When I Have Doubts

Explore the Bible Series

October 25, 2009


Background Passage: Psalm 73:1-28

Lesson Passage: Psalm 73:1-28




More than twenty-years ago, a dear friend gave me a book of sermons by Dr. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, on Psalm Seventy-Three.  The book remains one of my most cherished possessions, and I re-read it occasionally for my own encouragement and edification.  The sermons provide a rich resource for reflection, and I encourage all of my readers to find a used copy (out of print) for your library.  However, I have some concerns about a few passages in the work.  In particular, the Doctor claims that Christians sin when they give expression to their doubts.  The believer, according to Lloyd-Jones, must always put forward a positive countenance, no matter what doubts may trouble the soul.  With all respect to the Doctor (I mean this—not just a rhetorical device), I have a different take on this matter.


First, this Psalm seems to challenge Lloyd-Jones’s idea.  This hymn gives clear, unmistakable expression to the doubts that troubled Asaph. I appreciate the author’s candor concerning questions that nearly made him stumble.  In fact, the expression of these doubts helped bring healing to Asaph, and, no doubt, have comforted millions of Jews and Christians who have read these words for three millennia.  Frankly, this Psalm feels like something I could have written.  Please understand, I do not mean that I have the skill or inspiration of Asaph, but I do understand his feelings and experience.


Second, I find other expressions of doubt in the Scriptures, doubts experienced by great men and women of God.  John the Baptist, for instance, comes to mind.  During his imprisonment, John must have experienced some reservations about the Lord Jesus (See Matthew 11:1-6).  Did John sin because, in the midst of his trial, he had some sobering questions about the identity of Jesus?  I think not.  Also, consider Job.  For the better part of the striking poetry in the Book of Job, this remarkable man, reeling from catastrophic losses, gave profound expression to his sufferings and doubt.  Some of God’s people have lived in very dark places; yet, they have continued to seek the Lord throughout the darkness. 


Third, I don’t understand the “positive-only” emphasis of some Christians.  Life is a chorus of bright lyric and heart-breaking lament.  As this Psalm demonstrates, the worship of the Lord and the fellowship of the saints demands honesty and transparency about our common experiences as the people of God.  Do we really want to perpetuate the plastic, pep-rally, rock concert tenor of much that passes for the worship of God?  I’m sorry, but this seems phony to me, and I prefer a more realistic approach to the Christian life.  Doubts arise from the realization of the complexities of human life.  Children may entertain rosy outlooks because of their incapacity for complex understanding; but maturity fosters more thorny and confounding reflections on human experience.  Faith is not the absence of doubt; rather, it is perseverance in the presence of doubt. 


Over the last few years, I have given much thought to the nature of doubt, and, with your indulgence, this introduction will provide a little reflection on this important topic.  Doubts, it seems, fall into several categories.


  1. Intellectual Issues: Some doubts revolve around genuine concerns about the message of the Bible.  Thoughtful Christians often struggle with issues of cosmology, biology, and psychology. Particularly prickly, the problem of evil (and suffering) poses serious questions about the Christian world-view.  In my judgment, Christian should respect the honest questions raised by non-believers, on these matters. 
  2. The Inspiration of the Bible:  As a child and young man, I held a woefully inadequate view of the Bible, and adapting my convictions, over time, has proved very painful and distressing.  Reading Scripture requires a great deal of believers.  Among other challenges, it demands belief in things no reasonable person would accept, apart from divine revelation.  Also, the intersection of human and divine elements of the Bible makes for some difficult icebergs to navigate.  The Bible, as I see it, is reflective of incarnational theology; that is, it weds the human and divine in mysterious ways, ways that make the gospel intelligible, but remain faithful to the concept of the preeminence and mysteries of God.
  3. Acute and Chronic Trials:  As stated before, Christians must face honestly the problem of suffering.  God’s people do not get a pass from intense affliction.  These hardships may come suddenly and without warning, inundating the sufferer in a torrent of anguish and confusion.  Other trials become chronic; that is, they wear down the resolve and resilience of the sufferer.  Like our ancient brother Job, catastrophic pain may engender grievous seasons of doubt and shake Christians to the core.
  4. Emotional Trauma:  During the last several years I have encountered many people who have been traumatized by unfortunate church experiences, and I have great empathy for those who question the faith because of disillusionment with folks who profess Christianity.  Sometimes this injury arises from the apparent prosperity and success of those who mistreat the humble and meek.  Why doesn’t God do something about these cruel and oppressive people?  This is, of course, the very question that Asaph raised in Psalm Seventy-Three. This Old Testament saint could not understand the prosperity of his enemies, despite their ungodly conduct.  Moreover, he wondered why his life proved so difficult.  Hardships met him at every turn, hardships the author interpreted as the chastening hand of God.  He wondered why such difficulties attend the way of the innocent.


