A New Heart (Psalm 51 & 32)

We live in a “dirty” world.  God created sex for the biological purpose of reproduction, and for the spiritual/social purpose of strengthening marital bonds.  Such intimacy even reflects the goodness found in God.  Yet when we strip sexuality of its beauty and purpose, we only exchange joy for guilt.  And shame.

Pamela Paul—a journalist for the L.A. Times—recently sought to trace the various ways that pornography has impacted our society.  She assembled this data into a book called Pornified: How Pornography is Transforming Our Lives, Our Relationships, and Our Families.  In it she interviews a woman named Vanessa, who felt a wave of guilt sweep over her after she and her boyfriend introduced pornography into their relationship:

“My [sexuality] has definitely been influenced by similar pornographic forces that men experience…At the same time, it’s icky…I don’t just want to become [another body]….I felt cheapened…I felt so empty after the experience.”

God’s design for sexuality is for couples to become “one flesh”—that is, to experience radical unity of body and soul.  Sex outside of marriage is wrong.  Why?  Because you can never say with your body what you do not say with your soul.

So what do we do with this guilt?  This has been the subject of psychology for more than a century—and the speculation of writers long before that.  Yet these can only offer—at best—a means of masking our guilt.  Only the gospel provides a means for it to be washed away.

At some point in David’s moral failure with Bathsheba, he composed a song of repentance, which we now know as Psalm 51:

To the choirmaster. A Psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet went to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.  Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. 2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin! 3 For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. 4 Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment.  5 Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.

You hear David’s plea?  He wants to be made clean.  At first blush, we might cringe a bit at verse 4—surely it wasn’t just “against God” that David sinned.  What about Bathsheba?  What about Uriah?  What about the servants involved in the scandal?  But David is saying that guilt doesn’t merely spring from a violation in the social order.  No, it goes deeper—it is a violation of the very character of God.  And what’s more, he says, is that we’ve all been born into a natural state of sin.  The ancient writer Origen once said that “everyone who is born into this world is born into a natural state of contamination…[we are] polluted in father and mother.”  The Christian idea of “original sin” doesn’t just say I do bad things.  It says I am a bad thing.  If that’s true, than there is nothing in the world that I can do to absolve my guilt.  I need radical forgiveness and transformation.

6 Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being, and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart.7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. 8 Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have broken rejoice. 9 Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.

10 Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.11 Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me. 12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit. 13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways and sinners will return to you. 14 Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, O God of my salvation and my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness. 15 O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. 16 For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. 17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. 18 Do good to Zion in your good pleasure; build up the walls of Jerusalem; 19 then will you delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings; then bulls will be offered on your altar.

Does it strike you as odd that God simply forgave David?  Yes; David would experience the tragic consequences of his moral failings.  But David would be cleansed and renewed.  That’s what grace fundamentally means.  You see, when Christ died on the cross, His blood didn’t just cover the sins of the people from then onward.  No, his blood would retroactively cover the sins of all the saints that lived before.

It’s doubtful that David understood this—at least not to the fullness that you and I do.  But David counted on a God whose greater desire was to extend mercy.  Later, the apostle Paul would write that God “saved us, not because of the righteous things we had done, but because of His mercy.  He saved us through the washing of rebirth and the renewal by the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5).  In a “dirty” world, the gospel promises expiation and regeneration—that is, Christ’s blood cleans our guilt, and God’s Spirit transforms us from inside out.

It’s this righteous character of God that prompted David to write elsewhere:

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 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. Selah

6 Therefore let everyone who is godly offer prayer to you at a time when you may be found; surely in the rush of great waters, they shall not reach him.  7 You are a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with shouts of deliverance. Selah

8 I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you.  9 Be not like a horse or a mule, without understanding, which must be curbed with bit and bridle, or it will not stay near you.

10 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! (Psalm 32:1-11)

You are not “damaged goods.”  Your sins don’t have to define you.  Christ’s blood covers you.  This new relationship changes your identity.

I rarely like to embed videos in these posts—some of you at work might have to wait until later to watch this—but few sermon excerpts speak as powerfully as this one.  This is an excerpt from a conference message from Matt Chandler of the Village Church in Dallas:

Luther once wrote that Christians are “simultaneously justified and yet sinners.”   Paul understood this from his own experience.  In Romans 7 he writes: “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.” (Romans 7:19) But in his same letter he writes: “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.” (Romans 8:11)  Following Jesus will cleanse your past.  And His Spirit shapes you into something new.

 

 

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“The Beating of that Hideous Heart” (Psalm 32)

heartEdgar Allen Poe’s “The Telltale Heart” is a classic story of paranoia, guilt, and a murder most foul.  The story is told from the narrator’s point of view, who defends his sanity all the while obsessing over the details of a murder.  Though the narrator claims to love the old man, he cannot tolerate the man’s “vulture eye” another day—and so he commits murder to rid himself of this menace.  He stashes the evidence beneath the floorboards, where he believes the matter has been put to rest.  So confident is he that when the police arrive to investigate, the narrator offers them chairs directly above the floorboards that conceal the old man’s body.

And that’s when he hears it.  The sound faint at first—like “a watch enveloped in cotton.”  But the sound persists, louder in his ears—surely the police hear it to? he wonders.   Finally he cries out:  “Villains! I admit the deed!—tear up the planks! here, here!—It is the beating of his hideous heart!”

