image by Aaron Burden from Unsplash
Psalm 51, in my Bible, is the only page that has a special fawn book tab sticker to mark it out. Partially because the moment I stuck it on I regretted it big time--I didn't realize how thin my Bible pages were, and they tore around the sticker edges if I wasn't careful turning the page. AbortMissionAbortMission--
But that's just standard characteristically bad decision making; Psalm 51is the psalm that became meaningful to me when I was seeking to be saved. Perhaps the first time that the Bible really 'spoke' to me, to use a trite phrase. When the aptness and timing almost frightened me. When I realized for the first time why reading the Bible is not like reading War and Peace or any other old thick book with tiny text.
I still remember a particularly low point, struggling with feeling depressed and hopeless because I was forced to accept that no matter how hard I tried, I could not make it through a single day without regret, without realizing I had acted selfishly or proudly; without anger and impatience--and the list goes on. During this time, crushed by the appalling proof of the limits of my self-control, of just how useless "trying harder" was, I found myself drawn more and more--not to the deep theological discussions and records of Jesus's life in the New Testament, or the multi-faceted stories of the Old Testament that I had always enjoyed as a child, but to the Psalms--that unassuming book somewhere in the middle which I had always passed by. David's intimately personal "I" and the honest, vulnerable expressions of his emotions--his frank, child-like joy in God, or his most wretched moments of guilt and self-doubt--were something that drew my own restless, unhappy heart.
David had always been one of my favourite characters. I tried my best to forget about that horrid incident in and as a result the preface to Psalm 51--"To the Chief Musician. A Psalm of David when Nathan the prophet went to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba"--kind of put me off the rest of the Psalm. For the first time, however, I remember looking past the shadow of that incident and feeling verse one hit me in the pit of the stomach; "Have mercy upon me, O God..."
In the 21st century vocabulary we don't speak like that. This was what my heart had been groaning wordlessly, and it felt almost like relief, hearing it articulated so honestly and simply for me. Yes. Mercy. Simply mercy--I had no excuses, no reasons, only a wracking yearning need to be lifted out of this swampy morass of guilt and self-doubt, even self-loathing, that I could see no way out of. With a small sighing sob I felt the smart of tears, and looked through them at the rest of the psalm, blinking.
Empathy. Catharsis. Comfort. Guidance.
But more importantly, hope.
I found those as I made my way slowly through the rest of Psalm 51. And each time I reread it, I find more things to carry away, to store up, picking up pearls that only add to the beauty and significance this particular psalm has for me.
Have mercy upon me, O God,
According to Your lovingkindness;
According to the multitude of Your tender mercies,
Blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
And cleanse me from my sin.
3 For I acknowledge my transgressions,
And my sin is always before me.
Guilt, ever-present, forcing us to realize that something is wrong with us, something is wrong with this world, that we have a gaping hole, a desperate need of Someone greater than ourselves...
4 Against You, You only, have I sinned,
And done this evil in Your sight--
That You may be found just when You speak,[a]
And blameless when You judge.
This always caught me unexpected--a reminder to see our sin in its full scope; as primarily an act of rebellion and rejection against God Himself.
5 Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,
And in sin my mother conceived me.
6 Behold, You desire truth in the inward parts,
And in the hidden part You will make me to know wisdom.
This is not the problem of isolated acts, isolated "bad decisions," moments of weakness, as we'd like to think--because we want to think that we can manage it, we are basically good despite these small flaws.
This is something intrinsic to our human condition, from our very conception; something that underlies our whole world.
And to change--to fix it--we need likewise a transformative change. Not a quick fix or a coverup, but from the inside, from our "inward parts". You need to change us. You need to plant truth and wisdom in the very core of our being, to transform us from the inside out. Our hearts, not just our external actions, need to be changed.
7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
8 Make me hear joy and gladness,
That the bones You have broken may rejoice.
9 Hide Your face from my sins,
And blot out all my iniquities.
The self-aware, cringing consciousness of guilt, of impurity--washed away. Cleansed, as thoroughly and simply and effectively as physical cleansing. The satisfaction of watching the dirt being blasted away, watching the cleanliness being restored. Free!
Free, and joyful.
No longer trapped inside the swampy morass, even though we might have broken a few bones in our fierce struggle to get out. Wounded and weak and still vulnerable, still raw from the struggle, perhaps; but rejoicing.
