The Problem of Evil and the Goodness of God: Finding Help in Psalm 73

Truly God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart. (Psalm 73:1) 

The claim that God is good may be the most important thing we can say about God. Nearly every other characteristic of God flows out of this one. Whether we are talking about the holiness and justice of God or the love and compassion of God, in a sense, we are just trying to explain what it means to say that God is good.

But grasping the goodness of God isn’t simply about being able to describe God, it’s about being able to know Him. By itself, the power and majesty of God aren’t altogether encouraging to us. We can’t help but feel like Susan, who grew nervous about meeting the great Lion in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. It is the promise of Mr. Beaver, that God is good, that gives us the confidence to approach the world’s creator.

Aslan is a lion- the Lion, the great Lion.” “Ooh” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he-quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.” “‘Safe?’ said Mr. Beaver… ‘Who said anything about safe? Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.’”

Paul recognized that confidence in the goodness of God was a sort of prerequisite to knowing God. In Hebrews 11:6 he explains, “for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” That is, if we want to know God, we must believe that he exists, obviously, but we must also believe that he is good. And how do we know that God is good? Because he rewards those who seek him.

Doubting God’s Goodness 
Oddly enough, it has become en vogue to question God’s goodness. In Christopher Hitchen’s book, God is Not Great, he describes himself as an anti-theist, as opposed to a mere atheist. He laments that most atheists are simply ambivalent about the existence of God. He, on the other hand, is convinced that if God did exist, he must be evil. For Hitchens, who died in 2011, the evidence of evil led to an inescapable conclusion: “God is not great.”

For many, like Hitchens, questioning the goodness of God is the first step along a path that leads to a denial of the existence of God. And as Psalm 73 begins, this appears to be the path that Asaph, the Psalmist, is walking. But as we walk through Psalm 73 together, we will see that he meets God, and in this meeting he remembers one very important truth; God is good.

Asaph’s Problem 
In Psalm 73:2-3 we get a picture of Asaph’s problem. He knew the message of verse one. He knew that he was supposed to believe that God was good, and that God rewards those who seek him. But, when Asaph looked at the wicked, the evidence just didn’t seem to add up.

Asaph casts the problem a little differently than Hitchens and many of the modern skeptics. The new skeptics question why suffering exists at all. Asaph, on the other hand, is questioning why it isn’t dealt out equitably. Why, for instance, would the wicked people not suffer as much, or even more, than righteous people? Asaph wasn’t troubled with the fact evil exists, he was upset because God didn’t keep it away from him.

In Psalm 73:4-12 Asaph seems to teeter between scorn and admiration for the wicked people. They are violent, arrogent, and proud, all the things Asaph detests. But at the same time, they are rich, fat (well fed), and generally not afflicted, all the things that Asaph wants. So, what does this evidence suggest? Could it be that Asaph was wrong? Maybe God doesn’t really reward those who seek him. Maybe God isn’t good after all?

The evidence of evil led Asaph to a crisis of faith. In Psalm 73:13-16, he admits that he lost his faith; his hope is gone. When he judged God in light of his circumstances, Asaph concluded that he “washed his hands” for nothing. He worked hard to make God happy, but his experience suggested only that he was afflicted and punished. He was on the verge of going public with his doubt. He was on the verge of letting everyone know that “God is not great.”

Asaph’s Solution 
When things seemed to be at their lowest, a miracle happened. Asaph encountered God. At this point in the story, nothing should strike us as less likely. Remember that Hebrews 11:6 tells us that in order to draw near to God, we must believe that God is good, but clearly, Asaph believed the exact opposite. As Asaph said in Psalm 73:2, his feet had almost slipped and his steps had nearly gone astray. But now, in Psalm 73:17, the unthinkable happens. He meets God and everything changes.

More specifically, when Asaph meets God his perspective changes in three distinct ways. For Asaph, these three perspective changes are the solution to his own personal problem with evil. They put his feet back on solid ground and they allow him to again draw near to God. For us, they are an example. Asaph’s three perspective changes are like pieces of a puzzle that help us draw near to God, even when we are staring in the face of our own personal problem of evil.

Perspective Change #1: Asaph Sees the End of Evil 
Asaph’s version of the problem of evil was that evil wasn’t being punished. He couldn’t understand why wicked people prospered while righteous people suffered. But when he meets God he realized that this reality is only temporary. Seeing God reminded Asaph that evil has an end, and that end is destruction.

In Psalm 73:17-20, Asaph spends time dwelling on the end of the evil people he had just described. When it is all said and done, their wickedness will be like the foggy recollection of a dream. All their evil will be forever wiped away.

