Why Do the Wicked Prosper?

CC BY-NC, Steve Corey, Flickr

CC BY-NC, Steve Corey, Flickr

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.

Also on this blog regarding this topic: The Perils of Covetousness, Living with Simplicity, and The Disciple Who Never Was.

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Coupons and Discounted People

CC BY-NC, SamPac, Flickr

CC BY-NC, SamPac, Flickr

My first real job was at a drugstore during my high school years. It was formative for me in many ways, but there is a small, simple lesson I learned there that I want to share with you.

People were always eager for weekly sales, and some items required a coupon to receive the discounted price. But when shoppers didn’t have the required coupon, I would have to deny them their deal because the clipping was…policy (queue music: duhn, Duhn, DUHNN!)

Of course, they hated it and soon I hated it, too—their dissatisfaction and appeals for the manager. But the lesson became bigger than a mere bottle of shampoo or 12-pack of Coke. It was about people…everywhere, particularly the disenfranchised.

The coupon incident let me see a larger group of folk with a host of needs who find themselves in a big business nation that often turns them away with not much more than a Sorry-that’s-policy attitude.

Do you tire of news stories about people going bankrupt and losing their homes because they get sick? I’m shocked that the top tenth of the top one percent of rich Americans control half of the entire nation’s wealth. And I’m beyond maxed with the cavalcade of contests and reality shows that lure and exploit people in the name of money and status.

Those missing coupons did something for me. They sharpened my vision of hurting people, not any wealth I might chance to have. They taught me that if you wish to help others, just do it—don’t make them jump through hoops for what you can freely and simply offer them. Be good to people and make life easier for them with your capital, not always for it.

This approach will also put an end to fundamental but needless questions, like “Do successful people have an obligation to give back?” and “Should athletes be role models?” Those questions always miss the point. Giving back is not a burden; it’s a privilege.

There’s enough wealth in America for each of us to live comfortably as middle-class citizens, but there is little hope of the people who most need that wealth ever seeing it. Moreover, our systems are broken. But what can happen within each of us is sensitivity to other’s needs and the compassion that motivates us to give of ourselves and our substance, expecting nothing in return.

Living for the Dream

"Moses Breaking the Tablets of the Law" by Rembrandt (1659), PD, Wikimedia

“Moses Breaking the Tablets of the Law” by Rembrandt (1659), PD, Wikimedia

The Word of God is unique. It was written throughout many generations and in different cultures. Although shaped by these cultures, it stands apart from culture itself to express divine truth. In the same way, God’s truth should always be speaking to the culture and the people of the culture, influencing them and not vice versa.

It is seriously important that preaching today becomes increasingly biblical—and I hope this sounds as curious as it is strange to say; but indeed more biblical, or given earnestly to teaching the text, simply because a reversal is occurring and leading to the tainting of God’s truth.

A quick observance here: When preaching is less than biblical, it may be contaminated by a number of non-essentials, such as the preacher’s opinions and talking points, new renditions of scripture, intellectualism, and hype, among others. But there is one that has done a marvelous job creeping into the American pulpit. It is the danger of the self-help gospel.

A Dream on the Throne

Self-help is achievement by means of self-reliance through methods (sometimes psychological) or systems. The possible achievements are many and various, as are the methods. Self-help is also easy and of varying worth: Anyone can be an expert and write a book and pique the interest of one’s inferiority. The number of self-help books available for purchase online today is plethora. We seem to be a nation of people with many small reasons not to like themselves.

Now the self-help gospel I’ve too often witnessed in many pulpits, in-person and on television, goes something like this: “Don’t let your dreams die” “God can make your dreams come true” “Dream a dream that only God can make happen.” Dream! Dream! Dream! What is this? I’m not certain how we have missed the goal of Christ and taking up our cross and replaced that with our destiny and dreams, but it is gross error and the Spirit of God is calling us back to our senses.

I fear that the church in America has confused spiritual faith and optimism with capitalism and the American Dream that both emphasize personal achievement and worth and to which nothing is seemingly impossible. But these may stand in direct opposition to the principles of the Word of God that constantly instruct us to lose ourselves and empty out rather than laying up earthly treasure, whether natural or emotional.

Paul and the End of a Dream

Christ and his purpose for our lives is the final word for Christians. What we will surely learn is that sometimes God’s “dream” for us, or his purpose, is not always the path we would so readily choose, although it will be the one that brings us greatest joy and spiritual achievement. We should recall that the Lord sent Ananias to convert Saul of Tarsus with the words, “I will show him how much he must suffer for my name” (Acts 9:16), something the former persecutor himself might have quickly fled if it had been told to him. Yet today we count Paul among the greatest of Christians who ever lived and his joy in Christ was undeniable.

