When I was 21 years old, after months of struggle between head and heart, between will and emotions, I chose to allow Christ to be Lord of my life. That decision meant breaking off a relationship with a girl whom I loved very deeply and had assumed would one day be my wife. We had dated for over two years. We were both believers, we both loved God, and we both loved each other more than anything or anyone we had ever known. But the dream in her heart for our future was to live across the street from her mom and dad. As an only child, she was very close to her parents and felt a deep responsibility to them as they approached their twilight years.
She was everything I ever dreamed a wife would be, but I knew deep in my heart that God wanted me to be willing to go wherever He called me, whenever He called. As much as I loved her, I knew she was not part of God's will for my life. At that point in my journey with Christ, breaking up with her was the greatest sacrifice and the most excruciatingly painful decision He had asked me to make.
I knew in my mind that saying good-bye to her was right. But in my heart, I was a basket case for the rest of the year. I remember crying out to God to change her heart. I didn't date anyone else. I didn't want to. I secretly prayed and fasted and hoped God was simply testing my loyalty - that just as Abraham received Isaac back after being willing to let him go, God would one day give her back to me. I was sure God would reward my faith and faithfulness.
Instead, God did the unthinkable.
I played basketball in college. One particular night, after another loss, I was emotionally down, physically fatigued, and spiritually frustrated. As I made my way up the stairs from our locker room to the exit, I looked up to see something I hadn't seen in months. There at the top of the stairs was "my girl." She was standing in our spot next to the railing, leaning against the glass by the exit.
My heart started racing. I couldn't believe it. I thought God had answered my prayer and I started planning how we'd get a bite to eat and talk about the future just like old times. But as I got closer and my eyes met hers, I knew something was different. There was no warm smile, no step toward me, no arm around my waist. Only an uncomfortable, "Hi, Chip."
Suddenly, I realized she wasn't there waiting for me. She was waiting for someone else. Before I could fully grasp what was happening, another player on the team bounded up the stairs and grabbed her hand. I watched in stony silence as she put her arm in his and they walked off across the campus into the night.
I could not believe my eyes. I felt rage, betrayal, and complete disillusionment welling up from the depths of my soul. I asked God, "How could You let this happen to me after the great sacrifice I made for You? And how could You let her get hooked up with him?" I knew this player's intentions with girls. I had heard all about his former conquests. I knew how he mocked my faith in God.
As I walked across campus, I was rethinking whether this God I had come to know was worth following. I was questioning if I wanted to continue in a relationship with a God who rewarded great sacrifice and commitment with such injustice and pain. I was questioning the character and trustworthiness of God. I remember mumbling certain phrases to myself as I made that lonely walk to my dorm room. "I feel like an animal. I am so angry. Why do the people who don't walk with God get all the good stuff? And why, instead of getting what's good, do I get what's lousy? Why is life so unfair? Why, God, did You let this happen?"
I didn't grow up reading the Bible. I opened it for the first time when I was 18. As a new Christian at the age of 21, I had begun reading it regularly and trying to learn to hear God's voice through the pages. But I was totally unprepared for what I was about to experience.
When I got back to my dorm room, I opened my Bible to where I had been reading in the book of Psalms. I determined to give God three or four psalms to speak to me. If He didn't speak to me and help me make sense of this raw deal, I was going to quit the Christian life. If the commitment and sacrifice for God I gave equaled the raw deal I got, then Christianity wasn't worth it. I wouldn't worship a God who worked like that. (As a Christian who has matured and walked with God for many years now, I know this isn't the best way to go about hearing God speak through His Word.)
The first two psalms I read did nothing for me. But giving God His "third chance", I turned to Psalm 73 and had an encounter that has forever marked my life. I had no idea that the God of the universe could interact through His Word in such a personal and powerful way with a mere human being. As I read the psalm aloud, the Spirit of God brought thoughts and pictures to my mind of what had occurred that night and the words I'd said while walking across campus. Then He answered in His Word the very questions I had so angrily asked Him.
Reading Psalm 73 was like reading my biography. The psalmist had my same problem. The wicked he described acted just like my teammate, and talked about God in the same way. My efforts to remain pure also seemed in vain. And I had worried in the same way about how my quitting the faith would have impacted some of God's children - those I met with in Bible study, five of whom I had led to Christ.
As the psalmist began to get a little of God's perspective, so did I. I thought of all God had done for me. As my anger and hurt began to subside, I realized with the psalmist that God is my only real security in life. The Holy Spirit seemed to be dictating the psalm to me to help me in a way I had never imagined possible. God had heard my agony, and He spoke clearly. He reminded me of His sovereign power and His sovereign love. He gave me hope.
After studying Psalm 73 extensively, I see four major life lessons that flow from this psalm. There are four things God wants us to do in order to work through the raw deals we've experienced.
Life Lesson #1: Pour Out Your Heart To God
Asaph, the writer of this psalm, illustrated the first principle by pouring out his heart. Even godly people struggle with doubts and confusion when God's truth and their experience don't match. Life doesn't always make sense. At times, God's truth (God is good) and our experience (life stinks) don't mesh.
Asaph was one of three directors of King David's choir and a key Old Testament worship leader. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, he wrote a number of psalms we still read today. When God's truth and his life experience didn't mesh, this mature man of God poured out his heart to the Lord. His experience is preserved for us in Psalm 73.
