When Doubt Eclipses Faith

Learning to Fight for Spiritual Sight

In story after story, book after book, the Bible reminds us that no one is immune from deep, disorienting spiritual wrestlings. It’s a testament to the Bible’s unvarnished honesty, a reason we find it intuitively trustworthy, that it records the most earnest pursuers of God — the most prayerful, the most diligent, the most theologically educated — experiencing extended seasons of spiritual darkness, disturbing doubts, and even faith crises.

One of my favorite examples is Asaph. If you’re familiar with the Psalms, you likely recognize him, since he’s named as the composer of Psalms 50 and 73–83.

But Asaph was far more than a poet. He was among the most prominent spiritual leaders of his day. King David appointed him as one of the three chief Levitical worship leaders to oversee all the vocal and instrumental aspects of the tabernacle ministry (1 Chronicles 6:31–46; 15:16–17). Which meant Asaph was immersed in all that related to the worship of God. He carried significant responsibilities and was a well-known public spiritual leader.

And he had a profound struggle with doubt. He almost lost his hope in God. As a poet, he captured his struggle, and what delivered him, in verse. We know it as Psalm 73.

God Is Good to the Pure in Heart

Asaph was highly literate and well-educated. In his day, few would have had a deeper knowledge of the extant Hebrew Scriptures. And as a chief singer in an oral culture, he would have had most, if not all, of Israel’s corporate worship songs memorized. Therefore, he would have known:

  • from the song of Moses that God’s “work is perfect, for all his ways are justice” (Deuteronomy 32:4);
  • from the song of Hannah that God “will guard the feet of his faithful ones, but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness” (1 Samuel 2:9); and
  • from the songs of his king and friend, David, that “the Lord works righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed” (Psalm 103:6), and “the Lord loves justice; he will not forsake his saints. . . . But the children of the wicked shall be cut off” (Psalm 37:28).

Such descriptions of God’s character were foundational to Israel’s (and therefore Asaph’s) understanding of God. The great stories from Israel’s history reinforced the belief that “truly God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart” (Psalm 73:1), for he “lifts up the humble; [but] he casts the wicked to the ground” (Psalm 147:6).

Foundation Begins to Crumble

However, even as Asaph led others in celebrating these foundational beliefs, his personal foundation was crumbling. He could feel his spiritual feet slipping (Psalm 73:2). Because as he sang of God’s goodness and justice, he also “saw the prosperity of the wicked,” which seemed to tell a different story (Psalm 73:3).

Given Asaph’s mature age and education, and the kind of reflection his vocation required, this issue wouldn’t have been new to him. But sometimes, due to a confluence of factors, our perspective on reality changes. Questions that didn’t trouble us before, or perhaps only mildly, now greatly disturb us. Seen in this different light, they seem to threaten our foundational beliefs about God. Doubt sets in, and we begin to feel our spiritual feet slipping. Having endured and observed faith crises myself, I’d wager Asaph experienced something like this.

As one who led thousands in singing about how much the Lord loved justice and defended the oppressed, Asaph now found it deeply disturbing that the wicked appeared to live such blessed lives. They weren’t afflicted by disease, had plenty to eat, were free from the anxieties weighing on most people, and saw their wealth increase (Psalm 73:4–7, 12). Besides that, they were cruel, proud, and blasphemous, all with apparent impunity from God’s judgment. And since God didn’t seem to notice or care, everyone else pandered to them (Psalm 73:8–11).

Cynicism Sets In

Asaph, meanwhile, had faithfully “washed [his] hands in innocence,” and what was his reward? He’d been “stricken” all day long “and rebuked every morning” (Psalm 73:13–14). The incongruence didn’t make sense. Where was the lifting up of the humble and the casting down of the wicked? His trust and hope in God’s promises were ebbing, and bitter cynicism was flowing.

“No one is immune from deep, disorienting spiritual wrestlings.”