I use the apostle Paul as a good example of this matter. In Philippians 3:4-14, Paul speaks of the achievements of his own life regarding his religious zeal. He starts by saying, “Yet if anyone ever had reason to hope that he could save himself, it would be I. If others could be saved by what they are, certainly I could!” (v. 4, LB).

He further elaborates how he was properly initiated as a Jewish baby into a pureblooded home. He emphasizes that he was blameless in his adherence to law and custom and zealous, going as far as persecuting the young church. His crowning achievement was being a Pharisee, part of the group of strictest adherents to Jewish law and policy. We also know from Acts 22:3 that he was taught by the renowned doctor of Jewish law, Gamaliel.

Saul, based on his accomplishments, had before him a life of honor and wealth considering the high official posts to which he could have risen. There are no indications that he led anything less than a discreet moral life. As a young man—and probably an ambitious one—he had a good life ahead of him, and the scandalous Jesus religion was one thing that could bring it all crashing down around him.

Then he says, “But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ” (v. 7). Here is a man who explains his life lived by the rules and at the pinnacle of the ladder of success that any religious Jew of his day would have envied; and, for our understanding, here is a man who possessed the “dream” and, in significant ways, as best a dream as could be had in Israel before his conversion to Christ. Paul is informing us that he considered his life well-ordered and pleasing to God.

In his next breath, however, he explains that, in retrospect, all he possessed miserably failed in comparison to the effect Christ produced in him. “Whatever were gains to me”—all that was to his advantage, all he could embrace, all that made his heart happy and fat, all that stroked his ego—these things, in the light of Christ, became rubbish or refuse. In fact, the connotation is of animal innards that were to be discarded.

Paul continues: “Now I have given up everything else—I have found it to be the only way to really know Christ and to experience the mighty power that brought him back to life again, and to find out what it means to suffer and to die with him” (v. 10, LB). Paul would have had to choose Christ and, therefore, walk away from the life of distinction within his grasp. So, if dispossession is part of the road to transforming relationship with Christ, how have we formed a message of dream, destiny, and more?

First Things First

I do not mean to say that we may not seek to attend college and make a good living ourselves. It doesn’t mean that we cannot have ambition and desire to be the best at what we do. I’m not saying that the desire to be wealthy is necessarily wrong. We should be exemplary persons and exemplary Christian persons. How much more God can use us for the kingdom as accomplished individuals.

But if these things in any way replace a consuming passion for God and to serve him in everything we do, as well as a quick response to let it all go should he prompt us to do so, we may be living contrary to his will. The least that could be said is that our lives do not find full satisfaction in God.

“I strain to reach the end of the race and receive the prize for which God is calling us up to heaven because of what Christ Jesus did for us” (v. 14, LB). Such a reward has nothing to do with my ambition or merits and everything to do with identifying with his suffering and winning the crown of life. My dreams don’t matter and are best kept as servants in the relationship I share with God. In fact, we chance to make them idols if our hearts do not fully embrace Christ.

Gaining Proper Perspective

Moreover, if a man who had every advantage both before and after turning to Jesus can regard all his righteousness as filthiness relative to his spiritual knowledge, our need for newer and bigger advantages for God to bless and be shown as his favor upon us is counterintuitive. It is amazing that we can bend the scriptures to be so superficial about what we can expect from God.

This is not God’s favor to us; it is our self-aggrandizement in God’s name. Jesus is enough. God’s purpose is enough. The glory of God is enough. But we haven’t sat in his presence long enough to get the revelation—and an explosive revelation it is. This is a life unto death joyfully strode. We give all for a loving and great Savior. We take on his cross and follow where he leads, not where we wish to go. Will we like Saul need to be thrown from our beasts to get the picture?

This dream is not gospel preaching but calling on God to bless our striving and sometimes vanity. If we’re going to be driven in our careers and life aspirations, fine. Let us be that to the glory of God and serve God with all we possess. But let us not preach its pursuit and advantage as the necessary will of God and definitely not the Word of God because it is not and would not be in the way we Americans think of it, lest it produces in even third world countries as richly as it might here in the ‘land of opportunity’; and we cannot see that happening as easily.

So until it does such preaching is a travesty of the pulpit and disregard for the true Word of God.