10 Create in me a clean heart, O God,
And renew a steadfast spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me away from Your presence,
And do not take Your Holy Spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of Your salvation,
And uphold me by Your generous Spirit.
13 Then I will teach transgressors Your ways,
And sinners shall be converted to You.
14 Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God,
The God of my salvation,
And my tongue shall sing aloud of Your righteousness.
15 O Lord, open my lips,
And my mouth shall show forth Your praise.
And here you have the new convert's earnest prayer--for sanctification, for perseverance. With a vivid awareness of how much, how intensely you need God's presence. The power and guidance of the Spirit. In order to have a "clean heart"--to persevere--to have joy. And even--I found this point especially enlightening--to spread the Gospel. David prays, not simply to evangelize as a duty, but for God's abundant mercy and joy on him, which overflows into the most powerful and effective--and sincere--evangelism. Evangelism akin to praise.
16 For You do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it;
You do not delight in burnt offering.
17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit,
A broken and a contrite heart--
These, O God, You will not despise.
And to balance that, David acknowledges that yet, all these things, all the things he promises to DO for God, they are not what is actually important. They do not earn him merit. That's not why he does them.
As John Piper said in Desiring God, our desire to be like God, to be righteous like God, should be our motivation--arising from our deep love and joy in Him; like a boy to whom the most intense, direct enjoyment of football would be to play the game himself, rather than simply watch others play.
Instead, how do we please Him?
With humility. With repentance. With faith in Him, not in ourselves.
18 Do good in Your good pleasure to Zion;
Build the walls of Jerusalem.
19 Then You shall be pleased with the sacrifices of righteousness,
With burnt offering and whole burnt offering;
Then they shall offer bulls on Your altar.
With that as our foundation, we are empowered to truly serve in the more common, concrete action-oriented understanding of the word. To change lives for the better, to nurture and bless and build up our communities and the people around us. To build the walls of our own Jerusalems, not because God is depending on us to get it done, but because we see ourselves as the instruments of His good pleasure, of His power. Without the pride, self-reliance, anxiety, and doubt that characterizes human achievements. With humility and purity in our personal lives as the foundation for these "sacrifices".
Those are the sacrifices of righteousness, the sacrifices that please You.
I remember flopping back and staring up at the impassive blankness of the ceiling, baffled.
Why is this so hard?
It had been a long while since I fell back into this particular habitual sin--so long, in fact, that I'd congratulated myself, felt that I'd successfully conquered it. And then, just when I was least expecting it, I fell.
Let he who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall.
1 Corinthians 10:12.
Clenching my fists, an instinctive response, made me realize that I had done this too many times. This feeling--guilt, shame, self-reproach, and most of all a sense of confusion at my own foolishness--was too familiar. Every time I would knuckle my fingers under and tell myself, I'll try harder next time. I will be strong. I will be more prepared. I will--I will--
What completely baffled me was waking up to the realization that willpower was not the answer.
And that left me lost because, for so many things in life--so many challenges that I've faced, and overcome, in more or less messy ways--willpower and reason were the weapons I clung to.
We are so used to clenching our fists. Facing the chinup bar, cringing at the premonition of burning muscles, but willing myself to do it this time, I clench my fists. The moment before I walk into an exam, or on stage, I breathe deeper and knot my fingers over sweaty palms. Facing uncertainty in the future, hoping desperately for success, my fingers dig into my palms once again as I reason with myself.
I try. I try, hard.
In so many things in life, we push ourselves forward clutching reason and willpower tightly, propelling ourselves forward on our faith in our ability to try, try. And that is not a bad thing.
But when it comes to dealing with habitual sin we need something more than just reason and willpower.
We have to realize first of all that habitual sin is more than just one isolated act. It is a lifestyle. A state of being.
Which is why the Bible uses the metaphor of slavery to talk about our ongoing struggle with sin, the gory process of sanctification. You are born a slave, and identify yourself/are identified as a slave--not because of one or several acts of obedience, but because that is how you live your whole life, how you see yourself.
Sin is an enslaving power rather than an isolated action,
And that's why when dealing with habitual sin it's not enough to simply think I'll have more will-power next time, I'll try harder next time, the way that works with dieting or acing an exam. It is not enough.
