Have you ever been “broke, busted, and disgusted,” wondering where God was, and found yourself despising a well-off person you were certain didn’t care anything about God? Did you sizzle? Rant? Curse? I imagine there are many reasonable Christians who’ve wrestled with these feelings—and taken it out on God. I’ve been there. It’s comforting to know that the scripture writers have, too.
It’s a question asked throughout the Bible, especially in the Prophets, and by do-gooders everywhere: why do the wicked prosper? What is more interesting is God’s answer to the question. But before we get to his response, I need to provoke a discussion. *toothy grin*
This one calls for getting to the heart of why we feel the way we do about the issue. I know what a shoestring budget feels like standing in the grocery line with my bare necessities watching some thug/some white collar highbrow/some self-righteous prude lay all their goodies and spirits on the checkout, me thinking, I’m trying to live for you and I’m just getting by! Judgmental perhaps, but if you’ve been there, can I get an ‘Amen’?
God, You Owe Me!
We have to ask ourselves “Does godliness merit ease and prosperity?” On the one hand we have a God who promises, “All these blessings shall overtake you if…” and on the other he acknowledges, “Many are the afflictions of the righteous…” Might our real problem with the wicked prospering be that we feel God owes us for serving him? That we should be treated better…look like his children, yet the wicked appear more like what his children should be?
Jeremiah in his twelfth chapter and Asaph in Psalm 73 both deal with this topic. Jeremiah laments, “Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all the faithless live at ease?…You are always on their lips but far from their hearts” (12:1-2). One thing we see from Jeremiah’s complaint was that God’s bounty was in the land but was being circumvented by the powerful and greedy, leaving the rich to grow richer and the poor poorer (v. 4). It’s understandable to be angry about these conditions.
God’s reply to Jeremiah is a noted verse in the book—“If you have raced with people on foot and they have worn you out, how can you compete with horses?” (v. 5). God told Jeremiah that his issue was a small and ordinary concern, while the real problem was the moral darkness in the land that was incurring great judgment.
A ‘small and ordinary concern’…
I pause here to be fair. We should not grossly assume that because a person is not devout or is perhaps agnostic or atheist that they are somehow undeserving of good things, and, for that matter, incapable of generosity. The larger point is that wealthy “wicked” people have not necessarily gained their prosperity by being wicked and criminal any more than some Christians have earned a life of poverty by their godliness. Instead, they have worked hard for what they own and deserve any wealth they have. Moreover, honest and diligent work is all of our responsibility, and everyone can be wealthy. This is a clue that, in God’s mind, the issue is not about money.
Matters of the Heart
Asaph shows us the rest of the picture. “Surely God is good to Israel,” he says, “to those who are pure in heart. But as for me, my feet had almost slipped” (73:1-2). What an admission! He rants for half the chapter until despairingly stating the same sentiments I’ve made in the grocery line: “Surely in vain have I kept my heart pure…all day long I have been afflicted and every morning brings new punishments” (vs. 13-14).
But then the dawn of an answer breaks through:
“When I tried to understand all this, it troubled me deeply till I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny. Surely you place them on slippery ground; you cast them down to ruin. How suddenly they are destroyed, completely swept away by terrors!” (vs. 16-18).
Asaph only alludes to the real discovery, and what he realizes is the same message God was trying to get through to Jeremiah. The issue is not wealth but the condition of the heart. The “slippery ground” Asaph refers to explains it: money allows the desires and inhibitions of our hearts to easily surface.
Reading the demise Asaph describes for the wicked is nothing to rejoice about. It is very sad. He shows us a person who has gotten carried away by his or her desires. If the test of struggle is to survive the dearth, then the test of plenty is also to survive by not being drowned by fortune—or drowned in covetousness, pride and greed, power and control, vice and criminality.
Money doesn’t have a heart; people do—and people create crime and unfairness and the imbalance of justice. Thus, why the wicked prosper is manifold, from industriousness to unlawful dealings, but this is not the real issue. What we should hate is not the wicked with money but their state and be very sad about it and the judgment and sorrow their actions work to bring down upon them and a people.