Monday, May 29, 2017

Reading Psalm 51 for Transformation

Psalms 51–72 offer a Davidic core at the heart of Books II–III. Most of the psalms include “Of David” or are untitled except for Ps 72 (“of Solomon”). Ps 72 concludes with “The prayers of David son of Jesse are ended” (72:20).  Moreover, eight of these psalms (Pss 51, 52, 54, 56, 57, 59, 60, and 63) include in the heading references to challenges in David’s life from the books of Samuel.  By linking psalms to difficult episodes in David’s life, the Psalms remind us that even godly kings such as David still faced challenging seasons. As we seek to live out God’s missional in the world, we must recognize that this commitment will not translate into a worry free or storm less life. For the next two weeks, we will explore these Davidic prayers as models for our own during times of need.

We begin with one of the most well known psalms from Book II: Psalm 51. Psalm 51 is a penitential prayer (prayer for forgiveness). The others are Pss 6, 32, 38, 102, 130, and 143.

Ps 51 is a model prayer of repentance, sorrow, restoration and renewal. In 2 Samuel 11–12, David sinned greatly, but turned wholeheartedly to the LORD. Israel’s great king committed adultery with a woman named Bathsheba. Then after Bathsheba became pregnant with David’s child, he ordered her husband Uriah murdered. The words in Ps 51 attempt to capture the spirit of his prayer as a model for all God’s people on how to pray when we have sinned. It serves as a reminder of the grave burden and consequences of sin, but also of the great mercy of God.

God desires for us to walk faithfully in love of God and neighbor, but when we do sin, God invites us to pray.  As Jesus’ followers, we have this promise, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).

The psalmist cuts to the heart of the matter in vv. 1–2:
Ps 51
To the choirmaster. A Psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet went to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.

51 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!

There are no excuses, hedging, or nuances in the psalmist’s words. He opens immediately with a request for God’s mercy and grace. The psalmist can pray boldly because he knows God’s character. He bases his request on God’s faithful love and abundant compassion. These are God’s core characteristics. The psalmist recognizes his guilt and uncleanness before God. God is his only hope. Verse two imagines sin and transgression as a filthy contamination that needs to be cleansed in the same way that dirty cloths must be washed.

The opening verses of Psalm 51 may remind readers of the prayer of the tax collector in Luke 18:13, “Lord, be merciful to me a sinner.” This was a prayer that Jesus affirmed as one that God answers. So it will be with those who pray Ps 51.

How do verses 1–2 teach us about praying to God for forgiveness?
What are areas in your life for which you need to ask for God’s mercy and grace?

Now let's look at the rest of Psalm 51:
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.
 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.

 The psalmist’s remaining prayer breaks up into three sections: vv. 3–9, 10–17, and 18–19.

Verses 3–5 summarizes the psalmist’s sorrow. There are no excuses—just confession of guilt. The psalmist does not attempt to hide wrongdoing, but admits that they are ever present burdens (v. 3). Moreover, the psalmist recognizes that these sins are against God. Yes, when we sin, we hurt others and ourselves, but our sins are ultimately against our loving Creator (v. 4). It is to God we will answer. The psalmist ends this section with a categorical confession of lostness (v. 5). His recent failures are recurring patterns. He has been trapped in sinful cycles since conception. The psalmist recognizes his inability to save himself. There is only one solution: the mercy, grace, and unfailing love of God. Often God’s greatest work begins on the ruin of our lives when we turn to him fully.

In verses 6–8, the psalmist again requests cleansing. The psalmist continues his view of his sinfulness as a stain that needed removed (cf. v. 2). The psalmist recognizes that his inner life does not line up with the expectations and will of God (v. 6). He asks  for God’s cleansing (v. 7) so that he can return to a life of joy and fulfillment. Sin will weary us. We must be sensitive to our need for God’s grace and turn to the LORD whenever we stray from God’s ways.