Asaph saw the oppressive power of wickedness in people, but for many of us, it comes in other forms of suffering. Certainly, devastation is often caused by the selfishness and evil actions of others, but I have been just as hurt watching friends and family suffer through cancer, strokes, Alzheimer’s, and countless other illnesses and diseases. But though the source of the suffering is different, the promise is still the same.

Revelation 21:3-4, provides us a glimpse of this promise. It beckons us to imagine the day when God himself will wipe away every tear from our eyes. Death will no longer exist, and grief, crying, and pain will be no more. The future eradication of all evil is a great hope. It doesn’t mean that our suffering is insignificant, but it does change the way we handle our suffering. Our grief is mingled with hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13), and it is precisely because we know that God is good. Evil may have its day, but God is good, so that day must come to an end.

Perspective Change #2: Asaph Sees His Own Error 
When Asaph judged God in light of his circumstances, he thought, “perhaps God isn’t good.” But when Asaph judged his circumstances in light of God, he realized that it was himself who lacked goodness. Asaph’s second perspective change teaches us how foolish and wicked it is to question the goodness of God.

In Psalm 73:21-22 Asaph explains, “When I became embittered and my innermost being was wounded, I was a fool and didn’t understand. I was an unthinking animal towards you.” We can turn again to Elisabeth Elliot to see the error of judging God.

God is God. I dethrone Him in my heart if I demand that he act in ways that satisfy my idea of justice. It is the same spirit that taunted, “If Thou be the Son of God, come down from the Cross.” There is unbelief, there is even rebellion, in the attitude that says, “God has no right to do this to five men unless”…

Elliot’s rebuke is strong, but important. We cannot question God’s goodness without simultaneously asserting our own goodness as the higher standard. As Jesus reminded the rich young ruler (Matthew 19:17), “there is only One who is good.” It’s not us.

Perspective Change #3: Asaph Sees that God is the Good 
Perhaps the most drastic perspective change is the third. In Psalm 73:25-28 we see that Asaph radically changes his view concerning what good is.

In the first half of this Psalm, Asaph makes it very clear what he thinks good is. Good is all the things the wicked have and he doesn’t. Good is health, food, and money. Before his great change, the good Asaph sought was a secure and happy life. But after he steps into God’s sanctuary, his definition of good changes. Once he meets God, there is no one in heaven and nothing on earth he desires but God. Once he meets God, God is his portion, the only thing that will satisfy him. After he meets God, he concludes, “But as for me, God’s presence is my good” (Psalm 73:28).

The ultimate solution to our problem of evil is not to change our view of evil, but to change our view of good. We relentlessly pursue lesser goods and vilify God when we do not find them. The rapper Shai Linne includes a sample from John Piper to help demonstrate our love for lesser goods.

Would you be satisfied to go to Heaven, have everybody there in your family you want there, have all the health and restoration of your prime, and everything you disliked about yourself fixed, have every recreation you’ve ever dreamed available to you, and have infinite resources and money to spend, would you be satisfied… …IF GOD WEREN’T THERE???

Most of us, if we are honest, will have to admit that our greatest love isn’t God, it’s God’s gifts. We have become infatuated with the lesser goods, and we ignore the greatest good: the Father of lights who gives these goods in the first place (James 1:17).

This is a serious problem, in part, because devastation caused by suffering becomes insurmountable when we are seeking after lesser goods. How can we make up for the loss of the lesser goods, when to us, they are our greatest love. This is why the solution to the problem of evil must include changing our perspective of what is good.

This is the point of Jesus’ parable in Matthew 13:44

The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in the field, which a man found and hid again; and from joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

And this is Paul’s perspective in Philippians 3:8-11

More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith, that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.

The problem of evil, or the problem of suffering, is finally vanquished when, in our hearts, we recognize, not only that God is good, but that he is the good. All other goods pale beside him. To lose everything, but to find Christ, would be an happy trade. This is true, not simply because God is good, but because he is the good.

I have written this post with a single goal; to warn us against questioning the goodness of God. The Christian has no hope in the face of evil without an unwavering commitment to the goodness of God.

However, the truth is, when faced with the reality of suffering in our lives, we often find that our faith in the goodness of God does waver. Like Asaph, like Christopher Hitchens, and like many others, we walk through intense suffering and we wonder, how can a good God allow this? But, though this may be common, it is not healthy. As Asaph remarks, it is a slippery path (Psalm 73:2)

In the midst of suffering, our hope is the same as Asaph’s: we want to experience God. With whatever faith we have left in the goodness of God, we must draw near to him. God is good, and he promises that as we draw near to Him, he will draw near to us (James 4:8). In fact, it is most often in the throws of suffering that we will learn to say, like Asaph;

Who do I have in heaven but You?
And I desire nothing on earth but You.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart, my portion forever…
But as for me, God’s presence is my good… (Psalm 73:25-26, 28)