MORAL EMOTIONS

Guilt belongs to a set of what psychologists call “moral emotions.”  Though Poe’s unnamed narrator is mad, we readily identify with his inner conflict and psychic pain.  Why?  Well, there’s no real consensus as to what purpose guilt serves—if any.  Sigmund Freud, the famous psychologist, believed that all human beings are trapped between a sense of love and loathing.  The human endeavor, then, is to learn to manage and mask this guilt—or, in some cases, to eliminate guilt entirely.  Though the specifics of Freud’s ideas haven’t stood the test of time, it’s hard to ignore his legacy.  There’s just one problem: we can never escape our guilt.  Guilt is far too universal.

In the latter half of the twentieth century, a psychologist named Richard Schweder suggested that humans experience “moral emotions” when we violate our standards of ethics.  If I violate the “ethics of community”—say, by cursing in a wedding toast—I feel a sense of embarrassment.  If I fail to achieve my personal goals—perhaps I miss a job promotion, or fail a test—then I feel disappointment at violating my own “ethic of autonomy.”  But if I feel a sense of guilt over some secret act, a sense of shame over my own thoughts and behavior, then I have violated what Schweder called the “ethics of divinity.”  Modern psychology only affirms what God’s word already tells us: that the “human heart is deceitful  above all things and desperately sick” (Jeremiah 17:9).

If you don’t have a church background, I can understand how you might feel a bit defensive.  Freud actually had a point when he observed that religion is the cause of our guilt as much as it is a solution.  “What I do in my bedroom is my business,” some might insist.  “What does it matter as long as I’m not hurting anyone?”  But if that’s true, if you really believe that, why is guilt so persistent and so pervasive?  It can’t be the negative effects of religion, or some lingering “Catholic guilt”—otherwise guilt would be a uniquely Western phenomenon.  No; guilt is a human phenomenon, and God’s Word tells us it is the symptom of a far greater disease.

It is the beating of our hideous heart.

DAVID’S REPENTANCE

This is why the so-called “penitential psalms” carry so much weight.  For centuries, confession of sin was considered a vital part of the worship experience.   Why?  Because repentance means more than reflecting on my guilt—it means turning toward the Source of my forgiveness.  So in Psalm 32 we read David speaking of what it means to be “blessed”—to be truly and joyously fulfilled:

1 Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.

2  Blessed is the man against whom the Lordcounts 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 as by the heat of summer.

Selah

Notice the Psalm is punctuated by the undefinable musical term Selah.  Each “stanza” of David’s blues song describes what repentance looks like.  David experiences guilt as a sense of inner anguish—he says that his “bones wasted away.”  But notice as well that in verse 4, David identifies God as the source of his guilt.  Why is this important?  Because it means that guilt doesn’t merely come from violating our own conscience or the shifting standards of our culture.  It comes from the very character of God.  Conform your life to God’s character, and you will experience blessing.  Violate God’s character, and you will experience guilt.

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.

Selah

David’s solution is confession.  Contemporary psychology has emphasized a division between guilt and shame.  Guilt says: “I did a bad thing.”  Shame says: “I am a bad thing.”  Seeking to bolster self-esteem, psychology sought to focus on removing shame.  But this proved to be toxic.  Why?  Because if I am motivated by guilt, I can change my behavior.  If I am motivated by shame, instead of changing my behavior I seek to improve my mood.  Rather than look to God for forgiveness, I turn my focus to lesser comforts—career, relationships, pornography—to improve my self-worth.  The tragedy is that this only deepens the spiral.  Our modern remedies only further the illness.  We need God’s true forgiveness.

6  Therefore let everyone who is godly offer prayer to you at a time when you may be found; surely in the rush of great waters, they shall not reach him.

7  You are a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with shouts of deliverance.

Selah

Guilt can only be taken care of by God.  David, of course, didn’t have the benefit of our knowledge.  David’s righteousness was given on credit—but the bill would come due at Calvary.  When Jesus died on the cross, the forgiveness and blessing wasn’t just applied to the church that would come after Him—it was also granted to all God’s people who came before.

God therefore becomes the truest and best hiding place for those experiencing deep and profound guilt.  Our hearts are truly dirty, deceptive, hideous.  But the gospel promises that in time, we shall be granted a new heart, a clean heart—one that replaces the one we have now (Ezekiel 36:26).

What does life look like in the meantime?  It means living on mission, and sharing this same message of forgiveness:

8  I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you.

9  Be not like a horse or a mule, without understanding, which must be curbed with bit and bridle,or it will not stay near you.

10  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!

(Psalm 32:1-11)

Our lives are meant to gradually yet faithfully reflect the character of God.  When they do, we experience unspeakable joy.  When they don’t, we experience unspeakable grief.  God’s judgment weighs heavily on our minds—but justly so.  The good news of the gospel is that this judgment fell on Jesus, so that Jesus’ perfect record could be given to me.

In 2011, an elderly couple died an hour apart from each other.  The husband passed first—but family and medical staff were baffled that his heart monitor still registered a pulse.  It was because his wife lay beside him.  The rhythm of her heart was enough to be felt through her husband, as though love itself radiates like pure energy.  The same is true for you and for me.  My heart isn’t just hideous; it’s dead.  But when I stay close to Christ, the heartbeat of God flows through me, trading my guilt for his acceptance, death for life, and tears for joy.