Verses 9–17 focus on specific for renewal and include vows of actions that the restored psalmist will take. Verses 9–12 lyrically capture the heart and passion of this prayer. The link to David is powerful. The great king has sinned and the stakes are sky high. David throws himself fully into the arms of God knowing that only God can restore him. He wants his sins and inquity removed (v. 9), but more importantly he wants his moment by moment relationship with God to be healed (vv. 10–12). This requires a work beginning in his inner core—his heart. Remember that heart refers to the will, intentions, and thinking center of a person.

In verses 13–17, the psalmist vows to teach others the way of the LORD and to confess publicly the praise of God. Experiences of God’s grace must always be spread and shared with others. Moreover, v. 17 reminds us of the posture with which we must approach God. Confession must be authentic. The psalmist is shattered by his sin. He approaches God not with sacrifices, but by freely admitting brokenness and lostness.

Psalm 51 concludes with a prayer that moves beyond the sorrowful psalmist to include blessings for Jerusalem/Zion (vv. 18–19). This is a reminder that our prayers must move beyond ourselves. Sin is subtle. It continually attempts to guide us into a deeper sense of individual entitlement and self-centered focus. The mark of the truly repentant in part is the ability to pray beyond our personal needs for the good of the community around us.

How specifically does Psalm 51 teach you to pray when you have sinned?

Describe how the psalmist understands restoration, renewal, and forgiveness.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Defining Truth

Fake news thrives in a world that longs for certainty apart from a deep trust in God. The fundamental question of truth will never be answered in a culture shaped by spin and talking points. The danger of our day is the temptation to root identity and truth in political ideologies of the left or right rather than in a moment-by-moment relationship with God.

This temptation finds in roots in the opening chapters of Genesis. In Genesis 3, we encounter the narrative of Eve, Adam, and the Serpent. Genesis 3 opens with the Serpent asking a probing question: “Did God really say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden?’” Bonhoeffer described this exchange as the “first conversation about God.”[1] In other words, the loss of truth emerges at the moment when humanity makes God an object of reflection and conversation rather than the principal subject of relational connection. 

In Genesis 3, Eve and Adam quickly succumb to the serpent’s words and eat the fruit of the tree that God had forbidden them from consuming. This changes the future for all humanity and marks the entrance of sin and death into the world (Rom 5:12–21). Once relationship is broken alternative truths become engaging. At the heart of the Genesis 3 story is a question that we must answer: Do I trust that a loving God has my best interests at heart as well as the interests of those whom I love deeply?

For Adam and Eve, they ultimately answered “No.” The rest was history. Yet Adam and Eve’s story is also a tale of our lives. It explains the origins of sin, but it also serves as a warning to us. When trust with the Creator is broken, we are left to find alternative pathways to certainty. This often leads us to trust our instincts, ideologies, and interests apart from a moment-by-moment relationship with the LORD. 

In the Old Testament, truth is anchored in the LORD (Deut 32:6, Isa 25:1, Ps 119:30). The Hebrew word is ’emunah. This word may be translated as “true”, “truth”, “reliable”, or “faithful.” What does it mean to be “true” or to be “truth”? It means that one is reliable, dependable, and faithful. Truth is found in the character of the LORD. Thus, it is relational because truth is defined in relationship with the LORD who is faithful and true. The LORD does and acts rightly, at the right time, every time. The LORD is dependable. The LORD is trustworthy. The LORD embodies faithfulness and stands over all human claims to truth. 

Scripture testifies to this truth from Genesis to Revelation. Through his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus lived out the truth and invites us to walk in its light. The way forward for us today is a moment by moment relationship with God.

Ask yourself: Do I trust that a loving God has my best interests at heart as well as those of the people whom I love deeply? When we can say “yes,” we have embraced the truth that truly makes us free.

This essay appeared originally in the Spring 2017 issue of the Asbury Herald.

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Creation and Fall: A Theological Exposition of Genesis 1–3. (Translated by Douglas Stephen Bax. Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works 3. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2004), 111.