Renewal of the Distracted Mind

Thursday 11 August

For the morning Bible teaching at New Horizon this year, John Risbridger is exploring the theme of “Renewed Minds”. Here the NH Media team bring you notes from his message:

Healthy Perspective

Reading from Psalm 73

This morning we are going to be thinking about doubt. Andy was known as a strong Christian, though he travelled a lot with his high-flying job and struggled to keep connected with church. Several years into his career, he was on a project team with a bunch of militant and articulate atheists, who seemed curious that someone so successful could believe anything so outdated and ignorant as the Christian gospel. Gradually the attitude of his colleagues shifted from curiosity to outright scorn and hostility. And unwilling to look for serious help, Andy found his doubts got the better of him.

Julie was in her fifties. The kids had left home; things weren’t great in her marriage and she was bored in her job. She had been a Christian for years, but God didn’t seem to be helping much in the struggles of her life and she felt alienated from the happy faces she saw around her at church. She was no longer sure what she believed.

Amy grew up in the church. She was bright, got a good degree and job and saw herself as quite successful. For Amy, doubt of her childhood faith was not so much a struggle as a way of life. Convinced of her intellectual superiority and blind to the unquestioned assumptions in her own thinking. She looked with scorn on her ‘naive’ friends who were still convinced Christians.

Geoff and Jo were a lovely Christian couple. They longed to have children but month after month went by and there was no pregnancy. They really struggled with friends both in and outside church, who seemed to be able to have as many children as they desired – and expected their sympathy when their kids were difficult! It seemed like God showered blessing on people who ignored Him but didn’t care about their personal agony – was God really the ‘good God’ the Bible portrayed Him to be?

Andy, Julie, Amy, Geoff and Jo – in one sense not all of them are ‘real people’ – but I’ve met them all more than once over the years. They have many stories and take many journeys – but all of them came to a place of doubt – a crisis of faith, a crisis in their thinking that they couldn’t not ignore.

Doubt can arise in many different situations and can take different forms, but most of us will experience it. Probably all of us who are honest with ourselves. It often comes at a point when we feel we’ve come to hiatus in the renewing of our minds where we’re stuck.

After the talk on Tuesday, many people told me they’d never heard anyone talking from the front about depression. And I think it’s similar with doubt – indeed they often go together. But Scripture doesn’t share our reservation in this. Scripture isn’t silent on the topic of doubt – it speaks for us and to us in our doubts as it speaks for us and to us in our struggles with Mental Health.

For those of you who are interested in such things, I’m broadly going to a follow a structure from Longman and Garland who see the Psalm as chiastic – that is to say the structure moves both forward from the beginning and backwards from the end in parallel sections, which pivot around the centre, the real heart of the Psalm .

Crisis of faith: Experience and belief

So his conviction is that God is good to His faithful people (v1), but his faith is clouded with confusion (v2), because it seems that in reality it is the wicked who prosper even though they ignore God, rather than the pure in heart who seek God (v3).

His experience is challenging his belief, bringing a crisis of faith.  And many of us have had similar experiences: we’re overlooked for promotion while a colleague known as the company bully gets the job we hoped for; we have chronic health troubles, while our atheist friends seem to live trouble-free lives; we think we will experience God’s blessing if we read the Bible and pray each day, but our hearts have run dry and we can’t find a breakthrough.

In that tension between belief and experience it feels as if our foot might slip. This is raw and real. The struggle is intellectual for sure – how do you make sense of the goodness of God when life goes pear-shaped? But the great gift of this Psalm is its self-awareness, where the writer moves beyond the intellectual puzzle to what is happening in his heartwhich is mentioned six times in the Psalm. The heart isn’t just feelings but also assumptions, our values and presuppositions. Remember that quote from Chris Wright, that in the Bible:

“You think in your heart, and your heart shapes your character, choices and decisions”

Our heart is the seat on which our thinking rests. So the writer begins by affirming God’s goodness to the ‘pure in heart’ (1), but then v2 ‘but as for me’ suggests something inside him that is resisting the goodness of God which, at another level, he knows to be true; something is happening in his heart.

v3. “Envied” is a heart word isn’t it?  In reality, his heart is (v21) grieved and embittered. It is not just about our brain and our intellect but it is a crisis of the heart. It’s a key insight: doubts appear to exist only at an intellectual level but usually there is more going on if we’re honest enough to face it; the real problems lie deeper beneath the presenting doubts in our hearts. 

So often working with students and young adults when there are doubts, if they are honest there is always a story. Beneath it, something deeper is going on. We need the honesty and integrity to dig beyond the intellectual questions to ask what is going on in our hearts.

Note: this is rarely something to do alone – speak to a counsellor or find people with the insight to probe your motivation and the fire power to respond to your questions. Do not isolate yourself when you are struggling with a crisis of faith. And it is precisely in bringing the reality of his heart into the presence of God in this Psalm that Asaph the writer begins to find transformation. So let’s take a look into his troubled heart as we face his central problem.

