When I tried to understand all this,
it troubled me deeply
till I entered the sanctuary of God;
then I understood their final destiny.
Psalm 73:16-17 (NIV)
Wendy and I were having a conversation early in our relationship and she used a metaphor that I’d never heard before. She spoke to me of “ugly” sins and “pretty” sins. It gave language to something I’ve always inherently understood but never really knew how to simply express.
Ugly sins are those types of moral failures that, when brought to light, are typically accompanied by public shame and humiliation. Ugly sins generate scarlet letter status within a community. We not may make modern day Hesters stitch the letter on their clothing anymore, but it doesn’t mean others haven’t stitched it there with their hearts and minds. Ugly sins generate gossip, slander, and hushed whispers behind the sinner’s back long after the secretly committed sin was made public and created sensational community headlines.
Pretty sins, in contrast, are shortcomings we largely ignore because we all do it and so there is an unspoken social and spiritual covenant we have with one another to turn a blind eye. No need to notice the speck of it we might perceive in the eye of another so that no one will point out the log of it in my own. Pretty sins are typically overlooked, dismissed if noticed on occasion, and sometimes we even find ways to make them virtuous.
Envy is one such pretty sin, and it’s at the heart of the song lyrics of today’s chapter, Psalm 73.
With Psalm 73, we start Book III of the Psalms. What’s cool is that the editors who compiled the Psalms put three symmetrical groupings together: six songs, five songs, six songs, with the middle song as the “center” of Book III. It’s the same way an individual Hebrew song would be structured. So they made Book III one giant psalm with individual songs as the “verses” of the structure. Psalms within psalms.
Psalm 73 is an instructional psalm in which Asaph confesses to the sin of envy. He looks at the lives of the wickedly rich and famous living in their Beverly Hills mansions, driving their Maserati, and jetting off to their summer homes on Martha’s Vineyard or their yacht in the Caribbean. Life is so easy for them. They don’t know what it means to struggle. On top of that, they are so arrogant looking down their noses on the rest of us.
I’m reminded of a conversation I had a week or two ago with a friend of mine who is a retired CEO. He lives near an elite golf club that caters to the jet-set and took a part-time job driving club members from their private jets to the luxurious private golf club. He told me how amazing it was to drive these billionaires around and routinely get treated like crap and stiffed for a tip. That’s the kind of people Asaph is singing about. Like Asaph, I confess that I’m envious to know what that kind of life must be like, even as I feel contempt for them.
As Asaph’s song continues, he goes into God’s Temple and it’s as if the Spirit of God gives him an attitude adjustment. He stops looking at the objects of his contemptuous envy with earthly eyes, and he opens the eyes of his heart to view them with an eternal, spiritual perspective.
Jesus taught that we who follow Him should maintain a similar spiritual perspective. On multiple occasions, he told parables warning about spending our lives “gaining the whole world” while we “lose our souls.”
Asaph ends his song of instruction understanding that it’s “good to be near God.” Along my journey I’ve discovered that contemptuous envy of others leads to destructive ends on many different levels. When I stick close to God, as Asaph instructs, it’s easier for me to keep both the eyes of my body and the eyes of my heart focused on things of eternal value. I can see my contemptuous envy for what it is, and can better perceive the spiritual price paid to gain this world and the things of this world.
In the quiet this morning I am looking forward to a simple feast with a few family members tomorrow. I’m looking forward to being home surrounded with love, joy, peace, and gratitude.
Wherever this finds you, I wish you and your loved ones a Happy Thanksgiving. I’m taking the next few days off. See you back on this chapter-a-day journey next week.