Why do the unrighteous prosper while the godly suffer?
The question is as weighty today as it was 3,000 years ago. Many have asked it. You know from Scripture and the testimony of others that God is good, but you’ve found yourself in the pit, feeling the excruciating pain of your circumstances. Wondering how God could possibly be good in the midst of them. And it really is a pit — a dark and desperate place to be, leaving you feeling abandoned and alone. So, what do you do when you fall into the darkness of doubt?
Fortunately, we’re not without help in the pit. The Psalms are a treasure trove for how to grapple with the most difficult experiences of living in a sin-saturated world.
When You Are Tempted to Doubt
Psalm 73 begins with a clear statement of God’s character and disposition towards his people: God is good. However, this truth was not always a given for the author; it is a hard-won conclusion that came out of his significant struggle to resolve the tension between the apparent prosperity of the wicked and his personal hardships.
In his own words he says, “My feet had almost stumbled, my steps had nearly slipped. For I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked” (Psalm 73:2–3). His dilemma was no mere theoretical quandary — he experienced it viscerally, concluding that either God was good to his people or he was not. And, if not, then everything he had been taught to believe about God was a lie.
Using Psalm 73 as a model, there are at least three good steps to take when we doubt God’s goodness in the midst of our circumstances.
1. Go to God Honestly
The psalmist is honest with God about his problem, his pain, and his question. He does not shy away from the reality that the wicked people who surround him are better off than he. “They have no pangs until death; their bodies are fat and sleek” (Psalm 73:4).
Although they “scoff and speak with malice,” loftily threaten oppression, and “set their mouths against the heavens,” they are nevertheless “always at ease” while “they increase in riches” (Psalm 73:8–9, 12). But the psalmist has a different life. “All the day long I have been stricken and rebuked every morning.” Therefore, he was tempted to conclude that obeying God was useless: “All in vain have I kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence” (Psalm 73:13–14). These untruths recorded in Scripture teach us to take our honest struggle to God.
The psalmist is no stoic. He does not gloss over pain or downplay the realities of sin and injustice. Rather, he sincerely seeks to understand. He feels appropriately about what he witnesses: the apparent exaltation of those who oppose his Most High God. And, most importantly, his suffering drives him to God with all his thoughts and emotions rather than from him. God knows him. Burying his pain will do no good. He goes to him in honesty.
2. Go to God in Worship
After honestly airing his complaint, the psalmist enters into the sanctuary of God (Psalm 73:17). In other words, the psalmist brings all of his confusion and hurt before God in worship, humility, and adoration. He acknowledges the limits of his ability to reason and understand (Psalm 73:16), so he goes to the one whose ways and thoughts are higher than his own (Isaiah 55:8–9).
And in God’s presence, the psalmist’s perspective is lifted from the immediate and the temporal to the infinite and eternal. God gives him spiritual insight to the true nature of things: while the wicked may enjoy relative peace and prosperity now, their pleasure is but for a moment. God will not be mocked. He will bring judgment. He will do right.
All of us are prone to lose sight of God’s eternal perspective. We so easily forget that we are eternal beings and that life, in its fullest sense, does not end with our last breath on this earth. All of us will spend eternity somewhere — either with God, in whose presence is fullness of joy; or separated from him, where there is only bitter weeping over the absolute absence of God’s goodness. While Satan tries desperately to distract us, we all know these things to be true — God has set eternity in our hearts (Ecclesiastes 3:11).
We, like the psalmist, become envious of the wicked and doubt God’s goodness and faithfulness when they seem to flourish while we flounder. Therefore, we need to go to God in worship. After bringing him your complaint and asking for wisdom, stop, listen, and recall who he is and what he has done.
3. Rest in God’s Power
Who led the psalmist through his valley? God.
When my soul was embittered,
when I was pricked in heart,
I was brutish and ignorant;
I was like a beast toward you.
Nevertheless, I am continually with you;
you hold my right hand.
You guide me with your counsel,
and afterward you will receive me to glory. (Psalm 73:21–24)
God kept him during his dark night of the soul. God was there, holding him by the hand, guiding him with his counsel. God heard his complaint and God granted him the right perspective. The very question and doubts that first threatened the psalmist’s relationship with God, God used to draw him closer to himself.
Make Doubts into Doorways
His renewed affections for God are expressed in the glorious cry, “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Psalm 73:25–26). The man who was once plagued by such deep doubts and nearly renounced his faith became, by God’s gracious keeping power, a bold celebrant of God’s goodness and faithfulness.
Wrestling with God is difficult and painful. By necessity it means you will face hard circumstances that require humbling yourself before God. But when you do — when you struggle and wrestle sincerely and humbly — God is always faithful to give you more of himself in the process. And whenever you get more of God, your soul has reason to rejoice. So, rest in God’s power to turn your doubts into doorways to deeper joy in him.