“How joyful is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered! How joyful is a person whom the Lord does not charge with iniquity and in whose spirit is no deceit! When I kept silent, my bones became brittle from my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy on me; my strength was drained as in the summer’s heat. Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not conceal my iniquity. I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,’ and you forgave the guilt of my sin.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
Have you ever done anything wrong? I have a sneaking suspicion the answer to that question is yes. How did that make you feel? Be honest now. If you did it right, in the moment it probably felt good. That’s the tricky thing about sin. In the moment it usually feels pretty good. If it didn’t, we wouldn’t be so drawn to do it. The thing is, though, that in the moment feeling doesn’t tend to last very long. After a while, it gets replaced by something else: guilt. Guilt doesn’t feel so good. Guilt is a feeling we want to get rid of. David in Psalm 32 here tells us how. Let’s see what he has to say this morning.
Now, we don’t know the particular circumstances of David’s life that prompted this psalm. There aren’t any of those helpful editorial notes that some of his writings include. But what we can say from just reading the psalm itself is that David had done something wrong and was working to get it off his chest. He was nearly overcome by the guilt of whatever it was, and he was desperate to be relieved of that burden.
Sin and guilt are a fact of life in a broken world. That’s not simply a Christian reflection on the world either. Every single religion ever conceived has had some kind of an understanding of sin as well as a mechanism or series of rituals designed to take away the guilt sin naturally causes. There are some behaviors and actions that all people in all places at all times have identified as wrong. We didn’t need to be taught this either. It wasn’t some sort of lore that has been handed down. It is instinctive.
And yet, as instinctive as our basic understanding of sin is, we don’t like the guilt that comes with it. We want to rid ourselves of that feeling as quickly as we possibly can. In the ancient world and through the first 1700 years of the years or so on this side of Jesus’ birth, religion was the only way we knew to get rid of the guilt. When you had done something wrong, you used the various mechanisms your religious worldview offered to remove the feeling. Generally, your understanding of sin was shaped by the religious worldview you held, and so you naturally leaned in that direction for a reprieve.
Most often in the days before Jesus a relieving of guilt came by way of offering a sacrifice of some kind. The animal died, the smell appeased the gods, and your guilt was taken away. Even among religions after Jesus, though, there was still a series of things you could do to remove your guilt. The Catholic Church, for instance, would assign members to do various forms of penance – say this prayer, perform this charitable deed, go on this pilgrimage, and etc.
As the Enlightenment in Western Europe swelled into the 16th century, however, a new sort of thinking was developing. Eventually led and shaped powerfully by the French philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a new way of understanding the world was developing. This infant worldview was most notable in that it shifted the center of our understanding of the point on which the world spun from God or some religion more generally to ourselves. Under Rousseau’s influence the world was no longer primarily theologized, but psychologized.
This kind of thinking paved the way for the rise of atheism. Now, atheism as a concept had been around for a long time, but the philosophizing of men like Rousseau gave it an air of respectability it had never had before. And although it began as a finite philosophy, it gradually became more of a cultural phenomenon. That is, it gradually went from the way a few people actively tried to think, to the way everyone basically thought. When I am at the center of the universe and not God, then any thinking or interacting with God I may do is something I add to my thinking rather than the fount from which my thinking flows. In this way, the culture of the West today is atheistic as its starting point and religion is added on from there.
This does not mean that everyone around you is really an atheist in disguise. Atheism as a philosophical movement had a brief rush to the top in the first decade of this century, but quickly fell out of cultural favor. But many people who would not dare think of themselves as atheists nonetheless live their lives as if there was no God except where they consciously think to add Him in as a layer on top of things. Now, yes, some people add Him in as a much thicker layer than others, but there’s a difference between a layer and a foundation.
Here’s the problem with all of this: When you remove a coherent religion of some kind as a foundation point for getting rid of guilt, you still have to deal with the guilt of sin. An individual may not accept, say, Christianity’s particular category of what counts as sin and what doesn’t, but she will nonetheless still have some sort of understanding of what is right and what is wrong, and, because she is broken (whether she wants to admit that or not or even has a category for understanding it), she doesn’t live up to whatever standard of good behavior she has adopted for herself. In short: Just because you don’t accept Christianity or some other religion’s definition of sin and the ensuing guilt doesn’t mean you don’t have guilt anymore. It means you still have guilt, but don’t have an easy way of getting rid of it any longer.
As a result, a culture of people who have been trained to put themselves and their feelings at the center of the universe has had to come up with alternative ways of relieving the guilt of sin. One of the most common of these alternative approaches is some flavor of self-justification. At its simplest, self-justification is the attempt to convince ourselves that it was somehow okay we did whatever it is we know we shouldn’t have done and are now feeling guilty about. The reasons here can take all kinds of forms. It was my parents’ fault and the mistakes they made in raising me. I can’t help doing those kinds of things because of the baggage in my past. That person really deserved to have that kind of thing done to them. I needed to do this more than that person needed me not to do it. I really deserve to have this thing or experience as a payment for all the good things I’ve done. Sometimes our efforts are more convincing than others. Sometimes they aren’t.