Our lapses into sin, which are really our lapses in love, stem from our existing relationship with God, our current ongoing spiritual state. Each fall is more than one incident--it is another link in the existing chain of our slavery to sin. And when we look back, all those one-off decisions (oh, I lapsed this once; this will be the last time; I wasn't trying as hard as I could have) form a definite and damning pattern of repeated sin.
To confront habitual sin in our lives we have to re-examine our relationship with God. See the link between the state of our current spiritual life and our inability to keep away from that one besetting sin.
We need to relearn what grace means. To accept the harsh truth of our limitations, our inability to handle ourselves even with the help of reason and willpower--the two tools that enable us to accomplish so much elsewhere.
We need to pray for the Holy Spirit's help. Acknowledge our weakness, not just after we sin, but before--and ask for a strength that we can barely imagine right now, in our state of frailty.
Note to self: If you haven't actually read the Bible straight through--and that means without skipping any of the Minor Prophets or any of the genealogies in Numbers--don't assume you're very familiar with it.
For example, Matthew 20:1-16--the parable of the workers in the vineyard.
Somehow, even though I had definitely heard this parable several times before, probably at least once in the form of a sermon, and almost definitely made a Sunday School arts and craft activity on it, I totally forgot about it. Hearing it brought up a few days ago gave me a shock. Wait, what? There's this parable in the Bible?
Basically, an employer hired three batches of workers throughout the day but finally paid them the same amount. HE distributed payment to the last ones first, a very significant move, since it led the ones who had been hired earlier on to expect they would receive even more than those.
To their surprise, they received the same amount--the standard amount for a day's wages.
Of course, there were complaints. Not from those who had come in last, for sure, but from those who had been hired first.
And the Master's response was a poignant reminder that grace, although it is what we need so badly, is also what we often fail to understand.
I find this scene almost comical because it has that unmistakable touch of real life. I can almost see this scene happening--in Sunday School, in class, at work, even at home. The sense of the entitlement has petty origins but should not be underestimated as a force.
Like the elder brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son, this sense of entitlement often manifests itself as our understanding of justice. Isn't it unfair? But the two are not really the same and one way we can see this is the fact that entitlement is often characterized by being relative. As youth in this first world society, in the twenty-first century, our sense of entitlement is very much alive and kicking. We have so many expectations for our lives, be it the amount of pocket money we get, how strict our parents are with us, how often we watch movies and when do we go past the PG boundary, whether we get to attend that concert, and how many of the latest hit songs we ought to be humming under our breath. And so much of this is relative.
As someone who had a relatively isolated and sheltered childhood, (I hate reinforcing stereotypes about homeschoolers but there are some basis for truth) I often experienced getting 'the stare' from peers as I got older, when I accidentally revealed another Martian-worthy fact about myself. I wasn't allowed to watch TV? (well, we just didn't do it on a daily basis. It was almost always a special family event when we did.) I had no idea who Taylor Swift was until last year? I had never been to school before? (this one never fails to drop jaws)
These revelations used to be amusing until I realized they were often genuinely freaked out. I felt alarmed when I realized that they actually saw me as seriously deprived, if not downright abused, something I had no idea I was and had no desire to start feeling insecure about. To me, these were just characteristics of my childhood, part of what made me who I was, part of what enabled me to develop in the way I had. To see how, in someone else's eyes, it was something I had been denied, to see them experience a vicarious sense of entitlement, was a strange sensation. And hey, I discovered Taylor Swift in my own good time, without any obvious effects due to the delay--for better or for worse.
The interesting thing is that the complaints of the first batch of workers stemmed not from the reason that the Master had given them less than they deserved--they got exactly what they expected--but because someone else got more. If they hadn't seen him passing a denarius to the others each would had definitely gone home without any complaints, whistling, with his denarius stowed comfortably in his pocket. The value of one denarius suddenly became relative.
They were unable to rejoice with the other workers, even though it cost them nothing to rejoice; if the Master had given those workers less than one denarius, it certainly didn't mean he would have given the previous ones any of that margin.
Entitlement blinded those workers from seeing the grace that the Master showed to the other workers hired later--and it is strangely touching to me how that little touch in verse 6-7 evokes so much mercy and empathy in the Master, who saw and understood the anxiety those workers must have felt, waiting helplessly for someone to hire them so they could earn the money they needed to live. I thought of the direct correlation between work and survival, which was the poignant impression I got from North and South.
