Posted: 21 Feb 2012 06:13 AM PST
Psalm 51 gives voice to what psychologists call "life's most debilitating emotion"--guilt--and what theologians call "God's most liberating gift"--grace.
Anyone who is haunted by the memory of things done (or left undone) or said (or left unsaid) in the past understands the psalmist's lament. As much as we wish we had the power, we cannot undo history. The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, a collection of poems by an eleventh-century Persian scholar, offers a poetic description:
The moving finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy piety nor wit,
Shall lure it back to cancel half a line,
Nor all thy tears wash out a word of it.
What is past is condemned to stay there, and sometimes our memories of it are filled with tears and guilt. Unlike in golf, where you can take a mulligan if you miss a shot, life rarely offers do-overs. The psalmist knew the pain of that all too well. "I know my transgressions," he wrote, "and my sin is always before me."
So what do we do when guilt has us in its grip? The answer is that we do nothing. Rather, we receive everything. Forgiveness of sin and the resolution of guilt are things that God, through Christ, does for us. That is a central theme of Lent. "Have mercy on me, O God," says the psalmist, "according to your steadfast love." Our faith teaches that God loves us not "because of," but rather "in spite of." We call that grace. All we have to do to receive forgiveness is simply request it and trust in a God who loves us. It really is that easy.
Then come fresh starts and second chances. We learn from our past in order to fashion a better future. "Create in me a clean heart, O God," the psalmist asks, "and put a new and right spirit within me." History may not offer mulligans, but God always grants new opportunities and fresh beginnings.
Finally, Psalm 51 teaches, grace inspires response. We do not earn God's mercy, but if we take it seriously, we are driven by a spirit of thanks. We call that "discipleship." Discipleship simply means following where Christ leads. In this case we follow gladly because he leads from guilt to grace, from pain to praise, from burden to blessing, from death to life. How did the psalmist express it? "Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will turn back to you." Once we have found the power that liberates us from guilt to joy, we are eager to pass it along so that others, too, may experience that liberation.
This beautiful psalm is a beacon of hope to all who stumble in the shadows of regret. Whatever we have done or failed to do, whatever we have been or failed to be, God offers forgiveness and new beginnings--new beginnings filled with such unbridled happiness that we will want to pass the joy along to everyone.
Michael Brown, senior minister