He wasn’t talking much to others about this struggle for understandable reasons. In his influential position, he could betray the trust of the friends and ministry comrades he loved dearly, and he could potentially damage the faith of the saints he was charged to lead (Psalm 73:15). But inside, he envied the wicked and thought, “All in vain have I kept my heart clean” (Psalm 73:3, 13).

Asaph’s faith was in crisis. And wrestling with his questions and doubts, especially in the context of his visible, public ministry, increasingly felt like “a wearisome task” (Psalm 73:16).

Sight in the Sanctuary

But something happened to Asaph that transformed his doubt-filled cynicism back to faith-filled hope. He didn’t see God finally lift up his humble saints and cast down the proud and wicked. Instead, he once again saw something that changed his perspective on reality, this time during an extraordinary experience he had when he “went into the sanctuary of God” (Psalm 73:17).

Asaph didn’t record the specifics of what occurred, but it’s clear he experienced a transformational moment of encounter. Not unlike the two discouraged, doubting disciples who ignorantly walked with Jesus toward Emmaus until suddenly they saw him (Luke 24:13–35), discouraged, doubting Asaph suddenly saw something that changed everything.

The living and active word of God pierced into his depths and addressed his innermost thoughts (Hebrews 4:12). He encountered the Truth and the Life who gave him the sight of faith that healed his blindness (John 9:39). And the enlightened eyes of his heart told him a different story (Ephesians 1:18).

Suddenly, Asaph saw the wicked he had envied, whose sin appeared to yield such blessings, and he “discerned their end” (Psalm 73:17), the terrible end of “everyone who is unfaithful to [God]” (Psalm 73:27):

Truly you set them in slippery places;
     you make them fall to ruin.
How they are destroyed in a moment,
     swept away utterly by terrors!
Like a dream when one awakes,
     O Lord, when you rouse yourself, you despise them as phantoms. (Psalm 73:18–20)

And he saw the life God had given him, including the strikes and rebukes that appeared to yield such privations, and discerned his end, the glorious end of everyone who is faithful to God:

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 73:23–24)

Now Asaph saw that God truly is good to the pure in heart; he really will “guard the feet of his faithful ones, but the wicked [he will] cut off in darkness” (1 Samuel 2:9). But when he had sought to discern this reality from what he could observe in this life only, he was blind to it. Perceiving it required looking through the lens of eternity.

Revived Worship

Asaph’s transformed or restored perspective helped him make sense again of what had disturbed him. It also revealed how “brutish and ignorant” he had been in his bitter unbelief (Psalm 73:21–22). And as his revived hope flowed, and his cynicism ebbed away, this chief worship leader worshiped:

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)

In that powerful moment in the sanctuary of God, God again became Asaph’s sanctuary.

For me it is good to be near God;
     I have made the Lord God my refuge,
     that I may tell of all your works. (Psalm 73:28)

Three Gifts from Asaph

In composing this remarkable psalm (under the Holy Spirit’s inspiration), Asaph gave us a wonderful gift. First, in humbly exposing his personal faith crisis, especially as a prominent, public spiritual leader, he helps us see that no one is immune to significant struggles with doubt.

“Hoping in God in this life only just leads to losing hope in God.”

Second, he shows us that if a confluence of factors affects how we view foundational scriptural truths, calling them into question, we should proceed with great care and patience, since we have good cause to doubt our doubts. As convincing as matters may appear to us at the time, what might actually be fueling our doubts is not a more clear-eyed perspective but a distorted perspective. When Asaph lost sight of eternity, it changed the way he saw everything.

Finally, Asaph, who lived a millennium before Jesus was born, reminds us how essential it is to remember that “here we have no lasting city” (Hebrews 13:14). The biblical life of faith in this world has always been a sojourn to “a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Hebrews 11:16). It has always been true that if we hope in God in this life only, we should be pitied (1 Corinthians 15:19).

And in fact, as Asaph experienced, hoping in God in this life only leads just to losing hope in God. We might as well just “eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (1 Corinthians 15:32). It is only through the lens of eternity that we see the goodness, justice, and faithfulness of God. And only in the light of eternity do we long to be near God and find him to be our portion forever.