 Problem: Envying the prosperity of the wicked

v4-5 – he envies their trouble-free lives. 

Isn’t it great that the Bible lets us express that in the presences of God? But it is overstated, isn’t it? There may be some people we regard as wicked who have few problems but do we really know? Can we see into their hearts? And what about the others who have plenty of problems just like us? The doubting heart is often an exaggerating heart; a heart that has lost perspective.

v6-9 – he envies their proud self-confidence which seems to go unchecked. Read v6a – they’re proud, and proud of being proud, projecting their self-confident person a like a badge of honour!

And they act as if they answer to no one – read 6b-8. It seems that not even God can get in their way (9). It’s the kind of attitude you may encounter in a bullying boss at work; or an abusive husband at home; or in the tyranny of a totalitarian state whose officials have power but no accountability. There is fear in his heart (v8 threaten) – perhaps they’re right! Perhaps God won’t hold them accountable. And if God won’t do anything, where does that leave Asaph and his troubled heart?

The doubting heart is often a fearful heart, struggling to trust God and not sure He really will show up.

v10-11 – he envies their influence, though they defy God v10. No one really knows what 10b means, but the basic point seems to be that prosperity and power often buy you influence with people, which is why they are so attractive. And their strutting self confidence which people follow them.

‘We’ve got away with it and so can you!’ That’s their message and it’s very attractive, so it is!

And the writer is feeling the pull… envying their influence, their self-assured confidence, their practical atheism and their social power and popularity. I’m grateful that he spoke like this. I’ve sometimes felt those things. I’m sure it was hard for him to admit what was going on in his heart.

Because Asaph is so self aware – and so honest he recognises that beneath his doubts there is a jealous, envious heart that wants for himself what the unbelieving world seems to have and to enjoy.

There are many echoes of Genesis 3 here. “You will not surely die,” says the serpent to Eve, “for God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:4-5) God is holding you back! You will flourish not by pressing into him but by rejecting him! It’s the oldest question of them all – do we find our true humanity in God or away from Him? That is the real question beneath Asaph’s doubts.

The confusion of his thinking is a confusion of his heart. And what a gift he has given us in responding to our own doubts, by displaying such honest self awareness about his. And by doing that he’s inviting us in our doubts, to look into our hearts: are we being ruled by our fears, our envies, our exaggerated views of the freedoms and pleasures of sin, or will we trust in the goodness of God? That’s the essential battle: the battle for our hearts, and it rages around us and within – sometimes with almost overwhelming force.

In my own experience of struggle and in my experience of a pastor in journeying through times of crisis with other people, there is often a long period where things just seem to be getting worse and worse and you think they can’t get any worse and then they do. And your heart breaks as you journey alongside them.

But eventually we hit “rock bottom”. The clue is in the name: rock bottom is a hard place to be but actually it’s the place at which change becomes possible, because you’ve hit rock – there’s nowhere else to go… That’s where Asaph gets in v13-14.

Assessment: purity doesn’t pay

Read v13-14. This is the most raw point of the Psalm. He’s still digging into his heart and his conclusion is that he’s kept it pure in vain – there was no point; purity doesn’t pay! You’ve felt this yourself haven’t you? You try to do the right thing and it doesn’t work out; someone else does the wrong thing and they thrive! It doesn’t seem fair! In fact it feels even worse. v14 affliction and punishments – it isn’t just that God isn’t working for him; God seems to be working against him! That’s a very dark place to be in, isn’t it? It feels like the world as you’ve understood it is unravelling before you.

But there, at rock bottom, when the doubt in its rawest form has been articulated to God, we find the first, small pushback – v15. We don’t believe and doubt in splendid isolation; we believe and we doubt in community. We influence other people – and it is that realisation of the people around him that is the first chink of light in Asaph’s journey back.

And so he pauses – v16. That’s a key verse. You see we think that authentic faith cannot co-exist with doubt but it isn’t true. Authentic faith can be troubled faith, as it is here, but rather than rush to blame God and betray the faith of His people, authentic faith, though troubled, seeks understanding – not always answers, but understanding, perspective and a glimpse of a bigger picture.  He is not just looking for easy answers – they never work. He is reaching for a glimpse of the bigger picture.

And he finds that perspective, in the place of worship ( v17). The Sanctuary is the temple; the place where God’s transcendent, eternal presence touches earth, where eternity intersects with time and space.

And face to face with the eternal God of justice, he finds the bigger picture he needs. Judged by circumstances now, we cannot always see the justice of God and cannot always see His goodness to His people, but there is an afterwards, a final destiny, an eternal perspective within which justice will be done.

And it’s only in the place of worship that he can see it. And in that place he understands that in the great ‘afterwards’ of divine justice, everything for which the ‘wicked’ have strived, in their rebellion against God is unmade. We need to give people permission to keep worshipping when they are sad, when they are confused or troubled. Don’t pull away from the place of worship. Keep yourself there. Try and connect with the goodness of God. Stay in the place of worship. Our minds are comforted with the truth of God and our hearts rest in the presence of God.

