Overcoming the “God as a Means to an End” Idolatry Through Prayer

Hands IntercessionThis morning, I was reading Psalm 73 and it affected me greatly. It says that God is good, but the Psalmist lost his vision of that because he began to focus on the arrogant and wicked and how they seemed to prosper even though they didn't follow God. Why was this? Why did wicked, prideful people who had no use for God seem to do well in their lives, be healthy, and appeared to be free from burdens? I can hear Asaph, the Psalmist saying, "But, Lord, I have done everything right! I have followed you and trusted you and I am struggling and am not seeing success! And, these other people who don't do things your way, only exalt themselves, and have no desire to do right seem to have one success over another and don't seem to have nearly as many problems as I do. What's going on!"  He goes on to say that the wicked are "always carefree, they increase in wealth."  Then, Asaph says that he has kept his heart pure in vain – he followed God for nothing.

This is one thing that I love about Scripture. It is honest and it captures what we all think at times. In reality, we often follow God so that He will bless us and give us what we want. We want prosperity, health, and a good life.  We follow God so that He will give us those things and so that He will protect us from evil and harm.  We obey so that we will receive blessings and so that things will go well with us. When trouble comes we wonder what has happened. What did we do wrong? Then, we look and see people who do not follow God who are super successful and seem to be happy and we wonder if following God is really worth it. If they are going to be rich and healthy and happy without following God and we are going to follow God and still struggle and have problems, then what is this all for?

When the wicked prosper and the righteous struggle, it is actually a great blessing. It reveals our motives and what we really desire. It shows us how we see God as a means to an end and not the End Himself. It reveals to us how we are really just following God and obeying Him as a talisman to ward off evil and bring blessing. Our jealousy, envy, and bitterness over the blessings of those who we think do not deserve it shows that what we really want are those same blessings – our hearts have been captured by what the world has to offer – and we use God to get them. We use God to gain control and secure blessing and keep evil at bay. This is Christian witchcraft, plain and simple, and it is not just the prosperity preachers who are guilty. We are all guilty when we see God as the means to some understanding we have of blessing apart from just being in His presence.

Asaph expresses his frustration over what he sees and he cannot understand why the wicked prosper and why "good things happen to bad people."  He says, "when I tried to understand all this, it was oppressive to me" (16).

But, Asaph got perspective on what was going on when he "entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny."  When Asaph actually entered into God's presence and stopped craving his own way and speculating as to why he wasn't getting it, everything became clear to Him. He goes on to say that even though the wicked are getting what they want, it is only temporary (his envy shows that what they have is what he wants too, but that all changes when he actually enters God's presence).  The wicked are going to be judged and lose everything – they are going to be destroyed because they wanted stuff and blessing instead of God. It will happen quickly and decisively.

He says that when he was just looking at what appears to be their blessings his "heart was grieved and my spirit was embittered, I was senseless and ignorant; I was a brute beast before you" (21-22).  Could it be that much of our frustration, anger, disappointment, and disillusionment in life comes from the fact that we want all that the world offers with a little bit of Jesus sprinkled on top to cover the bases and make sure that we go to Heaven when we die?  Do we crave the blessings of this world and tolerate Jesus so that He will take care of what we can't handle, namely our eternal destiny?  James 3:13-4:10 seems to say that this is the case. We fight and quarrel, not because of another person and their problems, but because of the desires that battle within US – the desires that come from the world's wisdom that produces "bitter envy and selfish ambition" resulting in "disorder and every evil practice."

Asaph finds the solution to his problems of wanting what the world has to offer, envying the blessings of the arrogant, and experiencing frustrationtal by finding his peace and his reward in God Himself. He says,

"Yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me into glory. Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever" (23-26).

He finds the answer to his questions in the "sanctuary of God." It is in God's presence that he realizes that the wicked who seem to prosper are really to be pitied. For all of their riches and pleasures and apparent prosperity, they do not have God – and knowing and being known by God is all that matters. It is in the "sanctuary" of God's presence that Asaph is changed from using God to get what he wants to coming to know God on God's own terms.  It is here that God goes from being a character in Asaph's story – the means to some other end – to Asaph being a character in God's Story. God is at the center.  God is the Author, Director, and Main Character of the cosmic drama of redemption and He is merciful enough to call Asaph to join Him in it.  It is in God's presence in prayer that Asaph realizes that when he has God, he has everything.  Jesus explored these concepts in Matthew 13. Paul prayed that the Ephesian church would see clearly all they had in Christ in Ephesians 1:15-23. John wanted us to know and rely on the love that God has for us instead of other things (1 John 4:13-19). This is what spiritual maturity is all about. This is what the Holy Spirit brings into our lives (John 16:12-15 – He makes all that belongs to Jesus known to us). This is the ministry of the church (Ephesians 4:11-16), so that we all grow up in Christ. I could go on and on.

But, the church has largerly abandoned Asaph's Psalm 73 journey from looking to the world's view of success to finding our joy and meaning in God alone. We have constructed theologies, methods, and churches to get God to give us our best life now, full of successful lives and marriages and prosperity and fulfillment and fun and the pursuit of happiness. We have baptized the American Dream into our religion and have made God its servant. And, when things don't work out for us, we get confused and frustrated and try to figure out how to make this religion thing work so that we can get what we want. But, God is not our servant and He cannot be controlled.

Ultimately, in God's presence, Asaph realizes that those who are prideful and self-seeking will be dealt with harshly by God: "Those who are far from you will perish; you destroy all who are unfaithful to you" (27). The end of those who are just living for themselves is that they get what they want – they wanted something other than God, so God gives them what they want. But, they are not happy to discover that everything apart from God will just turn to dust in their hands. It will all burn up, and them along with it.

Asaph, mercifully, is in a different place. He knows and is known by God.  Instead of just obeying to get the same blessings as the world, he is changed and realizes that his obedience and seeking after God enables him to find the greatest Treasure of them all in which all other treasures lie: God Himself. 

"But as for me, it is good to be near God. I have made the Sovereign Lord my refuge; I will tell of all your deeds" (28). 

Being near God is the greatest blessing in life – greater than wealth, power, prestige, respect, success, good health, worldly pleasures – anything this world has to offer. God is better. He is NOT the means to some other end. He is the End that we all seek – the Greatest Good, the Great Salvation for which we look for all our lives, the Story and the Beauty that we know exists, but we can't quite wrap our minds around. But, it is all revealed to us in Christ.

Growing up in Christ means that we make this Psalm 73 transition from looking to the apparent success of others and envying and wanting what the world has to being satisfied in God alone. This transition happens in prayer, as we enter God's presence in the sanctuary of the Spirit and the Word and also the Fellowship of the Redeemed (Ephesians 3:18 "together with all the saints"). Asaph made this transition and we can to, if we will just look to God and find our lives in Him.  

2 Responses to Overcoming the “God as a Means to an End” Idolatry Through Prayer

  1. Thanks for the great reflections on one of my favorite psalms. I love v. 25 with its haunting question and answer, “Whom have I in heaven but Thee, and besides Thee I desire nothing on earth.” I’m afraid that far too often the truthful answer is that we give little thought to our eternal destiny and we’re actually desirous of having a ton of stuff here on earth. The reminder that He needs to be the sole purpose and focus of our hearts and lives is a timely one.

  2. Thank you, Gary. I always appreciate your encouragment of and interaction with my writings. This just jumped out at me today and God really spoke to me about some things I’ve been praying about through this.