Likewise, I was forced to wonder, what is our equivalent today? Am I one of those grumbling workers throwing dirty looks at those hired later? I suppose sometimes Christians are tempted to compare the amount of blessing--whether success, help, response, ability--that God grants in their ministry, in correlation to the amount of time or effort they've put in. We've been serving faithfully drafting the prayer letter and schedules for church, yet no one gets inspired and encouraged by our labours the way everyone did over the mission trip So-and-So organized, for example. Or perhaps I put in all that effort to organize a meetup and only two people turned up; whereas this last minute idea got overwhelming response. I've been praying for my loved one's salvation for years. Why should someone else's prayers be answered so soon? It's been months since I started struggling to do my devotions every day, and yet I haven't experienced the same sort of effortless refreshment and joy that she shares so enthusiastically about after getting up at six once. Or even--I came to faith years earlier than he did, and yet God seems to be blessing him with so much spiritual growth. Why did so many challenges and distractions come my way when I first believed, and yet this guy seems to be living in a constant state of hallelujahs?
Entitlement is destructive because it prevents us from being able to rejoice with others. It prevents us from being able to appreciate the grace already shown to us, it prevents us from understanding grace itself--the very essence of which is unworthiness, the opposite of entitlement.
It is God who arms me with strength, and makes my way perfect.
He makes my feet like the feet of deer, and sets me on my high places.
He teaches my hands to make war, so that my arms can bend a bow of bronze.
You have also given me the shield of Your salvation;
Your right hand has held me up,
Your gentleness has made me great, so my feet did not slip.
I found an old entry in a prayer journal on this section of Psalm 18. yes, I had scribbled, and the (extra) spidery appearance of my handwriting indicated that it was a very heart-felt yes--I need the impossible. I need help to do the impossible.
I want to do so much more than I am doing now, though I'm already engrossed just keeping up with everything.
I want to love people and serve and care for them even though I struggle with bitterness or burn-out from serving.
I feel like I'm at my limits. Because I'm at my limits, because I can't see myself being able to fulfil that, I need God to 'enlarge the path under me'--I can't walk better or keep from tripping.
This may sound hard to understand, but it ties in to another verse in this psalm, a phrase that I never understood until I had my first experience of great grief: Your gentleness has made me great.
I am learning, growing, in so many painfully precious, staggeringly significant ways, because of pain and trouble. I see so many huge mistakes and blindspots and cesspits in my maze of a heart, which I couldn't have seen otherwise. A whole new aspect of God's goodness and love; learning to value both so much more, in the war ground of crisis.
because I am weak--
I cannot take much pain.
I'm lousy at suffering. If I was pushed into the heat of the fighting I probably wouldn't survive. Just struggling along the fringes of it is bad enough--one flesh wound, and I feel like I'm dying.
I know that what I struggle with now is nothing compared to what I see others having to deal with. I see how, even as I feel burdened down, how much worse it could have been, or become. A lesson which comes in the shape of an open, smarting wound, but which could have likewise come in the form of an amputation
--which, at this point in my immaturity, I likely wouldn't be tough enough to survive for long.
He is gentle with me. He knows just how shallow my thresholds for pain and suffering are. He gives me what He knows I can bear, and with these relatively small, easy lessons, moves me forward in guided baby steps towards greatness.
Greatness of mind, and soul, and heart.
Greatness of faith.
But it's a balance too. Earlier on it says that He 'makes me feet like the feet of deer'. He gives me skills and ability that aren't even within my species, that are so far from my natural ability, to put it another way. To bend a bow of bronze--besides the lovely imagery and cadence of this phrase, I never actually realized the impact of the metaphor until I read Elizabeth George Speare's The Bronze Bow and discovered that actually the very idea of a bow made of bronze was in itself a symbol of impossibility.
Sometimes, He helps us by enlarging the path for our dragging feet, catering to our individual limits with the gentleness that one would hardly dare to expect from One who is God.
Other times, He helps us by gifting us with the skills and abilities and wisdom that seem so unnatural now, enabling us to do what would previously have been the impossible, to bend the bow of bronze with hands suddenly deft and powerful.
He gives grace in both ways, according to our needs and His will.
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
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