Which takes us to the Psalm’s central affirmation:

Affirmation: God will bring justice

v19. It may take time but those who defy God are setting themselves up to fall. Bullying bosses, abusive spouses, despotic rulers may survive for a long time, but in the end they live their lives on a slippery gradient that slopes down to destruction. v19-20 In the end these people who dominate our lives and our news headlines. Those whose presence looms so large but they will be gone.

Dreams feel so real but they evaporate the moment we wake. So the wicked who seem dominant and invincible and prosperous now will be gone tomorrow, like a bad dream – and it’s not just clinical justice, but personal (20b). God Himself will reject them.

And from the vantage point of this confidence in the ultimate justice of God, Asaph can start to question his own doubts. And that’s a very key lesson. In my young adult years, my pastor and role model was an outstanding pastor-intellectual, Peter Lewis, whose life we have recently been remembering with deep thankfulness after he died a few months ago.

And Peter often pointed out to us that our society regards faith as naïve and ignorant and doubt as noble and sophisticated. So often we are encouraged to believe our doubts and question our beliefs; but there is a better way: to believe your beliefs and use them to question your doubts.

And, when we do that with beliefs which are well-founded, gradually we will find those doubts beginning to unravel.

Reassessment: His heart was not so pure…

That is stunningly honest isn’t it? “In my embittered and grieved (sour) state,” he’s saying, “I was irrational and not ruled by wisdom.” It can be courageous to face our doubts; it’s even more courageous, though, to face our hearts. That’s what Asaph’s dares us to do here. Maybe you’re experiencing doubt and rebellious thoughts and the only help you’ll accept is a quick fix or an easy answer

But God wants you to go deeper; to examine and reassess your heart, to honestly what you really want and really think. It’s courageous – and it’s painful – but it’s a healing pain because we are finally facing reality.

Resolution: the lasting prosperity of the people of God

This is the true counter-balance to the original problem. He was transfixed by the problem of the prosperity of the wicked, but God has wooed and won his heart with a vision of the true and lasting riches of the people of God! What are those riches?

God’s presence – v23a. What a blessing that is. Even when we are doubting and asking tough questions. We don’t need to depend on the quick fix of what people think of us!  We are never alone! God is with us!

God’s comfort and support – v23b – that’s a strong and saving hand. He cannot cling on to God but God has been holding him.

God’s guidance – v24a – you guide me with your counsel. It is not ‘remote control’ but wisdom. He forms our minds so that we can begin to make decisions that reflect the wisdom of God.

God’s future – v24b -There is an “afterwards. That’s the destiny of the people of God and it’s wonderful! A destiny that will wipe away all the contradictions, griefs and disappointments of this life in a moment. He will wipe every tear from our eyes. He comes close. All the griefs of a lifetime. All the pain and struggle of the years, wiped away by the healing tenderness of the grace of God. This is the truth that changes his perspective; he is no longer envying the prosperity of other because he has seen the riches he has in God.

It is the anticipation of the great renewal of the new creation. In that renewal comes our hope. And how much more can we do the same, for we have every spiritual blessing in Christ who died to take away our rebellions, rose from death to anchor our faith and give us life and sent His Spirit by whom we live with the taste of the future in our hearts and minds. We could not be more blessed than we are when we see ourselves in Christ Jesus. He died to take our rebellion. He rose from death and He sent His Spirit.

So the Psalm that began in despair ends in praise.

He began complaining that purity didn’t pay but now, v25. He began complaining that the wicked always had good health but now, v26 God is strength of my heart and my portion forever.

Renewal of faith: Experience and hope

And he rounds it off with a final celebration of God’s justice and affirmation of his goodness. v27 – His justice; v28 – (as for me) His goodness (cf v1) and the presence of the good God is his refuge

Are you troubled with doubts, with rebellious thoughts, with uncertainty about the goodness of God? It is okay to say so. It is okay to tell God what you are thinking or feeling. Then I urge you to walk the painful journey of this Psalm – face your doubts but don’t stop there! Probe your heart – its deepest attitudes, its underlying values and assumptions – open it to the word of God and the transforming presence of the Spirit of God, inviting Him to renew your mind from the inside out so you begin to live with the perspective of eternity and with the rhythm of the future beating in your heart. And as you do, may God will help you see all you have in Christ and bring you slowly, step-by-step, through the journey of doubt, into the song of praise.

Based on Longman & Garland:

1-3 – Experience and belief

       4-12 – Problem: the prosperity of the wicked

              13-17 – Reaction: godliness doesn’t pay

                      18-20 – Affirmation: God will finally do justice

              21-22 – Evaluation: He lacked understanding

       23-26 – Resolution: the rich portion of the godly

27-28 – Experience and hope

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