How is Good to be Measured? (Psalm 73)

How is Good to be Measured? (Psalm 73)

Written by: Pete McClanathan

(Author’s Note: In this article we’ll be sharing observations and offering conclusions about some serious matters of life. We’ll be challenging things that some may have held dear. In doing so I do not intend offense. I may not even be completely right. But I believe the conversation needs to take place).

Asaph’s Psalm 73 lament understandably is magnified by what he observes among his own people and their leaders. He finds them, the chosen people of God, drifting away from God’s Law and often adopting heathen practices. And worse, he feels alone and isolated on account of his own role as prophet and leader:

“If I had said, ‘I will speak thus,’ I would have betrayed the generation of your children.” (Psalm 73: 15)

Asaph may have felt alone and discouraged, but his resolve stood strong. He was not going to allow his confusion and discouragement to be observed. People look up to their leaders in ways the leaders may not always realize. Their faithfulness is a beacon to those who follow. Any doubts we may have had about Asaph’s character are answered in this selfless act. And therein is also a warning for those in leadership.

Yet Asaph still was troubled, discouraged by the absence of truth and obedience among many of the people and leaders. But he seems to have understood a crucial fact …  people will display their hearts and values by how they behave. And if those hearts have not been developed in obedience to God’s Word, then ungodly behaviors can be expected. We can extract this truth and apply it to our own times. And we will find that though the times and situations are different, the same problem has raised its head again and again.

The term “cultural Christianity” has been used, accurately in my opinion, to describe large segments of American life over the past century (and likely before). A time when goodness was measured by one’s appearing to live morally, going to church, being generous in prosperity, and avoiding “major” sins, at least publicly.

This ethic became woven into our society’s thinking, conduct and values. Apart from some notable exceptions, personal pursuit of biblical knowledge and obedience were largely missing in the culture. Church became part of the path to acceptance in the community, or a source of sentimental support, or the price of feeling right with God.  The practice of acknowledging God consciously in the decisions of life was negligible, or at best invisible. In that setting it should not be surprising that cultural values and their systems would erode, as they did in Asaph’s time. And it was at first so subtle as to be unrecognized.  

The postwar euphoria and energy of the 1950’s appeared to be heralds of a bright future, and in some practical respects they were. Many even felt that the Allied victory of World War II signified God’s blessing on the American way of life. As a symptom of the national mentality, some may recall the early Superman television shows which proclaimed the hero as a champion of “truth, justice, and the American Way.”   

But the foundation would prove to be shaky. Based as it was on a trust in personal abilities and a system of societal status symbols, the culture was ill prepared for the emergence of conflicting points of view in the 1960’s and 70’s. Cultural Christianity proved to be no match for a growing secular intellectualism that rejected what it saw as prideful hypocrisy in the halls of business, government, church, and the family structure. 

I realize I’m treading dangerously close to some deeply-held beliefs, so let me clarify. I have great respect for the generations of the first half of the 20th Century. Whether fighting world wars in 1917-18 and again in the 1940’s or surviving the Great Depression of the 30’s, and in many other ways, they battled obstacles and performed tasks that I would not choose to undertake. My father worked his way through the Depression and later served on an Australian cruiser dodging Japanese kamikaze planes as part of a Naval fleet during the battles for New Guinea and the Philippines.  Having navigated the perils of war and the depression, that generation cannot be faulted for seeking peace, comfort, and satisfaction, and finding it in economic success and social status. 

But time and human nature began to expose cracks in that foundation. The pursuit of financial security came to express itself in materialism. Success became defined by symbols of prosperity. In various ways homes, cars, dress, education, reputation, the proper affiliations, the investment portfolio, came to measure life’s value for many people. The value was in what those represented … a feeling of accomplishment, a place in the community, a secure future. Not necessarily bad things in themselves, but ones that effectively crowded out a sense of need for more solid anchors.  

And the celebration of material success brought with it some seriously costly byproducts. Many children suffered the absence of consistent parental concern or involvement in their struggles and emotional lives. Parenting often was filled with expectations, demands, and punishment, and short on encouragement. The “nurture and admonition of the Lord” was largely unknown or neglected as a parenting goal.  Seriously mixed signals such as cocktail parties and alcohol-laced dinner dances became the staples of entertainment for the business and professional groups (the very ones who proclaimed themselves to be the guardians of American values and the gatekeepers of society). Gossip and public opinion played a major role in one’s acceptance or rejection by the “right people” (not unlike the power of today’s social media). The rates of alcoholism and divorce rose. And though it was rarely acknowledged, things once suppressed … pornography, street drugs, sexual experimentation, all were established in the culture by the mid-1960’s.

I do not question that the material and parenting behaviors of mid-20th century Americans were in large part well-intentioned. But life can be difficult to understand and harder to predict. What was thought to be generosity and opportunity too often found realization in a confused society of young people (my generation). Call them spoiled, ungrateful, arrogant, lazy, or just plain stupid (charges which were merited in some cases), the generation that came of age in the 1960’s and 70’s too often displayed an absence of meaningful grounding in personal and societal values.  

Meanwhile the biblical foundations of American Christian churches were eroding, and in many cases the erosion occurred without real knowledge or concern because we missed the signs. Under assault from European philosophies that emerged in the 1800’s and arrived in American seminaries around the turn of the 20th century, churches and entire denominations lost or abandoned their moorings. Biblical truth and the gospel of Christ were shed in favor of a false gospel of right living, good deeds, and social action.

This false gospel blended well with the mood of the times, one of self-sufficiency, American progress and might, and celebration of materialism and social standing. Most citizens considered themselves to be Christians because, it was widely thought, Christianity is about moral living and good deeds. As the “good life” flourished, there was little call for serious acknowledgement of the Bible, nor of sin, and certainly not of repentance and salvation through true faith in Christ.  

There was a positive side to this phenomenon, in the growth of the evangelical movement. Begun in the 1950’s, evangelical Christianity in its various forms has proven effective in defending and proclaiming biblical truth. But overall the spiritual landscape has continued to devolve into forms of universalism, spiritism, and humanism … forms which have no underlying truth and no power to guide a society or answer humanity’s fundamental questions. 

Is this not precisely what the Bible calls “an appearance of godliness?” One devoid of genuine trust in God’s Word, or yielding to His Spirit, or submission to saving faith in Christ. One that replaces truth with forms of religion, or ignores it altogether.  

“But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness but denying its power …  always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth.” (2 Tim. 3:1-5, 7)

This article is not about identifying the last days or the details of end-times prophecy.  We simply need to take a look at Paul’s warnings, and compare them to the times of Asaph, to understand that humanity in all eras has displayed these behaviors. The danger is great for peoples to drift away from the truth of God and pursue the lies of the culture. All it takes is for good people to relax and place God aside ever so quietly, and to turn their pursuit of significance toward things of man and the world. Asaph warned against it, as did the Old Testament prophets, as did Jesus, Paul, and committed Christian scholars and preachers through the centuries. Yet we can be so resistant to learning. Next article, we’ll pull these thoughts together and seek to find direction.

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