Job did exactly the same thing. The most righteous man on earth lost his possessions, his children, and his health. He said, "God, I am angry! I don't understand what is happening or why it is happening!" He poured out his heart as he wrestled with the conflict between God's goodness and sovereignty and the tragic loss he experienced. What I love about this story is God never gets angry with him for honestly sharing his frustration and anger. God can handle our accusations, our overwhelming fear, and our blazing anger. We must remain reverent, but we are free to pour out our hearts to God.
God wants us to bring our anger, hurts, and doubts to Him. When we do, He enables us to reach the point Job did of being able to acknowledge that the interplay of God's goodness and His sovereignty is a mystery. We can't always make logical sense of the tough things we go through. But we can know the One who is in charge of it all and tell Him honestly how we feel.
In fact, God calls us to argue our case before Him. He so longs for a relationship with us that He invites us to tell Him anything and everything we're thinking and feeling. In all of my life I'd never been that angry with God, and that's when He met me like never before. To my amazement, He met me with compassion.
Life Lesson #2: Carefully Consider Your Choices
One of the most important decisions we will ever make is how we respond to life's raw deals. Few things are as difficult to deal with emotionally and spiritually as injustice. And when we're victims of injustice, we're greatly tempted to walk away from our faith. Asaph was angry, but he realized his actions might weaken other people's faith in the Lord. It's a fact of life that we never do anything in isolation. Our actions always affect the network of people around us.
It's so easy to act irrationally when we are mad and hurting. Some of the dumbest things we may ever do will be because of anger and bitterness when someone has wronged us. Reeling from injustice, we say and do things we wish we hadn't. So I implore you, as you emotionally relive a raw deal, get before God and carefully consider the implications of how your response will affect those around you.
If you are still affected by old wounds, God's Word to you today is that it is never too late to find healing for the pain a raw deal has caused. We deal with injustice in one way or another, and that results in outbursts of anger or silent resolution to distance yourself from God and other people, both options have their impact on you as well as on the people in your life.
Life Lesson #3: Get the Big Picture
The psalmist teaches us that it's only when we look at life from an eternal perspective that we realize what's really important and what's not. How do we get that perspective? I believe the key is found in verse 17 when the psalmist says that he "entered the sanctuary of God." Asaph had been ready to give up on his relationship with God (see v.2). He thought he had kept his heart pure in vain (see v.13). But as Asaph worshiped, his perspective shifted from the short-term and temporal to the long-term and eternal. The passage doesn't tell us whether he was worshiping alone or with fellow believers. But the result of the worship was he saw life from the perspective of eternity and that made all the difference in how he would handle the raw deal. Acknowledging that life looks very good for the wicked now, Asaph proclaimed that no one who violates God's laws, His power, or His authority goes without paying the price at some point (see vv. 18-20). Comparing the destiny of the wicked to the destiny of the righteous prompted a reevaluation in his heart as it did in mine.
Asaph talks about how he was grieving and bitter (see vv 21-22) and then there is a shift in the psalm - "Yet I am always with you" (v. 23). Like the psalmist, we need to realize that, when a raw deal comes our way, we have God. We may not have a job anymore. We may not have a house or an inheritance or a relationship. But we can proclaim to the Lord, "I have You, and You hold me by Your right hand. You guide me. You promise to be my portion. You are always with me, and You love me regardless of the circumstances in which I find myself." (see vv 23-24, 26).
When we worship as Asaph did, we gain an eternal perspective of what is real wealth and what is not. That same eternal perspective helps us endure the lost relationship, the lost money, the gossip, the betrayal, and the painful disappointments. The eternal perspective keeps the raw deal from destroying our lives. That raw deal does not have the power to destroy us unless we turn bitter, get vengeful, or let it eat us up.
We do live in a fallen world where bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people. But even though our world is fallen, it is subject to its Maker. God is in control. God allows raw deals, but He promises to work them ultimately for our good (see Romans 8:28).
Life Lesson #4: Reaffirm Your Relationship with God
As we walk through Psalm 73, a clear pattern begins to emerge. Asaph starts dealing with the emotional upheaval in his heart by first pouring out his heart to God. Then he moves from his emotions to a logical evaluation of the situation. He was tempted to desert his relationship with God, but instead he carefully considered the impact the decision would have on others. Next, Asaph gets the big, eternal picture - this is a raw deal for now, but God holds eternity in His hands.
The psalmist moves from processing his difficult situation to acting in response to it. Asaph realized that ultimately God's presence is the only sure source of security and joy, both now and forever. Asaph chooses to continue to follow the Lord based on one specific attribute of God - His sovereignty. In light of God's goodness and sovereignty, Asaph surrenders his life afresh not only to the person of God, but also to His purposes.
Asaph also believes the day will come when he will be vindicated. He shares, "I will tell of all Your deeds" (v. 28). Are you ready to let go of your desire for vengeance and tell God that you trust Him to even the score in His way and in His time? God will give you a story to share about the good things coming out of your raw deal if you are willing to hang in there. Focus on God's goodness and trust His sovereignty. Keep in mind that God is your only true security. His presence can be a source of joy and sustaining power, even in the midst of great pain.
Excerpted from the study guide, I Am with You Always, by Chip Ingram. Used with permission. Copyright 2003, by Chip Ingram. All rights reserved. About the author: Chip Ingram is Teaching Pastor of Living on the Edge, a national radio ministry.