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.
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give me peace and wisdom to handle this sense of overwhelming inability,
of being futilely stretched,
There are so many people needs and relationships, so many areas of service needing faithful people to commit to and labour in, on top of everything else; and most of all I just don't have TIME. Overused as the phrase is.
I feel helpless, struggling not to feel guilty or depressed over everything I couldn't do, everything I wish I could do, everything I couldn't do as well as I ought or wanted to. It's as if I'm trying to donate blood to as many people as possible in an endless cue...trying to make do by giving each one less, faint and bloodless, yet it's not enough.
I feel so helpless.
God help me. Human limits are staring me in the face.
Vaguely I recognize this as a lesson in learning to trust--learning humility--learning wisdom in loving and serving better...
I happened to flip back on an old journal entry where I was having a particularly bad case of burn-out. Discouraged. Exhausted. Verging on resentful, even as I felt guilty for failing, for not doing more.
I was trying to keep up my studies, wanting to be more active in church, uncomfortably aware that there was more I could do for my family, also unpleasantly conscious that to be an ambitious and productive young adult I should also be researching and getting my own projects done during this precious window of time before I graduated.
After all, "do all things to the glory of God," right?
We groan inwardly and resolve (more faintly each time) to try harder.
These are ugly, poisonous, unpleasant thoughts and feelings; but we shouldn't be afraid to confront them, because they indicate a serious problem in our spiritual lives, rather than our generalized diagnosis of inadequacies on our part, limitations of time and energy.
The Plate Spinner: A Little Book for Busy Young Adults by Dev Menon-- this thin little book happened to come my way recently.
I read it and realized:
1. almost every sentence was relatable
2. it was quite rare and refreshing, in my experience, to read a Christian book from a Singapore perspective.
3. though initially I was somewhat skeptical on how much of a resolution the author could provide to such a big, abstract problem, he made quite a good shot at hitting the nail on the head.
At least in Singapore, where our culture is ingrained with expectations of perfectionism and subsequently, constant assessment, this is a real issue. We really do have this unspoken ideal that we should excel at each area of our life, as Christians. "Do all things to the glory of God" has become a kind of pressurizing drive to excel, whether in spiritual or secular definitions of excellence; in every area of life, in your obligations and duties. You know how students get told that as a Christian student you glorify God by working hard at your studies and doing your best (which is true, in one sense, yet so easily gets twisted into a good grades=glorifying God mantra.)
On top of that, as young adults, we're juggling more and more responsibilities and relationships. The drive to excel, to be at the top not only of our game but of all the different games we're involved in (in Dev Menon's metaphor, the different slices in the pie graph of our lives) becomes overwhelming.
That means being a hard-working, responsible student/employee--getting good grades, promotions, respect.
That means coming for church and prayer meetings and serving in some way at church.
That means caring for our families and spending time/communicating with them.
Bonus points if you have some charity/outreach work you're involved in.
Oh, and did we mention being free enough to spend time with church friends outside of church? To be a listening ear to that needy friend in crisis?
That's the vision we all have of the "perfect Christian," isn't it?
We get burnt out and discouraged, wonder why we can't juggle everything and why, once we focus on one area, all the rest slip out of control.
The different slices of the pie graph seem to pull us in different directions and we often succumb to feelings of guilt, inadequacy, anxiety. Worse, we start to cut corners in an attempt to juggle better, or we start to resent the areas which take up more of our time than we'd planned for them to in our neat little pie graph. We start to get results-oriented, self-reliant, we dismiss people and their individual needs and opinions if they don't go along with our efficient plan, or we start to resent people who are 'needier', 'high-maintenance.' And we start to wonder, tiredly, why it's so hard to 'be a Christian'; that God's demands on us seem like the last straw on top of the other demands being made on us. Just another slice in the pie competing for our (very limited) time, energy, and effort.
Dev Menon calls this 'plate spinning.' Because we have our plate full rushing around keeping all of the many plates in our lives spinning (A lame pun, I know.)
It's a matter of perspective, at least that's what I've learnt to see in my own struggles with this issue.
Instead of thinking that being a Christian is one slice in the piechart of your life, which you're obligated to maintain--to see your entire life/the whole pie as your new life in Christ. Different aspects of it, that's all, but all contributing, all part of.
This collapse of the spiritual/secular divide, this consciousness of God in every day and activity, was crucial in my own spiritual growth, and I believe is just as crucial in overcoming the sense of burn-out and insufficiency we're talking about here. During the journal entry above, I hadn't quite reached this point yet, though I vaguely knew--as I recognized--that there was something fundamentally wrong with how I saw and applied my abilities, priorities, how I understood what it meant to address the different areas in my life as a Chr
I know, I know. Maybe "perspective" alone doesn't seem that liberating. After all, a change in perspective doesn't mean that we magically get an extra two hours, or that we can wave off going to church whenever we feel like it.