Another common approach here is relativism of some flavor. Again, to oversimply the argument, relativism is the belief that nothing is really wrong anyway. Right and wrong are objective categories in a world that isn’t objective. What one person does is right for them, and another does is equally right for them. Sure, there is sometimes some uncomfortable overlap, but that’s just one of the prices to pay for us to all have the freedom to live as we please. Now, relativism as a philosophy is wildly incoherent in terms of its relation to reality, but that doesn’t make it any less tempting of a solution to deal with guilt. If nothing is really wrong, then I don’t have to feel any guilt.
This, however, brings us to yet another problem. Sin still remains. Sin is still sin even if we don’t want to call it that because God is still God even if we don’t want to acknowledge Him as such. No one holds to relativism consistently because it’s ultimately irrational. And self-justification gradually becomes like a little levy holding back too big of a tide. Neither make the guilt go away entirely or even for long. On the inside guilt keeps tearing us up as long as it stays there. That’s what David expresses so eloquently here. “When I kept silent, my bones became brittle from my groaning all day long.”
There is ultimately only one thing that relieves us of this oppressive guilt. That’s where David began this psalm. “Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven…” Forgiveness alone relieves us of the guilt of wrongdoing. Forgiveness alone wipes clean our dirty slates so that we can move forward in our lives with confidence and productivity once again. Forgiveness alone settles our accounts with the people around us so that we can once again enjoy the fruits of healthy relationships. Without forgiveness, guilt will never go away. It will continue to grow and poison the soil of our lives so that nothing good will grow in them. Eventually, it roots us in one place, and we are forced to watch as the world rushes past us.
The rather insistent question here should be pretty obvious at this point: How do we gain access to this relief? Well, the thing about these feelings of guilt that haunt us from the inside out is that they are there because we have offended someone. Maybe we have wronged another person. Yet even when we make things right with them, there is still something there. It’s as if being right with only the person we have offended isn’t enough. Actually, that’s exactly what it is because the other person we have offended isn’t the only party who has been so offended. To understand why this is, we need to face a big question: Why are we feeling guilt in the first place. Who was it that so defined this thing as wrong? If it isn’t a legal matter, it wasn’t the state. It couldn’t have been the universe itself. There must have been another person who did this. But who? All the clues here point us in one direction: God. The real question here, then, is this: How do we gain access to God’s forgiveness. David tells us that here too in v. 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” (emphasis mine). Confession is the means by which we obtain the forgiveness that can relieve our guilt by wiping away our sin.
This, of course, just raises another question: What is confession? The easy answer here is that confession is acknowledging when we’ve done something wrong. And that’s true, but I think there’s a bit more to it than that. To get ahold of this bit more, we need to see things through a lens to which David didn’t have access: Jesus. In Christ we come to understand that confession is chiefly not simply an owning up to something we did that was wrong. Confession is a statement of belief. Until we understand this, our confession attempts may not accomplish for us what we are seeking. Simply acknowledging a certain thing was wrong to have done is not enough to obtain the guilt-relieving forgiveness we need.
In Christ, when we confess our sins, what we are really doing is acknowledging our agreement with God’s revelation of His reality-defining character as good and right and the standard by which we should be living. Well, part of God’s character is justice. He is just. Our sin, whatever it happened to be, was a grievous wrong against His justice. That justice now needs to be satisfied. And simply acknowledging, “Yep, that was wrong,” isn’t enough to do that. We need more, and Jesus is the means by which God has provided that more. Jesus perfectly satisfied God’s justice for all sin by His death on the cross. The confession that grants us repentance, then, must acknowledge not only that we have sin in our lives keeping us separated from God. It must acknowledge Jesus as the means by which we can get back to a right relationship with God. It must acknowledge Jesus as the means by which we gain access to God’s forgiveness. That is, we confess not simply our sin, but Jesus as Savior and Lord.
That last part is particularly important. While there is forgiveness available in Christ for every sin we have ever or will ever commit, He is not to be taken lightly as a kind of forgiveness revolving door wherein we enter through Him, have our guilt relieved, and then swing back out to do more sin. If we want to enjoy the fullness of His forgiveness, we have to remain in Him. We have to make Him Lord. Only then will we have the life that is truly life.
Let’s land this thing here: There is a very great chance that you’ve got some sin in your life as you begin your journey into this new year. That sin has brought with it some guilt. That guilt is dragging you down in ways you don’t want to deal with any longer than you can help it. Confession is the way forward. Let God in Christ be not merely the blanket you throw over the top of your life in hopes of finding some psychological relief for what ails you, but the foundation from which all your thinking about yourself and the world around you flows. Confess your commitment to reality, especially the reality of Jesus as Lord, and enjoy the life that is truly life.