This brief list needs augmentation, but at least it might suggest some themes vital to a meaningful discussion of doubt.  I take some comfort in a story recorded in the Gospel of Mark 9:17-27.  After Jesus and the Inner Circle (Peter, James, and John) descended from the Mount of Transfiguration, the crowds immediately confronted Jesus with the difficult case of an afflicted boy (the text observes that a spirit caused the symptoms).  The child suffered horribly from his affliction: seizures, foaming at the mouth, and an inability to speak.  The lad’s poor father pleaded with Jesus to have compassion on the suffering child (The plea, clearly, included the understanding that Jesus might heal this boy).  Jesus informed the father that, “…all things are possible to those who believe.”  Then, the dear father cried out, “Lord, I believe, but help my unbelief.”  Notice that Jesus did not scold the poor struggling man; rather, he healed the boy. That father’s prayer has become mine. 



Lesson Outline:


I.        Asaph’s Dilemma (vv. 1-3)

A.     Asaph’s theological understanding (v. 1): From the outset, Asaph affirmed the principle upon which he had based his life, “Truly God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart.”  His confidence in the God’s justice and righteous formed the foundation stone of the psalmist’s world view; however, trying circumstances caused Asaph to question his foundational beliefs.  God’s goodness seemed incongruous with Asaph’s experience.

B.     “my feet had almost stumbled, my steps had nearly slipped” (v. 2):  The phrase “as for me” indicates Asaph’s awareness that he had questioned the foundational conviction that God is good.  The Bible often employs the imagery of a journey to symbolize the experiences of God’s people, and Christian writers, since the conclusion of the canon, have used this analogy as well (See Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, for example).  Asaph saw himself as a pilgrim, a sojourner who nearly slipped and stumbled from his path. 

C.     “for I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked” (v. 3): In this verse Asaph summarized his problem.  The apparent incongruity between his theology (God’s goodness) and his observations concerning the prosperity of the ungodly. 


II.     The Source of Asaph’s Envy (vv. 4-12): This paragraph catalogs the character of those who troubled Asaph.

A.     “for they have no pangs until death, their bodies are fat and sleek” (vv. 4-5): The ungodly are healthy and well-nourished. This verse affirms the prosperity and comfort of these wealthy, oppressive people.  They suffer no want.  The imagery indicates that they live extravagantly, even in the presence of their needy countrymen.  Furthermore, they seemed to live trouble free, unaffected by sufferings that commonly afflicted others.

B.     “pride is their necklace, violence covers them as a garment” (v.6):  These men adorn themselves with pride and violence, and, like conceited rich people, they wear their violence like luxuriant apparel. 

C.     “their eyes swell out through fatness, their hearts overflow with follies” (v. 7): Their bloated faces were emblematic of extravagant, indulgent life.  Their hearts overflowed with folly, vain malice.

D.     “They scoff and speak with malice; loftily they threaten oppression” (v. 8): Again, the psalmist described the prideful, oppressive spirit of those who made Asaph stumble.  These ungodly men cared nothing for the people they mistreated, and they used their position in society to conspire against the defenseless.

E.      “they set their mouths against the heavens” (vv. 9-12): The transgressions of these men culminated in blaspheme, another expression of their prideful hearts.  They also possessed a personal charisma that attracted the admiration of the people.  I have observed this kind of phenomenon before.  Scandalous men often gain a following from the very people they oppress, and the naïve give their hearts to the influence of the rich and powerful.  Above all, these ungodly men denigrate the glory of God.  In this context, Asaph highlighted their claims that God did not see their oppressive and shameful actions, and the psalmist could not understand why God did not do something about this disgraceful state of affairs. 


III.             Asaph’s Struggle with God (vv. 13-16): In this section, we come to the crux of Asaph’s problem.  He had lived a godly life; yet, he struggled with hardships and chastening.  In contrast to the prosperous, the psalmist’s experience seemed a ceaseless chain of heartbreak, and he could not understand the silence of heaven in the face of his sufferings.

