why Does God Allow Suffering?
You may think that you hate hypocrisy and playacting, but God wants you to know that he hates it even more. He can’t stand it when people pour out empty religious words which don’t reflect what they are truly feeling on the inside. Prayer is a two-way conversation in which we express our deepest feelings to the Lord and take time to listen to his reply. That’s why Book III of Psalms tells us to sing honestly about how we are really feeling. It tells us that God hates us lying. Even when we do it in church on Sunday.
Those who have understood Psalms best throughout Church history have always been surprised at how raw and honest the psalmists are. John Calvin described Psalms as “an anatomy of all the parts of the soul; for there is not an emotion of which anyone can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror.”1 Athanasius observed that,
Elsewhere in the Bible you read only that the Law commands this or that to be done, you listen to the Prophets to learn about the Saviour’s coming, or you turn to the historical books to learn the doings of the kings and holy men; but in the Psalter, besides all these things, you learn about yourself. You find depicted in it all the movements of your soul, all its changes, its ups and downs, its failures and recoveries.2
Only one of the seventeen psalms which make up Book III was written by David. All of the other ones were written by the worship leaders he appointed. It’s as if the editors of Psalms grouped these seventeen songs together in order to show us how ordinary men and women should express their ordinary feelings to the Lord.
But expressing our feelings to the Lord is not enough. The psalmists want to help us to be changed even as we pray. John Calvin continues by observing that,
Genuine and earnest prayer proceeds first from a sense of our need, then from faith in the promises of God. It is by studying these inspired compositions that people will be best awakened to a sense of their maladies and, at the same time, instructed how to find remedies for their cure.
Athanasius adds that “Whatever your need or trouble, from this same book you can select a form of words to fit it, so that you do not merely hear and then pass on, but learn the way to remedy your ill.” Let’s therefore learn from these seventeen songs which were written by Asaph, Ethan and the Sons of Korah. Let’s sing to God about how we really feel and let him change us as we do so.
Asaph wrote the eleven psalms which form the first two thirds of Book III. He starts with one of the biggest questions which can trouble our hearts: Psalm 73 deals with the question, Why doesn’t God stop all the suffering in the world? He states the general principle in 73:1 that God is good and just, but then launches into thirteen verses of complaint about how he feels when he looks at the suffering all around him. Even though he is one of the main worship leaders at the Temple, he confesses that he almost lost his faith when he saw the wicked prospering (73:2-3) and supposing that God doesn’t see the wicked things they do (73:4-12). He confesses that he almost threw in the towel on his faith once and for all (73:13-14).3 What is even more shocking than Asaph’s direct language is that the Lord seems rather pleased with his honesty in prayer. He calls Asaph a prophet in Matthew 13:35 and looks back fondly in Nehemiah 12:46 to the days when Asaph prayed prayers which were music to his ears!
Unless Asaph had been this honest, he would not have received an answer. The fourth-century theologian Ambrose described psalms like this one as,
A gymnasium which is open for all souls to use, where the different psalms are like different exercises set out before him. In that gymnasium, in that stadium of virtue, he can choose the exercises that will train him best to win the victor’s crown.4
The first half of Asaph’s prayer is like a workout for his soul, and he reaps the benefit of his exercise in the second half of his prayer. He tells us that when he went into the Temple to meet with God, he started to grasp why he does not always appear to judge the wicked. He caught a big vision of God which made him realise how blinkered he had been (73:15-17). God will surely judge the wicked swiftly and suddenly (73:18-20), and Asaph felt as stupid as a donkey not to have seen this all along (73:21-22). He worships the Lord for the fact that ill-earned riches will not last, but that the righteous have the Lord as their portion, both in this life and forevermore (73:23-28). Like Job, Asaph discovers that when he shares his feelings honestly in prayer he receives an answer through a fresh revelation of the Lord which changes everything.
The big question which confronts us in Psalm 73 and the rest of Book III is, ‘Will we pray this way ourselves?’ Will we be as bold and honest as Asaph in prayer, or will we fall for the lie that God wants sweet platitudes which masquerade as prayer? When did you last speak to God with the same frank emotion as Asaph in this psalm? Unless you unburden your heart in prayer then you must not be surprised if your prayer life feels repetitive and lifeless. But if you pour out your heart like Asaph, you will discover that emptying your heart enables God to fill it with fresh faith and a fresh desire to worship him. When we express who we really are in prayer, the Lord responds by revealing to us who he really is.
If you are a church leader or a worship leader, then God wants to speak to you urgently through Book III. When was the last time you helped your congregation to express their deepest, darkest and most unspoken emotions to God? Let’s not short-change those we lead with upbeat songs and well-crafted sermons whilst forgetting that their real need is to be taught to pray.5 Let’s teach them the message of Book III of Psalms. Let’s teach them to sing about the way they really feel.
This blog is adapted from a chapter in Phil Moore’s new devotional commentary, Straight to the Heart of Psalms, published this month by Monarch Books. See www.philmoorebooks.com
1. Calvin wrote this in about 1556 in the preface to his Commentary on the Book of Psalms.
2. Athanasius wrote this in about 370AD in his Letter to Marcellinus on the Meaning of the Psalms.
3. Asaph is deceived, since God does judge the wicked in this life, but that is not the point. This psalm teaches us to express the way we feel, even when our feelings are wrong.
4. Ambrose was Archbishop of Milan and wrote this in about 385AD in his Commentary on the Psalms.
5. This is even true of non-Christians. 73:17 reminds us that this kind of praying can achieve more breakthrough in their searching than a brilliant lecture in apologetics.