Thursday, June 28, 2012

Why do the Wicked Prosper?

"Why do the wicked prosper?"  They do.  Sometimes you see "karma" come back to bite someone, but so often it seems like good people get shafted and bad people go on their merry way with a bombed out shell in their rear-view mirror.

The Christian response is usually to say, "Hey, don't call people wicked.  We're all wicked."  That is true.  We are.  When we forget this, we become self-righteous and easily embittered.  But I see that there are two senses in which the Bible speaks of "righteous/wicked."  In the ultimate sense, nobody is good.  None are righteous.  All fall short of God's glory.  No one seeks after God.  That is pretty standard and pretty essential Christian doctrine.  After all, it speaks of our universal need for salvation.  Accordingly, there are really only two kinds of people in the world: those who know they need to be saved and those who don't.

But I believe the Bible also speaks of the whole "righteous/wicked" contrast in more horizontal -perhaps we could call them "civil" -terms.  The "righteous" are those who seek to do good, for example.  The "wicked" are those who do things like oppress the poor and take advantage of the fatherless and widows.  The "righteous" are not assumed to be perfect or sinless or any such thing, but they are distinguished.  It can be argued that the term is used to denote the faithful, those who love and worship the true God.  It is clear that the faithful are not sinless, by any stretch (look at the examples we are given, such as King David), but they are still distinguished.

And I think the distinction is important.  It is not important for the sake of saying "I'm better than those bad people over there."  In the vertical sense, we have already established the universality of man's depravity and moral and spiritual need.  Yet, when we disregard the horizontal or "civil" sense we lose something significant.  We lose our voice.  Suddenly, no one has any room to cry out or plead to God.  Suddenly, the Biblical cry, "Why do the wicked prosper?" is meaningless.  After all, what right do I have to say that someone else is "wicked" when I am also "wicked?"  It is like saying that since I do bad things, too, then that cancels it all out and I lose the right to be wounded or cry for justice.  But the cry, which is a very real cry, implies that I am (or someone is) a victim or that I am not in the same group as the offender.  It implies that I try to live right and love God, though I sin, yet others who follow their own appetites not only do so without inhibition but seem to be rewarded for it by the bounty and success and ease of this life.  They "get away" with it, in a sense.  They destroy, and then walk away, leaving wreckage behind them, going about their merry way to bigger and bigger and better and better.

This is usually not a general cry, either.  We can look at the news and throw up our hands, saying, "How terrible!  Why do the wicked prosper?!"  But for many people, this is a very personal matter.  Betrayal, deception, destruction, loss, etc.  And the destroyer moves on, leaving you in a heap of wreckage and rubble.  You know you have your sins and failures, but really?  How is this fair?  How can life be like this?  Why, God, do you let it happen?  Why?

And must I try to humanize them?  Must I do all of those things that Christian books tell you to do, such as try to identify with them?  Can't I just hate them for the destruction they have caused and how their desertion and non-chalant motions to "move on" leave so much unanswered for and so much hurt and pain left throbbing and burning in my hands, gnawing through your flesh and into my soul?  Must I sit back and believe that God will sort everything out in the end?  Must I trust that He will be just?  What if He isn't?  He has sat by for so long doing nothing, and that seems so unjust, so what guarantee do I have that He will see things my way?  What if He decides the wrong wasn't that bad, and that I am just as wrong as they were?  Will not even God understand my pain and take it seriously?

Lot's of people, Christians especially, say "Oh, it's ok.  Things will work out in the end.  Their destructiveness will come back upon them?"  But the fear remains... what if it doesn't?  What if I am alone in feeling this suffering?  What if not even God, the One who really sees things objectively and fully, will understand my suffering and do what is right?  What if there is no vindication?  Or what if He just "forgives" them and there is nothing to address the pain and brokenness that has been dropped in my lap?

On a side note, this is what is so depressing about atheism.  Our pain is meaningless and will never be validated or vindicated in any true or lasting sense -not unless we become vigilantes and decide to take matters into our own hands.  But even then, the question still remains:  "What makes what happened 'wrong' to begin with, and upon what basis does my pain mean anything if right and wrong is only a preference or social convention?  All of those expectations for anything 'good' or 'right' were subjective and meaningless from the outset."

Anyway, when I read Psalm 73, I am drawn in.  The author even admits to being "envious" of them, the "arrogant."  Why?  Because they basically do what they do and nothing really happens to them.  They continue on with relative ease.  He goes on and on, describing this problem, and then concludes that even trying to understand how this can be is a "wearisome task."

But the Psalm does not end there.  Something changes in the Psalmists demeanor.  He felt all of these very wearisome and distressing things "until" he went into the sanctuary of God.  It was there that he "discerned their end."  The Psalmist realizes something -God does see what goes on.  He even confesses his tendency to look at what is seen and to doubt God's justice, to become "brutish" and embittered by the sight of it all.  But then he realizes... God will address all things.  As it says in Mark's Gospel, "For nothing is hidden except to be made manifest; nor is anything secret except to come to light."  God says, "I will avenge," and He will "wipe away every tear."  The Psalmist realizes that all of their ease and comfort is just a temporary phantom, a vapor.  The ease of their life right now, in other words, only gives the false appearance that they are getting away with anything.

One thing that is not addressed, however, is the case in which the offender is a believer or, at some point, becomes a believer and repents.  What then?  Even if they are really His, I do not think we can guarantee that they will change in this life or even come to fully see and fully admit it.  One could hope, but that still does not guarantee that that which was lost will ever be replaced in its same form.  That is the tragedy of loss in this life.  Even with the reality of forgiveness, that which was lost is never regained.  Something new can serve as a restoration, yet the original thing is gone.  But eventually, I believe there will be some kind of reconciliation or restoration, even if they come to you and say in His Kingdom, "I see now what I could not see back then.  I wish I could have, and I just want you to know that I love you."  That would not be "justice" or recompense, but it would be restoration and validation -which is what our broken hearts really long for.

In either case, God promises validation and restoration.  It won't be on our time, but it will come.  May this truth give us ease and help us to let go of our painful burdens of brokenness so that we may get back up off the ground.

And the Psalmist finishes the Psalm by reminding himself of something else.  He isn't alone.  We aren't alone.  God does see and know and hear, on the most personal level.  He is with us -a statement of God's intimate involvement with His people but also a foreshadowing of His imminence consummated in Jesus Christ and in Him taking up residence within us by His Holy Spirit.  And that is significant, for what we ultimately long for is someone who will take our pain seriously and not leave us in the quagmire of insignificance and disillusionment.  We want someone who will be on our side rather than someone who waffles and tries to stay "neutral" and uninvolved, like so many people do for fear of pissing someone off.

Can you imagine if what you feared -being ultimately alone in your loss and pain, never understood, always minimized, always with someone silently doubting you in the back of their mind, thinking, "Yeah, but is this all in your head?  What did you do to deserve it?"- actually came true?  All of that indignation and pain would have nowhere to go but directly back upon me in a "living death" of self-destruction.  It is ugly and deadly.  This is another reason why we need not only God but each other, true friendship.  We need Someone who will take us seriously and not abandon us.

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