Asaph expresses the confusion behind one of the great existential questions in the Christian life. In Psalm 73, Asaph says:
“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…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.” (Psalm 73:3-6; 12-13).
So, what’s the question? Behind Asaph’s analysis of ‘the prosperity of the wicked’, we’re all asking: “why should I struggle against sin? Why should I struggle, if the people who don’t struggle live-out their days in prosperous ease and enjoyment?” Is it all in vain that we have tried to keep our hearts clean? According to Brooks, Satan’s eighth device is to point our souls to this “outward mercy” that people, untroubled by their sin, seem to enjoy. Satan argues:
“the many mercies that [they] enjoy…and the many crosses that they are delivered from, even such as makes other men…spend their days in sighing [and] mourning…[means that] if ever thou wouldst be freed from the dark night of adversity and enjoy the sunshine of prosperity, thou must walk in their ways” (70-71).
In Christ, our hearts are made free to enjoy God. This is a joy-filled privilege. But, this privilege requires crucifixion. This privilege requires the crucifixion of “the flesh, with its passion and desires” (Galatians 5:24). It is a privilege to suffer this kind of death, so that we can live this kind of God-enjoying life. Satan, however, preaches that this cost isn’t worth it because those who don’t suffer this kind of death seem to really enjoy life. If your heart longs for the lives of others, seriously consider the following remedies.
Rather than outlining all eight of Brooks’ remedies for Satan’s eighth device, I’m going to focus on the four critical devices.
Remedy #1: seriously consider that we can’t know God’s approval by common grace.
God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45b). This is God’s common grace. Common grace is ‘common’ because all people, regardless of their moral state, share in God’s providential upholding of the cosmos. While Brooks doesn’t use the term, it’s clear the underlying idea behind common grace is a vital part of this remedy:
“no man knoweth either love or hatred by outward mercy or misery [what we are here terming ‘common grace’]; for all things come alike to all, to the righteous and the unrighteous, to the good and to the bad, to the clean and to the unclean. The sun of prosperity shines as well upon the brambles of the wilderness as upon fruit-trees of the orchard” (72).
We cannot equate that lack of suffering with God’s approval. We cannot equate outward ease and enjoyment with enjoying God. We cannot listen to Satan. In fact, as Brooks reminds us: “usually the worst of men have most of outward things; and the best of men have least of earth, though most of heaven” (72).
Remedy #2: seriously consider that God’s goodness and mercy is never an encouragement to sinfulness.
Brooks is narrowing an earlier remedy to an earlier device. Here, he’s specifically honing in on God’s goodness and mercy to others, in particular people who reject God in their day-to-day lifestyle. “To argue from [this outward or common] mercy to sinful liberty is sinful logic….this is wickedness at the height, for a man to be very bad because God is very good” (72-73, emphasis mine). God’s common grace, to both the righteous and the wicked, isn’t an excuse for sin.
Don’t embrace rebellion because it offers an outward life of ease and enjoyment. Instead, remember that God is good. He has freed us to enjoy Him through Christ. Don’t pour scorn on God’s specific redemptive goodness because you’re hungry for God’s general common grace. In fact, don’t pour scorn on God’s amazing redemptive goodness to you in Christ because you are hungry for the sins of others. God’s providential goodness is no excuse for sin.
Remedy #3: seriously consider that our wants are greater than all our outward enjoyments.
Brooks’ language is particularly effective here. Essentially, Brooks reminds his readers of the sheer enjoyment that is ours in the gospel. Those who don’t know Christ might have “many [outward] mercies, yet they want more than they enjoy; the mercies they enjoy are nothing to the mercies they want” (74). Do we really believe this? Does my heart really rejoice in this gospel truth? We readily listen to Satan as he encourages us to seek out any kind of enjoyment; we readily forget the gospel-truth of the sheer delight of knowing, and being known by, God. Reflecting on the gospel focuses our eyes on true enjoyment. Without Christ, Brooks argues:
“All this [outward mercy] is nothing to what they want. They want interest in God, Christ, the Spirit, the promises, the covenant of grace, and everlasting glory; they went acceptation and reconciliation with God; they want righteousness, justification, sanctification, adoption, and redemption; they want pardon of sin, and power against sin, and freedom from the dominion of sin; they want that favour that is better than life, and that joy that is unspeakable and full of glory, and that peace that passes understanding, and that grace, the least spark of which is more worth than heaven and earth…” (74).
This is not mere theology. This is the reality of the Christian life. These are not just doctrinal soundbites. These are (to borrow a phrase) thoughts to make your heart sing. Enjoy the gospel! The gospel is the one thing everyone who benefits from outward mercy longs to truly know.
Remedy #4: seriously consider the end and God’s design.
We left Asaph in an existential quandary. But, Asaph’s words are past tense. His shock at the level of outward mercy experienced by the wicked is not the last word of the Psalm. Instead:
“But when I thought how to understand this, it seemed to me a wearisome task, until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I discerned their end. Truly you set them in slippery places; you make them fall to ruin. How they are destroyed in a moment, swept away utterly by terrors” (Psalm 73:16-19).
Common grace is not an excuse for sin. Common grace is not an excuse for abandoning worship. Common grace is not an excuse for discounting the gospel. Instead, from God’s sanctuary, Satan’s lie becomes clear. Common grace is a clarion call for thankfulness. Thankfulness, because our God is a just God, who rules the cosmos according to His purposes. God’s outward mercy towards others leads us to rejoice in God. Asaph says: “whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion for ever” (Psalm 73:25-26).
Therefore, Brooks says, this should be the prayer rushing from our lips: “O Lord, I humbly crave that thou wilt let me be little in this world…and low here…let me be low, feed low, and live low, so I may live with thee forever…Lord, make me rather gracious than great, inwardly holy than outwardly happy…that I may be high [with thee] forever hereafter” (76-77).