In our sadness over the murder of innocent children in Newtown, CT, at Christmastime it's not hard to draw parallels with Herod's slaughter of children in Bethlehem near the time of Christ's birth. As then, the tears flow, and the cries go up. We ask, "Why? Why do the innocent suffer? Where is God?"
Asaph asked this question in Psalm 73, but phrased it somewhat differently: "Why don't the wicked suffer?" When the innocent suffer and the wicked don't, the result is the same -- people are tempted to doubt God.
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.
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.
The wicked life of ease is as much a problem as the evil that befalls the undeserving. When God doesn't prevent evil or immediately punish it, some people conclude He doesn't exist, He knows nothing, or is weak. It's far from an academic exercise or idle speculation. If a satisfactory answer isn't found, some turn away from faith in God, or are hardened in unbelief (Hebrews 3:12-15
Asaph recognized the danger. He was careful not to vent his tortured thoughts while they were still foremost in his mind, lest he betray God's people -- the generation among whom he walked. He wasn't like some teachers who raise provocative questions without making an effort to answer them. As the writer of Hebrews
says, we have a responsibility to the congregation: "Take care, brethren, that there not be in any one of you
an evil, unbelieving heart that falls away from the living God. But encourage one another
day after day, as long as it is still called 'Today,' so that none of you
will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin."
So what's Asaph's answer? Does God know what's in the heart of the wicked person before he acts? Does He see the future? Is He aware of who the victims will be and the void they'll leave behind? Should we continue believing in God and maintaining pure hearts when pain is the result?
The answer is yes, God does know and see all. Righteous living is worth it. In suffering, we experience the consequences of the Fall and recognize our need of a Deliverer. In His sovereignty, we're allowed by it to glimpse the brevity of this life and prepare for the next.
Asaph felt as wretched as anyone could "until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I understood their end." He came to terms with reality in the Temple where He was reminded of 1) God's holiness, 2) His desire to fellowship with men, 3) the problem of sin in the hearts of all men which separates us from God, and 4) the provision of sacrifices to atone for it. He saw that the wicked are on a slippery path, even though it appears they have it made. Their end is in sight; their destiny is
destruction. (See also Matthew 7:13-14
As for the pure in heart, they seem to live precariously, but the truth is they'll be with God "afterward" (Ps. 73:24) -- even as are always with Him now (v. 23). He is holding their hands, guiding them. God is all their desire, their strength, and portion (vv. 25-26).
This is even true in times of doubt. In verses 21-23, Asaph admitted:
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.
Evil exists. To avoid it, we'd have to go "out of this world," as Jesus noted
. But good exists too -- with God. As Asaph says, "the nearness of God
is my good," not all the stuff over which I'm envying the wicked. Sometimes we need a reminder that the only real good in life is the presence of God. Suffering is, therefore, useful in getting us to loosen our grip on other things that have taken His place.
One day Jesus was asked
about some people who were killed by Pilate. Were they being punished for something they'd done, or was this just another outrage against goodness? Jesus chose to focus on something else. He warned, "Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish." This could be the sobering lesson of Sandy Hook Elementary School, too.
God didn't let a bitter, brutish Asaph go, and He's not going to cast away the honest questioner of 2012 either. God is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9
). Let us humbly bow before Him.
I pray the grieving families will experience the nearness of God in all its goodness and take refuge in Him (Ps. 73:28) during this impossibly difficult moment. His Father heart grieves with them. The Son He sent to once-for-all atone for sin is the One who assures they can someday be joyously reunited with their children.