December 16, 2016
Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven,
whose sin is covered.
2 Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity,
and in whose spirit there is no deceit.
3 For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away
through my groaning all day long.
4 For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;
my strength was dried up[b] as by the heat of summer. Selah
5 I acknowledged my sin to you,
and I did not cover my iniquity;
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord”,
and you forgave the iniquity of my sin.
This psalmist is thankful for forgiveness. As is often the case, we are not told what it was that the writer did wrong, only that he refused to face up to it – confess it – for a long time. There were consequences for his failure. His health suffered: “my bones wasted away . . . my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer” (another poetic metaphor). He understands that what he suffered in his guilt was God’s doing: “Day and night your hand was heavy on me . . .”
The psalm ends with thanksgiving for God’s forgiveness. So, it was God who brought misery on him in his sin, and God who gave him forgiveness, steadfast love and resultant “shouts of joy.” This brings to mind a verse in the most famous of all hymns:
‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear
And grace my fears relieved . . .
I wonder how it is, then, that so many people do so much wrong for so long a time and it never seems to faze them. One answer might be that the gift of a guilty conscience is not universal. Not everyone is given the misery (here experienced by the psalmist) that leads to “fruitful penitence.” Some might point to those passages in Exodus where we are told that the Lord “hardened Pharaoh’s heart” so that he did not recognize or turn from his stupid decisions.
But I think there is something to the idea that many people do feel the weight of their sins and wrongdoings but will make no admissions or confessions because “their vanity outweighs their misery.” That is, they know – somewhere deep down, they know – that they have done or are doing wrong, that they have disordered lives, but they are so fixated or determined to keep up appearances that they refuse to face up to reality and to turn in their tracks.
After a while in such a mode, one may become confused about what is actually wrong. If we keep telling ourselves the same false narrative – that we are okay, that this is just how life is, it’s no different for anybody else– we may completely lose our moral orientation. I think that this is what the psychiatrists would say often occurs.
Scott Peck was a psychiatrist who wrote several very popular books back in the late twentieth century. His best, in my opinion, was People of the Lie. It is a book about evil in the human personality and it details – through actual cases – the moral labyrinths that people construct for themselves to justify their wrongdoing and to continue in their misery.
We should pray for the gift of remorse for our own wrongdoing. We should desire the breaking down of the false narratives we construct for ourselves – to justify ourselves in our own eyes. These narratives are prisons, and they prevent flourishing, they preclude peace, and they make real relationships impossible. We can’t get out of them by ourselves. It is, in fact, God’s grace that teaches our hearts to fear. That is, to fear sin and to fear captivity to it.
This dynamic – this idea of coming out of the false narratives and shells that we create for ourselves – is dramatically portrayed in Rod Dreher’s recent book: How Dante Can Save Your Life. In it he tells of family troubles that affected him all his life and led him finally to a state of depression that threatened his physical health. His journey out was, he testifies, of grace.
Look at what is on the other side of remorse, confession and repentance:
Many are the sorrows of the wicked,
but steadfast love surrounds the one who trusts in the Lord.
11 Be glad in the Lord, and rejoice, O righteous,
and shout for joy, all you upright in heart!