Envy: The malaise afflicting the redeemed

A friend asked, “Have you noticed that so many Christians seem to be discontented with their lot?  That they envy the rest of the world, and maybe even resent a little having to live like Jesus?”

If this is true–and I suspect it is–it’s not a new phenomenon.  The condition has been with us from early on.

The malady was voiced perfectly by the Psalmist:

I was envious of the boastful, when I saw the prosperity of the wicked” (Psalm 73:3).

You and I suspect the Psalmist may have been a bit too selective of the ungodly whom he chose to envy. But that’s how we do it, after all.

Envy is selective.

All around the Psalmist were wicked people living wretched lives, filling the jails, fighting and killing, fornicating and drinking themselves into early graves.  Those people also are “the boastful” and “the wicked.”  But he focuses on none of those.  The ones he admires and even envies are the “up and out,” not the “down and out.”  Look how he describes them….

–There are no pangs in their death. (Psalm 73:4)

–They are not in trouble like other people. (73:5)

–They have an abundance of this world’s goods. (73:7)

–They speak against God and show no respect for sacred things, and seem to get by with it. (73:8-9)

–They are always at ease; they increase in riches. (73:12)

In short, those he envies have “got it made.”

After casting the envious eye toward his wealthy and ungodly neighbors, the Psalmist begins to wonder if he has wasted his own time serving God. “Surely I have cleansed my heart in vain.”  “All day long I have been plagued and chastened every morning,” he says, implying that it was all for nothing.

Let’s admit something up front: Serving God can often be tough. 

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Now, take the 23rd Psalm for instance…

The Lord is my Shepherd.  I shall not want…

Oh? You already know that Psalm?

These days, one of my missions in life is to urge God’s people to get into the Psalms, the beloved “songbook of Israel,” and to live there. The older we get, the more this wonderful collection of hymns seems to speak our language, to understand us, and to know where we live and how to touch us in the deepest, most personal places.

In addressing a seniors group when I recite the six verses of this beloved Psalm, I can hear some thinking, “We all know that Psalm.  It’s old news.”  My response is: No, you do not know it.  You may know the words and may be able to recite it. But no way do you “know it.”  I’ve been preaching over six decades and I still make discoveries in that psalm–as well as the rest of them!  That, incidentally, is one of the lies Satan uses to keep you and me out of God’s Word.  He says “you already know that scripture; there’s nothing new there” and tells us “no one can understand that scripture; it was written thousands of years ago in another language; only scholars can do this.”  Both are lies.

We can understand much of it, and more of it as we live in it.  And no, you will never plumb its depths.  The word of God is a bottomless well.  We never reach its end.

Take the 23rd Psalm for example….

Now, I personally am convinced a teenage David did not write this while keeping his father’s sheep.  There are too many deep references in this Psalm for a teenager to have penned it.  One has to have lived a long time to know how that having “the Lord (as) my Shepherd” satisfies, provides, leads, and gives victories.

When I was a kid, I would read the Psalms and once in a while stumble across a nugget.  But most of these 150 songs of Israel were closed to me.  I had not lived long enough, suffered enough, experienced enough betrayal and disappointments to see life as the Psalmist saw it.  But in time, that all changed.

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The fatal mistake of the casually religious

One reason many Scriptures are so well-loved is that once in a while, we will be reading along and come to a statement that nails a truth so dead-on, we sit there gasping for breath. We can hardly believe what we are reading.  Case in point, Psalm 50.

You hate instruction and cast my words behind you. When you saw a thief, you consented with him, and have been a partaker with adulterers. You give your mouth to evil, and your tongue frames deceit. You sit and speak against your brother; you slander your own mother’s son.

And then, the clincher:

These things you have done, and I kept silent; (and as a result) you thought that I was just like you.(Ps. 50:17-21)

Wow.  The people got by with all their foolishness and as a result, decided not only that God was okay with it, He was “just like us.”

Fatal error.

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The “as for me” element in preaching

But as for me and my house…. (Joshua 24:15).

As for me, I shall behold Thy face in righteousness…. (Psalm 17:15). 

While reading my way through the Psalms, I was tripped by a little comment I’d read right past the previous hundred times I’ve traveled this landscape. Right in the middle of a discussion of some theological point, the Psalmist will say, “But as for me.”

When he does that, you know you’re getting something personal. This is not theoretical, not philosophical, and not “out there” somewhere. If you are like the rest of us, you perk up at this and get ready for something you can identify with.

Case in point. In the remarkable 73rd Psalm (there’s nothing else like it in all the Bible; if you’re unfamiliar with it, we encourage you to check it out), the writer brackets his discussion with that phrase.

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What praise is and what it does

“Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless His name.  Bless the Lord O my soul, and forget none of His benefits….  Bless the Lord, O my soul” (Psalm 103:1-2,22).

Again and again throughout Holy Writ, we are enjoined, instructed, commanded and reminded to praise the Lord. To bless His name.  To burst forth in worship during which we say things like “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and blessings” (Revelation 5:12).

How come?  What good does this do to tell the Lord and Master of the universe that He is Lord and Master of the universe?  Sure He already knows who He is (see John 13:1-4).  Being complete within Himself, God does not need our praise.

So, what’s this all about?

It’s a fair question and one that has been asked and answered by disciples far better than this poor child.

As a new believer, C. S. Lewis had trouble with the question.  “I found a stumbling block in the demand so clamorously made by all religious people that we should ‘praise’ God; still more in the suggestion that God Himself demanded it.”  (Reflections on the Psalms)

This being my blog, and Psalm 103 having been dealt with on these pages in recent days, it now falls to me to make an attempt to answer the question:  What is it to bless the Lord and what good is it?  (Again, I’m grateful to Dr. Lewis whom I shall quote below.)

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The Old Testament’s “love chapter”: Psalm 103

“Bless the Lord, O my soul” (Psalm 103:1,22).

If I Corinthians 13 is the “love chapter” of the New Testament, then Psalm 103 gets the honor for the Old Testament.   It’s all about the love of God, from beginning to end.

Over twenty years ago, I preached a series of messages from Psalm 103 and encouraged our people to memorize it.  Memorizing this great psalm is one of the better things I’ve done in my brief years of ministry.  I love Psalm 103 and recite it often, usually in the car when I’m alone or lying in bed unable to sleep.

One day, going through my grandmother’s Bible–Bessie Lowery McKeever (1895-1982)–I happened to notice she had written beside verse 17 “One of Papa’s favorite verses.”  Her “papa”, who would be my great-grandfather, whom I never met, of course, was a Baptist preacher named George Marion Lowery.  I know almost nothing about this beloved ancestor other than Grandma used to say when she was a little girl, he would take her with him when calling on church families.  “If the father was at work and the wife there by herself,” she would tell me, “he could not enter the house. But with me along, it was all right.”  Grandma grew up  to be a powerful force for the Lord and may have been the greatest Christian I ever knew.  I’m so happy to own her Bible which is well marked-up and written throughout.

Back to Psalm 103.  Here are a few observations to encourage a reader to discover it for oneself…

One.  Psalm 103 begins and ends with the same refrain.

“Bless the Lord, O my soul.”

Is there another chapter in Scripture that does that? I can’t think of one.

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