“Real help for real people (#2): Unfathomable forgiveness”
“EVERYONE HAS FOUND OUT WHAT YOU ARE DOING.”
Noel Coward, the famous English playwright, pulled an interesting prank. He sent an identical note to twenty of the most famous men in London. The anonymous note read simply, "Everybody has found out what you are doing. If I were you I would get out of town."
Supposedly, all twenty men actually left town.
What if you opened your mail one day and found such a note? What would race through your mind? The income you failed to report on your 1040? The time you spent on the internet watching pornography? The expense account you inflated? The lies you told about a neighbor? Some secret relationship you have? The abuse that happens in your home? The shameful thoughts you hide?
How’s your stomach right now? A little queasy? That’s guilt.
Guilt is fear of the past. Fear that someone will find out about something you did or didn’t do… maybe yesterday, maybe many years ago. It is like spiritual phantom pain; like the pain an amputee feels after the loss of a limb. There is nothing there to hurt, but it hurts anyway.
Psychologist Roy Baumeister studied guilt in 1991 and discovered that the average person spends approximately two hours a day feeling guilty. And for 39 minutes of that time, people feel moderate to severe guilt. We are told that a significant amount of mental illness can be attributed to unresolved guilt.
Therefore, guilt can be a great crippler. But today I also want you to understand that guilt can be a great motivator. That is the real purpose of guilt. Just as physical pain tells us that we have put our hand somewhere it ought not be- like a car door just as it closes- guilt is a gift from God that tells us that we have strayed beyond what is right, or good, or legal, or loving. Guilt calls us to stop, go back, and repair the damage we have done. Or sometimes it pushes us to do things that we know we should have done, but didn’t. From that perspective, guilt is a good gift from God helping us to be the best we can be.
Whether Guilt is helping us or hurting us, at some point we have to deal with it.
Today in this series on the Psalms, “real help for real people” we come face to face with guilt. We don’t like to admit that we feel guilty but the truth is that we all carry guilt about one thing or maybe a hundred things. I do, and I am very certain that each of you do too. So what do we do with that?
Tradition associates Psalm 51 with a time in King David’s life when he was dealing with big time guilt.
David had good reason to feel guilty. He was the greatest king in the history of Israel. He was, undoubtedly, the most successful and one of the most respected. But he was not perfect. Far from it. The most egregious sin of his life was the triple sin of lust, murder, and adultery. David spotted Bathsheba bathing on her roof. HE thought she looked awfully good. He probably thought something like, “how could something that beautiful be bad for me?” (Sin #1 lust) He sent for her and they were intimate. (Sin #2 adultery)
Before long, Bathsheba sent a message back to David that she was pregnant. (Busted!) For David, guilt had already set in. AT this development, however, his guilt caused him to make things worse by trying to cover it up. (You have never tried that have you?) He called Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, back from battle and tried to cover up the mess he made. When that didn’t work, he had Uriah killed. (Sin #3 murder). That’s three strikes- you’re out!… As we read in Psalm 34, David’s guilt was overwhelming, “like a burden too heavy to bear" And it was compounded by the death of the child he had conceived with Bathsheba.
You know that feeling. We all do to one degree or another. Maybe your sin does not compare to David’s triple-header. Maybe it does. But we all know the terrible weight of guilt on our shoulders… and we all know that when we feel that weight, we want nothing more than to have someone take that weight from us. We instinctively know that we need forgiveness
There are several Psalms that we call “Penitential Psalms.” They each teach us about guilt and forgiveness. They each deserve to be studied, but I have selected Psalm 51 for our study today, in part because I received an email questions about it the other day.
Psalm 51 starts out with an important assumption. It is built on the foundation of God’s steadfast love and abundant mercy. In other words, it starts with the presupposition that God in the business of forgiveness. That’s great news because that means when we come to God with our guilt, we are not asking God to do something that God does not already want to do. No! What we are actually doing, coming to God who is in the business of forgiveness, and opening ourselves to that healing power and transformative grace. We are simply asking God to do what he does best.
God wants to forgive, but we are not always in a position to receive. So Psalm 51 describes what I want to call 5 movements… not steps… not instructions. But 5 movements of the heart that together move us into position to receive the forgiveness we need and want.
On our journey toward forgiveness, the first movement described in Psalm 51 is movement toward ACCEPTANCE. The first movement is getting to the point where we can say with the Psalmist, “I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.” It is movement toward accepting personal responsibility.
When we feel the knot in our stomach that we identify as guilt, we have two choices. Deny it or accept it.
Unfortunately, for many of us, denial has become a way of life. We justify our sin, we blame someone else, or we make excuses. “I didn’t do it.” “I didn’t mean to do it.” “The devil made me do it.” Or “he deserved it.” These are the kinds of people who, in the middle of a heart attack, will insist that it is just the SUPER GRANDE BURRITO they just ate. But that doesn’t change the fact that they are having a heart attack, and their denial just might cost them their life. Denying our guilt and sin does not make guilt and sin go away. In fact, that denial just might cost us our soul.
David, on the other hand, felt the pain of guilt. He was haunted by the knowledge of the evil he had done. Bu the ACCEPTED that he had done wrong and he ACCEPTED responsibility. Hence he writes, “I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.”
The option of denial moves us away from God’s forgiveness. The option of ACCEPTING our sin and guilt is the only option that moves us toward forgiveness. There can be no blaming, no excusing, no denying, and no justifying. If we want forgiveness, we must ACCEPT our sin and ACCEPT our responsibility. Moving toward ACCEPTANCE is moving toward forgiveness.
