A few days ago, I was talking to a good friend who is facing a very tough time in life. This friend is facing pain and sorrow, doubts and uncertainty. My friend is one of those individuals who has experienced profound distress because of events that cannot be controlled.
During the conversation, my friend told me: “I am beginning to doubt the existence of God. If God exists, then he is not good.” Only a person who has gone through the valley of deep darkness and experienced extreme suffering could speak these words.
Is God good? The Bible affirms the goodness of God: “No one is good– except God alone” (Luke 18:19). “God is truly good to Israel, to those whose heart is pure” (Psalm 73:1). The Bible also declares that all that God has made is good: “God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31).
The words of my friend reminded me of an article written by Martin Buber, “The Heart Determines: Psalm 73.” In his article, Buber deals with the perplexing condition faced by the Psalmist and how God deals with the issue of injustice. The question asked by the Psalmist was “Why are these bad things happening to Israel?” The Psalmist’s question led him to the conclusion that God was not good to his people.
Only a person who does not know God intimately can even think that God is not good. Those who know God intimately also know that God is good. In the depth of his heart, the Psalmist knew that God was good to those pure in heart, but in his desperate condition, the Psalmist believed he was not experiencing God’s goodness and concluded that God was not good.
A careful reading of Psalm 73 reveals that the heart determines whether God is good. As Buber wrote: “The state of the heart determines whether a man lives in the truth, in which God’s goodness is experienced, or in the semblance of truth, where the fact that it ‘goes ill’ with him is confused with the illusion that God is not good to him” (p. 110).
The word “heart” appears six times in Psalm 73 (vv. 1, 7, 13, 21, 26 [2x]). Since the heart determines whether God is good, as Buber wrote, the word “heart” becomes the key to understanding the experience of the Psalmist and the answer he offers at the end of his ordeal.
Many issues can bring an individual to the brink of despair. In the case of the Psalmist, it was the prosperity of the wicked. Buber wrote: “Seeing the prosperity of ‘the wicked’ daily and hearing their braggart speech has brought him very near to the abyss of despairing unbelief, of the inability to believe any more in a living God active in life” (p. 111).
The Psalmist expressed his personal struggle as follows:
No doubt about it! God is good—
good to good people, good to the good-hearted.
But I nearly missed it,
missed seeing his goodness.
I was looking the other way,
looking up to the people
At the top,
envying the wicked who have it made,
Who have nothing to worry about,
not a care in the whole wide world.
Pretentious with arrogance,
they wear the latest fashions in violence,
Pampered and overfed,
decked out in silk bows of silliness.
They jeer, using words to kill;
they bully their way with words.
They’re full of hot air,
loudmouths disturbing the peace.
People actually listen to them—can you believe it?
Like thirsty puppies, they lap up their words.
What’s going on here? Is God out to lunch?
Nobody’s tending the store.
The wicked get by with everything;
they have it made, piling up riches
I’ve been stupid to play by the rules;
what has it gotten me?
A long run of bad luck, that’s what—
a slap in the face every time I walk out the door.
If I’d have given in and talked like this,
I would have betrayed your dear children.
Still, when I tried to figure it out,
all I got was a splitting headache…
Until I entered the sanctuary of God.
“Until I entered the sanctuary of God.”
The Psalmist learned what many other believers have discovered in their personal struggles: that prayer and worship change the way people look at the problems of life.
The Psalmist’s discovery that God was good came at the end of his struggle. He had gone through a difficult time and he almost fell victim to the doubts that weakened his faith. But he held to his faith and integrity, notwithstanding all the circumstances in his life that served to test his faith in the goodness of God.
In his distressful situation, my friend can only see evil and wrongdoing. My friend experiences pain and suffering and this situation has caused my friend to lose confidence in God as a good God, a God who is wise and just. It is in times like these that people begin to doubt that God is really active and present in one’s life.
People deal with problems in different ways. Believers find answers to their problems as they live in fellowship with God. It is in worship that believers recognize the constant presence of a loving and caring God. But life is not easy; life is tough. At times it is difficult to understand the mysteries of God’s purposes or discern the meanings of his work in human events.
I cannot explain the reasons my friend is experiencing such a difficult time. In the midst of all this perplexity I can only affirm that God is good. My friend should remember that the God who delivered and helped in the past is the same God who wants to help and save in the present.
God is good. This was the reality the Psalmist experienced as he discovered the power of faith in God. It was that faith that helped him transcend his problems so completely that he learned to survive his doubts and overcome all problems in his life.
God is good. In times of doubt and despair the struggling soul must remain confident that God is a caring and compassionate God. Anyone who draws near to God with a pure heart discovers, as the Psalmist did, that God is good.
Martin Buber, “The Heart Determines: Psalm 73,” Theodicy in the Old Testament, ed. James L. Crenshaw (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983) 109-118.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
Studies on Psalm 73: