Sometimes, as you watch the hand of God’s providence draw some picture in your life, the pencil suddenly turns, and what you thought would be a flower turns into a thorn. The unanswered prayer seemed finally heard, the hope deferred seemed at last fulfilled — but no. You reach for the daisy and get pricked, instead, by a thistle.
C.S. Lewis’s marriage to Joy Davidman strikes me in this regard. The couple married later in life, when Joy appeared to be dying of cancer. After a prayer for healing, however, Joy recovered unexpectedly and perhaps miraculously. The love they thought they were losing came back to them, a precious gift, it seemed, from the hand of a healing God.
But soon, the cancer returned with a fury, ending their brief marriage. In the rawness of his grief, Lewis wrote, “A noble hunger, long unsatisfied, met at last its proper food, and almost instantly the food was snatched away” (A Grief Observed, 17–18). Experiences like these can shake the soul. More than a few have lost faith over them. For many others, such moments become a doorway to a darker world, where God seems less good than we once thought. Perhaps, in our more desperate moments, we can even think him cruel.
Many who enter that world never find their way back. They walk under deepening shadows of disillusionment, far from the broad fields and bright sun of their former childlike faith. Some, however, do find their way back. We meet such a soul in Psalm 73.
Much of Psalm 73 takes place in the dark world. Asaph, the psalmist, finds himself disillusioned with the spiritual life. He sees God-haters prancing over the earth — wealthy, comfortable, fat. No matter that they strut through Jerusalem like gods and defy the very heavens (Psalm 73:3–11). “Always at ease, they increase in riches” (Psalm 73:12).
Meanwhile, the godly Asaph suffers unseen and unrewarded. For his obedience, he gets affliction; for his devotion, rebuke (Psalm 73:14). Eventually, he looks round at his prayers, his songs, his years of faithfulness, and with a sweeping hand says, “All in vain” (Psalm 73:13). His hopes dead, he enters the shadow world.
When our own hopes are deferred (again), we can easily justify our bitterness and spiritual apathy. Without much effort, we can cast ourselves as innocent sufferers under the heavy hand of God’s providence, our frustration toward heaven understandable. Asaph, however, looking back at himself from the other side of the doorway, sees something different: “I was like a beast toward you” (Psalm 73:22).
For those who have returned from the dark world, Asaph’s words will not seem too blunt. I, for one, can still remember the soul gnawings and heart snarlings of my once-jaded soul. Our grief in painful providences can quickly turn jagged, and our laments become a growl, whether silent or spoken. Bitterness can make the soul turn beastly — and beastly it will remain until (to use some imagery from Lewis’s Voyage of the Dawn Treader) God undragons us.
By psalm’s end, Asaph has walked back to the bright world, where he once again sings like a hope-filled child:
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)
Asaph reemerges in a world where God is good once again, where heaven and earth have nothing greater to give than him. Let affliction slay him, let rebukes strike him, let every hope remain deferred — God will be the strength of his heart and his abundant portion. The beast has become a man.
The undragoning happened, in part, as Asaph “went into the sanctuary of God” and “discerned [the] end” of “those who are far from you” (Psalm 73:17, 27). But he also discerned something better: “Nevertheless, I am continually with you” (Psalm 73:23). Here is the answer to his animal-like agitation, an answer so simple we may miss its power to tame. Consider, then, how Asaph unfolds the answer in three images, and how they might meet us in our own beastliness.
‘You hold my right hand.’
The real danger of a world gone dark is not the pain we feel there, nor even the perplexing dissonance those feelings bring, but the sense of God’s absence. The first half of Psalm 73 is a world without God — at least without a God who is near and good. But by verse 15, Asaph’s more or less godless ruminations give way to “you,” the God who “[holds] my right hand” (Psalm 73:23). In walking back through the doorway of disillusionment, he has entered his Father’s house.
Can you remember the sense of desolation when, as a child, you lost sight of your father in a sea of people? And can you recall the warm relief — almost worth crying over — when his familiar hand found yours? Something similar happens when, in the quiet of your own bedroom, or car, or backyard, your swirling thoughts calm, your embittered soul breathes, and you find grace to slowly say to God, “Nevertheless, I am continually with you; you hold my right hand.”
Nothing has changed in your circumstances; your troubles may still pain and perplex you. But somehow, your stumbling feet find their footing. Your afflictions fall into a broader perspective. Your bitterness shakes off like so many scales. And under the hand of God, your heart becomes undragoned.
‘You guide me with your counsel.’
We are not left alone in this world, however perplexed we feel. Nor are we left directionless. We have not only a God, but a guide; not only a Presence, but a path. He grips our hand to assure us of his nearness, and also to lead us home through this bewildering wilderness. “You guide me with your counsel” (Psalm 73:24).
The “counsel” of God, his written Scriptures, do not tell us all we would like to know — not by far. We don’t know why a seemingly miraculous recovery should dissolve into death. We don’t know why a relationship on the brink of restoration should crumble. We don’t know why the heart of a loved one, so close to repentance, should suddenly harden. But reaching home does not depend on knowing the mysteries God has hidden but on receiving the counsel he has revealed.
And he does not guide us as one who has never walked the path himself. Gethsemane pressed and perplexed our Lord Jesus to the point of sweating blood and praying for an exit. No one was faced with a more bitter providence; no one had more reason to grow bitter and forsake God’s counsel. Yet no one’s life showed more brilliantly that following God’s counsel will never put us to shame. For the dark tomb is now empty.
We are children here, and the why of our Father’s will often eludes us. But his counsel does not. So while the beastly follow their own instincts, God’s children say, “I will follow your counsel as long as night lasts — and even if the dawn never breaks in this life.”
‘Afterward you will receive me to glory.’
The day is coming when the holding hand will become a beholding face, and the winding path a stable home. There is an afterward to the unanswered questions and open loops of this life. And in that afterward, “you will receive me to glory” (Psalm 73:24).
Knowing the afterward changed everything for Asaph. He no longer envied the prosperous wicked when he “discerned their end” (Psalm 73:17) — and he no longer pitied himself when he discerned his. Affliction may tarry for the night, but glory comes in the morning. So too with us. If we know that we are headed to the bright world, where no more questions gnaw and no more tears run down our cheeks (Revelation 21:4), then the sharpest edge of our suffering is blunted.
In the present, we often have need to say with Paul, “We are . . . perplexed” (2 Corinthians 4:8). But in the coming afterward, the spiritual dissonance of this age will resolve into a harmony beyond imagination, as the hand that held us and led us all life long receives us into the door of his home, beyond all doubt and danger.
End of Darkened Roads
At one point in Lewis’s grief, he asks whether he has been treating God as his goal or as his road. Has he walked along every good gift like a path leading to God, or has he tried to walk along God as a path leading to some other place? Lewis goes on to say, “He can’t be used as a road. If you are approaching him not as the goal but as a road, not as the end but as a means, you’re not really approaching him at all” (A Grief Observed, 68).
Often, our own undragoning happens when we, like Asaph, freshly embrace God as goal, not road — or perhaps better, as both goal and road. Our great need is not to unravel the apparent knots in God’s providence, as if mere answers could tame the beast within. What we need, now and forever, is a hand upon the mane, a whispered presence to calm us. For God himself is both way and end, path and home, presence here and portion forever.