A.     “in vain I have kept my heart clean” (v. 13b): Asaph complained, during his season of doubt, that he had wasted his life in the service of God.  He had labored to foster a pure heart, but what had his efforts produced? 

B.     “and washed my hands in innocence” (v. 13b): Not only had Asaph preserved a clean heart, but his conduct had remained blameless as well.

C.     “for all day long I have been stricken and rebuked every morning” (v. 14): This godly man felt that God had turned against him, that he was under a kind of divine curse—stricken and rebuked.  Furthermore, the rebuke of God, for Asaph, seemed relentless; that is, he was rebuked every morning.  The dawn of every day seemed to add to his distress. 

D.     “if I had said, ‘I will speak thus, I would have betrayed the generation of your children’” (v. 15): This is a difficult verse to translate.  It seems to indicate the struggling believer does need to exercise care in expressing his doubts.  Perhaps the reference to children suggests those who are young and impressionable.  Asaph, while remaining straightforward and honest about his struggles, did not want to make other people stumble.

E.      “but when I thought how to understand this, it seemed to me a wearisome task” (v. 16): These doubts troubled Asaph’s mind constantly.  The persistent struggle drained him of spiritual energy.


IV.   The Resolution of Asaph’s Dilemma (vv. 17-28)

A.      “then I discerned their end” (vv. 17-20):  As Asaph worshipped with the Lord’s people, he came to a realization about the ungodly men he envied.  The story of his life had not been completed, and the final chapter had not been written for the ungodly. 

1.      “you have set them in slippery places; you make them fall to ruin” (v. 18): Asaph began this Psalm with a statement about his own liability to slip and stumble, but he finally understood that the prideful people were the ones most in danger of falling.

2.      “how they are destroyed in a moment, swept away by terrors” (v. 19): Their destruction will come swiftly and unexpectedly, swept away by the torrent of God’s judgment.

3.      “like a dream when one awakes… you despise them as phantoms” (v. 20): One day, Asaph would look back on these experiences like a bad dream.  The prosperity of the wicked will prove transitory, like a phantom.

B.     Asaph’s confession of his weakness (vv. 21-22)

1.      “my soul was embittered” (v. 21a): “Embittered” translates a word that means to boil.  His heart churned and roiled, tossed with distressing thoughts about God apparent indifference to his anguish.

2.      “I was pricked in my heart” (v. 21b): Asaph used the Hebrew word for “kidneys” to describe the penetrating pain of his experience, a pain that affected him viscerally.

3.      “I was brutish and ignorant; I was like a beast before you” (v. 22): Asaph lamented that he had become like a beast: ignorant, insensitive to the things of God, incapable of spiritual discernment.

C.     Asaph’s consolation (vv. 23-28)

1.      “I am continually with you; you hold my right hand” (v. 23): Like a small child, Asaph consoled himself in the presence of the Lord.  I think, at this point, of my experiences as a father.  Often, the girls would wander away from their parents, especially in crowded, public places.  They would, for a moment, lose awareness of dad’s presence, but they were never out of my sight. 

2.      “you guide me with your counsel” (v. 24a): Surely Asaph must have had the Torah in mind as he reflected on the Lord’s guidance.  We, of course, have a more complete guide embodied in the fullness of the Scriptures.

3.      “and afterward you will receive me to glory” (v. 24b): The Old Testament does not reveal a full, elaborate theology of heaven, but in verses like this we have some glimmer of the afterlife.  Even death would not break the relationship between the saints and the Lord.

4.      “whom have I in heaven besides you? (vv. 25-26): Again, the psalmist had some measure of understanding about the abode of God, and he anticipated that the Lord would be his inheritance.

5.      “those who are far from you will perish” (v. 27): Asaph foresaw the display of the justice of God.  In the Lord’s time, all would be set right.

6.      “it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord God my refuge” (v. 28): In conclusion, Asaph expressed his renewed confidence in Jehovah.  He once again enjoyed an awareness of the Lord’s presence, and the psalmist took refuge in the righteousness and compassion of Jehovah.  He closed this Psalm with a vow to proclaim the Lord’s goodness, and this Psalm serves as evidence that he kept his promise to the Lord.