Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Years ago, probably while I was still at the University-Which-Must-Not-Be-Named, I heard a sermon on Psalm 73 that stuck with me.

I have no idea who it was that spoke on the Psalm, nor do I remember what he even said about the Psalm. Right, you say. Sounds like that sermon really stuck with you. Must have been doodling in church. What stuck with me, though, was this: this Psalm is crucial to living "as strangers and pilgrims on the earth" - in other words, to knowing what in this life is worthwhile and what is not.

What is Not Worthwhile

Psalm 73 opens with an extended descriptions of what comfortable lives unbelievers live:
They are not in trouble as other men.
Nor are they plagued like other men.
Therefore pride serves as their necklace;
Violence covers them like a garment.
They have more than heart could wish.
I want to leave behind the question of violence and pride (the connection between a good hand in life and religion is one for another blog post) and focus on what I think the most basic principle in this passage is.  According to this Psalm, there will always be unbelievers who live happy, comfortable lives, who have "more than heart could wish" - money, a satisfying job, a partner and children, a good home, the "American dream". It is this fulfillment that most of us, in some way, want.

Psalm 73 follows this up, several passages down, with a conclusion about these unbelievers. The Psalmist tells God,
Surely You set them [the wealthy unbelievers] in slippery places;
You cast them down to destruction.
Oh, how they are brought to desolation, as in a moment!
They are utterly consumed with terrors.
I always assumed this passage described a sudden, definitive event: the wealthy person wakes up one fine morning, wealthy as ever, then "in one hour such great riches came to nothing."

I think there's more to this passage than a sudden overturn, though. Just a few verses previously, the Psalmist has assured us that these unbelievers "are not in trouble as other men" - in other words, no outward sign warns against pending doom. Nothing is there to suggest that these people are about to be "brought to desolation," yet they have already been set "in slippery places". I suggest, therefore, that the very prosperity they currently enjoy is their destruction. Their downfall does not just end a period of prosperity. Their very prosperity is a catalyst for this downfall.

An Example

Consider, as an example, the rising rates of extended singleness in the Western world. A day or two ago, I read an article in Atlantic magazine called "All the Single Ladies." (Incidentally, my students introduced me to this one. I printed it out and saved it for future generations of students.) Though Kate Bolick supports singleness as a healthy, viable lifestyle, she also acknowledges that not marrying was not the plan for most singles. She writes, "That we [herself and her college friends] would marry, and that there would always be men we wanted to marry, we took on faith." Turns out, that was one huge and unjustified step of faith.

Later, she describes the moment of disillusionment, using the metaphor of a cocktail party: We're "finally ready to start our lives," she says, "only to discover a cavernous room at the tail end of a party, most of the men gone already, some having never shown up--and those who remain are leering by the cheese table, or are, you know, the ones you don't want to go out with." Her plan for a "prosperous lifestyle" - husband, kids, career - didn't happen.

Okay, so being single is not the end of the world (I'm single, so I should know); I applaud Bolick's attempt to legitimize the single life as a healthy, adjusted one. My point is this: Bolick's plans, and the plans of so many more women like her, fell through when they suddenly realized that they'd missed out on marriage. Life was not going to give them what they wanted from it. All those well-arranged plans for family and career were, albeit on a very small scale, "suddenly brought to destruction."

I think the reason that Bolick gives for this mini-destruction is illuminating. Bolick, noting that her generation has much more power than her mother's to make their own decisions, reflects that she "could [not] have predicted what happens when you multiply that sense of agency by an entire generation." What Bolick is saying is this: the independence from social norms that men and women gained in the second half of the twentieth century is (if you simplify history) the cause of extended singleness today. Give men the option of whether or not they want to marry, some of them will choose not to, and Voila! fewer married women. What is happening here is exactly what Psalm 73 predicts: some of the very things that make life more comfortable, such as greater independence, ultimately destroy us.

I don't think the Bible's solution is not to make life comfortable at all. Nowhere does the Bible ever outlaw wealth or require a vow of poverty, though I understand now why the monks took that vow. In fact, in some places (such as Ecclesiastes and some of the Parables), money comes out as a positive blessing. To use my example, much of the independence achieved in the last fifty years of Western society is not exactly bad and in fact is probably biblical (that would be another blog post). Comfort is not a bad thing. But the fact remains: That which is intended to bring us comfort in this world ultimately betrays us.

The Solution

Providentially, Psalm 73 answers this question of what to do with life comforts, given that these very comforts are a catalyst for destruction. The Psalmist concludes,
Whom have I in heaven but You?
And there is none upon earth that I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart fail;
But God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
Here, the Psalmist acknowledges the connection between the comforts of life and his own eventual downfall. That his "flesh and [his] heart fail" is only the most obvious example of this principle: The very fact that the heart is beating by time, that the flesh sloughs off dead skin cells and replenishes them day-by-day predict that the very things which keep us alive right now are going to be the things that kills us in 50 years or so (think of people who die of a heart attack: the organ that kept them alive for so long is the organ that gets them in the end). In just this way, the comforts normal to a physical life will eventually be exactly the thing that destroys our plans for life in a year, or two years, or ten.

Having acknowledged this problem, the Psalmist finally provides a solution: "God," he writes, "is the strength of [his] heart and [his] portion forever." Long after our "portion" of physical goods are gone, God will be there. Long after the heart stops beating, God will still be there.

Apply this to modern-day life: Long after our independence has wrecked our marriage potential, God will still be our companion. Long after our wealth has vanished in the recession, God will still be providing for us.

It is well and good to enjoy the physical things of this life: a friend, a marriage, a satisfying job, good food and money. It is equally important not to let these physical things define life, because then life will only be defined by the eventual, inevitable destruction.

I must learn to say with the Psalmist, "Whom have I in heaven but You? And there is none upon earth that I desire besides you."

Or with C.S. Lewis:
The world is so built that, to help us desert our own satisfactions, they desert us. War and trouble and finally old age take from us one by one all those things that the natural Self hoped for at its setting out."

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