There are times, Menon emphasizes, when certain areas are going to need more time and effort than others. At these times, we should not feel guilty or like a failure if we need to step back from those other areas--consciously do less than the best. For example, you might need to spend more time with your family when a crisis happens, and take a step down from work, or--gasp!--serving in church. To truly see God in all areas of your life, and trust His timing and wisdom, we would be able to accept that this does not mean failure. That we're being a lousy Christian. That we're regressing spiritually.
Rather, we accept that God allowed this to happen--we accept our limitations--we accept that we have to change our focus, that God wants us to grow in this specific area, at this time.
This can only happen when our understanding of what it means to be a Christian transcends that pie slice labeled "Christianity/church-related" in our time, isn't limited to the activities that make up that pie slice.
Instead, we would see that God is making it clear that we need to actively pursue His help and presence in this particular area. That in it, we face another opportunity to understand Him better.
Instead of feeling woefully guilty and insufficient, as if God is throwing us dirty glances because we're not clocking in the hours required on His pie slice, we see it as under Him--from Him--rather than competing with Him.
And if you think about it--isn't that a more accurate and significant application of what it means to "do all things to the glory of God?"
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.
A while back in class I studied two works by Franz Kafka--The Metamorphosis and The Trial.
I'd read Metamorphosis before, identified with poor Gregor, felt I more or less understood its themes of alienation and dehumanization, but The Trial was beyond me. I didn't end up preparing it for my exams, but what little I read and was taught about it didn't make me feel I'd made any progress understanding or even identifying with it than if I'd been reading it on my own. (which is highly improbable; I would have put it down after the first chapter.)
Basically the protagonist K is told he's under arrest, for unspecified reasons, but is allowed to continue living his life per normal. He tries vaguely to get a lawyer, never really finds out why he's being arrested--or really seems to care as much as we'd expect--and finally after a long interlude is taken out by two officers and shot. This summary sounds very inadequate and probably is, but that's pretty much the main plot.
Apparently one of the central themes of The Trial is the significance of guilt to the human condition, within the philosophy of existentialism. Kafka's own life story was pretty tragic and very much revolved around guilt, not surprisingly.
That aside, I didn't quite see the point. Guilt as central to being human? Really? Of course I said nothing in class, assuming that maybe I hadn't really understood it, or didn't know enough abut existentialism, or just hadn't lived long enough (which is more often the case than we'd like to admit!) After all, I was twenty-one and very much in love with life...
Now at twenty-two (and still loving life, albeit for different reasons) I think I won't be writing The Trial off so easily. Guilt really is probably one of the most crippling and horrible things that we could faec in life, looking at life from an existential perspective.
The Bible talks about guilt without God as 'worldly sorrow', and acknowledges its bleak hopelessness. (2 Corinthians 7:10)
If this earth is the only thing we can expect to experience, what happens to us here and what we do have terrifyingly final significance. Our one chance, our one experience of life, can be ruined by one mistake. You can't turn back time.
If ourselves and others are the only ones we can look to, we have no hope of ever really remedying our mistakes. What's done can't ever be undone. We can only try, often as not messing it up too--and live with the consequences as well as we can. We were made for ideals, and the conflict that subsequently comes of the less-than-ideal state of ourselves and the world only highlights that.
As such, guilt would be without hope. Guilt would be horrible. A psychological and internal disease we can't ever resolve completely, which we will inevitably suffer, and which will haunt us to the end of our lives as reminders of our failure.
I have so many things to feel guilty for, which could so easily warp how I see the past, and cripple how I see the future. People I have let down. Relationships I have let go when I should have fought for them. Selfish decisions or carelessness, or just plain ignorance, which hurt myself and hurt others. It's so easy to obsess over these things, to agonize over what-ifs and if-onlys, to beat yourself up over what went wrong. These things haunt you years down the road, ruin quiet moments of reflection, crush you repeatedly every time they surface in your mind.
But that's guilt without God. Or 'worldly sorrow,' as the Bible calls it.
Because we believe that this earth and our linear existence under the bondage of time, our limited knowledge and consciousness, and most of all the significance of this life--aren't everything.
Because we believe that there is a God Whose existence transcends the sort of existence we know, Whose knowledge transcends our knowledge, and Whose being is in itself evidence that life as we know it in this earthly form is not the ultimate. Because we believe that there is more than our limitations and our life here. Because we believe that even our mistakes and sins are not final.
Christ's death transformed the concept of guilt by enabling hope.
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
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