Friday, October 30, 2015

Blessed is the One Who is Forgiven: Learning to Pray Ps 32

Ps 32 is a lament psalm that serves to teach us how to pray for forgiveness. It is the second of the traditional penitential psalms that we introduced with Ps 6 (the others are Psalms 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143). Psalm 32 offers profound reflection on sin and forgiveness in its two parts: vv. 1–5 and 6–11. It also includes the role of the community of faith in the process of sin, confession, and forgiveness.

Blessed is the one
    whose transgressions are forgiven,
    whose sins are covered.
Blessed is the one
    whose sin the Lord does not count against them
    and in whose spirit is no deceit.
When I kept silent,
    my bones wasted away
    through my groaning all day long.
For day and night
    your hand was heavy on me;
my strength was sapped
    as in the heat of summer.
Then I acknowledged my sin to you
    and did not cover up my iniquity.
I said, “I will confess
    my transgressions to the Lord.”
And you forgave
    the guilt of my sin.
Therefore let all the faithful pray to you
    while you may be found;
surely the rising of the mighty waters
    will not reach them.
You are my hiding place;
    you will protect me from trouble
    and surround me with songs of deliverance.
I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go;
    I will counsel you with my loving eye on you.
Do not be like the horse or the mule,
    which have no understanding
but must be controlled by bit and bridle
    or they will not come to you.
10 Many are the woes of the wicked,
    but the Lord’s unfailing love
    surrounds the one who trusts in him.
11 Rejoice in the Lord and be glad, you righteous;
    sing, all you who are upright in heart! 

Vv. 1–2 open Ps 32 with two related beatitudes. This is a psalm about being happy. This is a theme of the Psalter. We’ve seen the word “happy” in our readings of Psalm 1:1, 2:12, and 146:5. Happy means living in a state of God’s blessing.

   What is indicative of being in a state of God-given blessedness according to Psalm 32? It is the experience of the forgiveness of sin. Verses 1–2 reflect on a life of grace: the blessing of forgiveness and a life marked by faithfulness in response to God’s grace. This psalm invites its pray-ers to reflect on our lives before God and our community to be sensitive to our brokenness and bring our sins and failures to the only source of cleansing: the LORD.
   Verses 1–2 makes three statements about sin and forgiveness. The psalmist uses three different words for sin: transgression, sin, and iniquity. The psalmist also deploys three different verbs for God’s response to it: forgiven,  covered, and does not impute. The richness of the vocabulary reminds us of the seriousness of the problem. Psalm 36:1–4, which we will look at this week, likewise offers a broad description of sin. Sin is serious business. God calls us to love God and love others (including ourselves). Sin is the totality of acts and motivations that move us away from living fully as the people whom God created us to be. Sin finds its root in self-will apart from living moment–by–moment in relationship with God. It involves outright acts of rebellion and times when we miss the mark (intentional or unintentional). Broadly it also includes an attitude or will that continually intends or desires a path contrary to God’s loving ways.

   Part of the story of us all is the problem of our brokenness. Sin drags on us. It hurts us. It weighs on us in the depths of our beings. Verses 3–4 describe the psalmist’s own testimony of sin’s effects on the psalmist. Yet this psalm contains good news. God does not leave us in our struggles, alienations, and despair due to our sin. God acts to cleanse us. 

   What does it take to experience God’s cleansing? All it takes is voicing our need for God. In verse 5, the psalmist models the response of the faithful: confession and acknowledgement to God. When we recognize our faults and flaws, this opens us up for the work of God in our lives. The psalmist testifies that God has indeed forgiven him. 

   The second half of Ps 32 serves as a witness to the community about good news of forgiveness. Verse 6 opens with an exhortation to all in faithful relationship with God to continue to pray. The apostle Paul will later advise some of the earliest Christians, “Pray continually” (1 Thes 5:17). Prayer connects us with God. We abide in God through prayer. The psalter has explored prayers of praise and prayers for help. Prayers of confession remind us that we must stay in relationship with God even when we have created the mess that surrounds us.

   The faithful will find security with God. The psalmist moves from exhortation to the faithful to direct address of God. God secures the psalmist’s future despite the sins that he committed and confessed. This does not mean that the psalmist escaped any consequences. He hinted at them in verses 3–4. But our text does declare the consequences are finite in comparison with God’s infinite capacity to forgive and create a new future for the psalmist. This is good news for the psalmist and for us!

   Verses 8–9 introduces a new voice to the psalm. In these verses, someone from the community, perhaps a priest, speaks wise counsel and instruction into the psalmist’s life. This is a critical component for the psalmist as he lives into the experience of forgiveness and restoration. There were reasons for wrong behavior and actions. If the root causes of sin are not addressed, we can easily turn them into recurring patterns. As part of the experience of forgiveness that Ps 32 envisions, the community comes alongside of the forgiven psalmist to provide guidance so that the psalmist does not embody the worst characteristics of a horse or mule—a lack of understanding. The Christian faith is not a solitary adventure. God’s people exists to serve as a missional community that reflects God’s character. Our sins mute our witness to the world. As a community of faith we need each other’s support, prayers, and guidance as we seek to follow Jesus into the world on mission. Verses 8–9 invite us to listen to our community at the times of our own deep need for forgiveness.  
   Verses 10–11 bring Ps 32 to a conclusion by announcing a sure foundation for living our lives. The psalmist briefly mentions the challenges and woes of the wicked. If we choose to live in our sins, we will experience hardships. This is true for all people. But there is good news: the LORD’s committed and faithful love abides with all who trust and find true security in the LORD. When we choose the way of faith and faithfulness, we are able to live in the joy that verse 11 invites us to embody. Our rejoicing serves as a testimony to the watching world.  

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