The second movement in the Psalm is toward UNDERSTANDING. When we sin, we have to understand what we have done. One of the ways that we minimize sin is we tend to view it as only being against other people. That’s why we are confused when we read, “Against you (God), you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight,” I don’t believe David is minimizing the sin against Bathsheba, Uriah, and his own family. David understands what many of us do not: that the ripples of sin extend farther than we think. We have to UNDERSTAND that it is not just those around us that we hurt. The damage does not stop at the person about whom we gossip, or the person from whom we steal… it is not just our spouse and our children who are injured by our transgressions.
We have to UNDERSTAND that (in addition to hurting other people) every sin is an act against the glory of God. Every sin denies God’s existence. Every sin is a quest to overthrow God’s thrown. Every sin is an affront to our relationship with God.
When I was a young driver, I was being careless and slid on some ice into a tree. I was OK, but the car was not. The owner of the tree helped me push my 67 Impala to the curb. And wasn’t worried about the scar I had put on his tree. All of that was easy compared to the next step. You see I was only one block from home. That long walk home to tell my dad what had happened was the longest block of my life. It wasn’t his tree. It wasn’t his car; he had given it to me. It wasn’t his accident. But ultimately, I UNDERSTOOD that I had let him down. Similarly, ultimately we have to UNDERSTAND every sin hurts God.
Moving toward UNDERSTANDING the true depth of our sin, is moving toward forgiveness.
The third movement toward forgiveness in Psalm 51 is facing the CONSEQUENCES of our sin. We may need to make amends, seek human forgiveness, or accept the human consequences for our sin. According to the law, had David not been king, he would have faced at least two capital charges. Being human, David still had to face up to the damage he had done to his family and Bathsheba’s family. David did not try to sidestep the CONSEQUENCES of his sin. He never tried to avoid it. In fact, he tells God, “You are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment.” In other words. “I deserve whatever I get.”
Our journey toward forgiveness must include a movement toward facing the CONSEQUENCES of our sin. God, of course, is in the business of forgiveness but that does not mean we don’t have to repair broken relationships, or make amends for the evil we have done, or do the time that goes with our crime. God does not protect us from the personal, relational, and legal consequences for our sin. .
David accepted the consequence of his behavior. The son he conceived with Bathsheba would die in infancy. David faced the earthly CONSEQUENCES, grieved his son’s death, and then got up and asked for God’s forgiveness.
Moving toward accepting and dealing with the very real CONSEQUENCES of our sin, is moving toward forgiveness.
The fourth movement in our journey to forgiveness is a commitment to CHANGE. In religious language, we are talking about repentance. It is a commitment to change directions, a commitment to change behavior, a commitment to not sin again.
The Psalmist prays to God “teach me wisdom in my secret heart.” In other words, teach me how to change in the deepest parts of myself so that I will be more like God, and will not sin again.
Patrick Morley writes that the church's integrity problem is in the misconception "that we can add Christ to our lives, but not subtract sin. It is a change in belief without a change in behavior. It is revival without repentance."
Confession and forgiveness do no good if we turn around and do the same thing again. Committing to CHANGE is moving toward forgiveness.
Finally… finally… finally… finally, after moving toward forgiveness by ACCEPTING our guilt, UNDERSTANDING how we have harmed God, facing the CONSEQUENCES, being committed to CHANGE we are ready for the last movement: CONFESSION.
Too often we think that CONFESSION is all there is. Confession without ACCEPTING responsibility for our sin is empty. Confession without UNDERSTANDING the ripple effect of our sin is useless. Until we have made every effort to clean up our mess and face the CONSEQUENCES of our sin confession is a waste of time. If we are not committed to CHANGE, then confession is premature.
CONFESSION, however, is essential. I John 1:9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.
Why do we need to CONFESS? If God knows us better than we know ourselves, doesn’t God already know our sin? Yes. But confession is not for God’s benefit, but ours. Yes, God already knows, but it is like an infection that is killing us from the inside out. We must take all the guilt that is inside of us, and honestly, and humbly, admit our powerlessness as we lay it out for God to see in confession. Then the healing can begin.
Movement toward CONFESSION is movement toward forgiveness.
There you go. If you heart sank when I started out saying, “EVERYONE HAS FOUND OUT WHAT YOU ARE DOING.” The good news is that we haven’t… yet… and the even better news is that in the heart of God there is a solution for the guilt that weighs so heavily upon us.
These 5 movements ACCEPTANCE, UNDERSTANDING, CONSEQUENCES, CHANGE, AND CONFESSION moves us closer to the heart of God and closer to forgiveness. And in God’s heart forgiveness is not just saying “that’s OK,” or “Forgive and forget,” or whitewashing the past. In God’s heart, we are not fixer uppers. God is not in the business of repair, or patching us up and sending us out.
Notice there are different terms used there. "Create in me a clean heart, O God. And put a new and a steadfast spirit within me." Something is different there. There is talk of newness, of new creation. This is not the language of cleansing the old, or patching up the broken, or using duct tape and bailing twine to put us back together. No. When God forgives us, God creates something new something permanent. Something beautiful. Something perfect. Something free,
Paul Writes, “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”
The chains of guilt are broken and you are a new creation. The chains that have held you in bondage and fear of the past are broken and you are a new creation. The Chains that have trapped you in the bondage of your sin are gone… gone forever and you are a new creation.
The song says My chains are gone, I've been set free, My God, my Savior has ransomed me
And like a flood His mercy reigns, Unending love, amazing grace
Let that be your song as we sing it today.