Watching the Wicked Prosper


Truly God is good to Israel,
to those who are pure in heart.
But as for me, 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.
For they have no pangs until death;
their bodies are fat and sleek.
They are not in trouble as others are;
they are not stricken like the rest of mankind.
Therefore pride is their necklace;
violence covers them as a garment.
Their eyes swell out through fatness;
their hearts overflow with follies.
They scoff and speak with malice;
loftily they threaten oppression.
They set their mouths against the heavens,
and their tongue struts through the earth.
Therefore his people turn back to them,
and find no fault in them.
And they say, ‘How can God know?
Is there knowledge in the Most High?’
Behold, these are the wicked;
always at ease, they increase in riches.
All in vain have I kept my heart clean
and washed my hands in innocence.
For all the day long I have been stricken
and rebuked every morning.
—Psalm 73:1-14 ESV

Last week was good. I commented to my wife that for the first time in an exceedingly long time, life felt normal. She smiled and the sky grew bluer. Today it was 73 degrees outside. The crocuses were shouting.

But a late afternoon bluster blew in gloom, and our souls were disquieted by more bad news. We’d had our week, however fleeting. Time for more tears.

Will it be another season of loss? One wet finger in the wind cannot tell me.

I don’t know why some prosper and some don’t. That person over there mints money with every breath, but that broken fellow propped up against a crumbling brownstone…wasn’t he there last year, too? His crime? He was a decent person who only tried to do what was right, but someone took advantage of his kindness. We comfort ourselves with the knowledge that at least he doesn’t have dogs licking his sores.

We in America love the rags to riches story. American Idol taps into this nation’s consciousness like an epidural. Celebrity is its own reward. We simply adore our celebrities. Look at how many were troubled by Brad and Jen’s split last year: All those homes! How will they ever divvy them up fairly?

On the other hand, the people who stay in rags or who find themselves moving in that direction, well, we don’t reserve as much affection for them. Houses on BoardwalkNone of them make it to the cover of the highest-circulating magazine in the country, People. Didn’t Jesus Himself say we would always have folks like that? They’re a dime a dozen, aren’t they?

A friend who was a missionary told of being dropped off in the middle of Africa, but his scheduled ride never materialized. After a day left stranded out in the bush, he started walking, only to eventually come to a village. In that village, he was welcomed by a Christian family. They put all the food they had in front of him, and even that wasn’t much. Just some goat intestines—not fully emptied. Those folks were destitute, but they welcomed this fellow believer with glad hearts. My friend said he was so blessed by that family that he would never forget them.

Here in America, though, we have a sense of entitlement that never quite goes away. We deserve to keep up with our neighbors, even if it’s killing us to do so. And when someone eventually tanks, when a family has their breadwinner taken out, we too often look the other way. It’s as if we’re watching a real-life monster movie. We’re at the head of the pack, but the crippled girl who prays for everyone nightly can’t keep up with the rest of the group. When a grue swallows her in the darkness, we dispel our own guilt with a simple “There but for the grace of God go I.”

It makes me wonder sometimes if we’re the wicked of Psalm 73. We don’t think about that enough here in this country. We don’t like to be distracted from the goal of a five bedroom home, a Hummer in the driveway, and a kid at Harvard.

Our not wanting the distraction doesn’t make the indigent go away, though.

When I hear Christians in this country talk about how easy it would be if they lost everything, I can’t help but wonder if they truly mean it. I’ve known godly friendships that have dissolved because one person was on the way up while the other was headed down. The tendency in a few churches is to assign blame to the downwardly mobile; those poor had their past sins come home to roost. Heads get shaken and words muttered—and then the room clears.

Misfortune seems to haunt some people. I’ve seen cases of families that kept on getting hit with one misery after another. One day they’re no longer in church. Perhaps their rusted-out hulk of a car didn’t fit in with the new SUVs in the church parking lot. Maybe one of the teens in the youth group made a disparaging remark one too many times about the out-of-fashion threads worn by the kids. Or a husband didn’t fit in with the men’s group consisting of CEOs, what with him being the night clerk at a convenience store and all. Not that any of those CEOs would offer him a job anyway.

So they slink away. Some drop out of church altogether. Others find a church parking lot filled with rusted-out cars just like theirs, and they’re happy—for a while.

We talk about being destitute for the Lord, but I don’t think we truly want to be. We hear some megachurch pastor give a sermon about how Mother Theresa died with only a pair of shoes and a couple habits to her name, and we may even get a tear or two welling in the old eyes, but we dab it away. Then we pack the family into our late model Toyota Sequoia and head out for an all-you-can-eat dinner and a movie—or two. We may aspire to be destitute, but only if we can look good and have fun doing it. Blessed are the poor in spirit. It’s the spirit of the thing, isn’t it?

Are we the wicked? All of us? Some of us?

I confess that I really don’t want to continue to be downwardly mobile. It’s more stressful than people imagine. I wonder why some people live a life of ease and luxury, while others work so hard and yet get so little for all their hard work. Doesn’t square with the American mantra, does it?

Yet here we are in America complaining. Downwardly mobile here beats a life of eating goat intestines, right?. Try to convince the rich of that, though. Actually, try to convince anyone here of that.

How can I say I know the Lord when I am so ungrateful?