As we begin a new season of Lent, Psalm 32 helps us to reflect not only on the common Lenten theme of sin, but on the often overlooked subjects of guilt and shame. Over the last few years, guilt and shame have been important topics of study and conversation in American popular culture. While Brené Brown has done some very valuable work and recently helped many of us climb out from under the heavy hand of shame, the psalms have been declaring the foundations of these truths for centuries!
To those of us coming to this text from a Wesleyan-holiness tradition, Psalm 32 offers a very important cautionary tale of what happens when we deceive ourselves into thinking that we are no longer susceptible to sin. It’s difficult enough to live in the way that God has called us, and to resist the many temptations of sin and evil, both individual and systemic. But when you add on an expectation of sanctified holiness, we can very easily find ourselves living in a deep and persistent state of shame.
Have you ever noticed a lack of joy among those who are particularly assured of their sinless state of sanctification? Our psalmist speaks not of the sinless, but tells us it’s the forgiven who are happy, and those in whose spirit there is no deceit.
If one has claimed an experience of being made holy, of overcoming sin and giving oneself fully to God, and that person is part of a community whose identity is found in their understanding of themselves as a holy community, it can be very difficult to acknowledge or confess that sin has taken hold. So, instead of acknowledging or confessing our sin, we excuse it, we cover it up, and we deceive ourselves into thinking that we have continued on in holiness, as individuals and as a community of faith.
But we are people who belong to God, whose very spirits are inhabited by God’s spirit, and so, while we are working hard to deceive ourselves and each other that we are sinless, the truth is crying out from within us.
The truth of our un-confessed sin takes many forms. The psalmist speaks of the body wasting away. There are many studies that have shown a clear correlation between the state of one’s physical and emotional health. The truth within us finds a way of being heard, through sickness, through addiction, through depression or anxiety, and sometimes through the practice of scapegoating, projecting our own sinfulness onto a person or a group we have chosen to represent what it is to be sinful, and to bear that weight for us all.
While we go on living in sin, the constant work of deceit is exhausting. We must continue to uphold our appearance of morality and holiness, while blocking out the testimony of God’s spirit to our hearts. This unnecessary and unhealthy way of living dries up every bit of our strength to the point that we have nothing left to give.
The psalmist finally accepted the truth of his sin, came out of hiding, and allowed himself to be real and vulnerable before God, to confess his truth. “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” the psalmist said. And the testimony is that the Lord forgave “the guilt” of the psalmist’s sin. Not only was the sin forgiven, but the burden of guilt that felt like a heavy hand was lifted.
Then, the psalmist begins to rejoice in a new discovery of who God is, “You are a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with glad cries of deliverance.” The one who acknowledges their sin and comes vulnerably before God confessing that sin, finds not judgment or condemnation, but safety and rescue!
Many can attest to the incredible feeling of freedom and acceptance that comes from finally confessing our sinfulness to God. When we come out of hiding and fall at the feet of the Lord, our truth laid bare, we find not a heavy hand, but a loving Parent who picks us up and holds us closely, who offers protection and help to get us out of the mess we’ve found ourselves in, and who offers wise instruction and counsel to continue to guide us along the Way.
Perhaps we should pause here and ask ourselves if the way we preach and lead our ministries lends itself to this kind of experience when sin is uncovered or confessed.
The final verses of Psalm 32 remind us that the wicked are people who are experiencing torment. If you happen to have particularly tormented people in your congregation, you may ask God to help you preach and minister in a way that leads to vulnerability and trust, so that the tormented can be freed from their silent deception and come to a place of acknowledgement and confession of their sin. Is it safe for people in your congregation to understand themselves as sinful?
Of course, our congregations are likely to identify “the wicked” as people outside of our communities, not within them. So in that case, what does it mean for us to see the wicked as “tormented”. And what does this psalm teach us about the posture of God toward those who are tormented by the guilt of their sin?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote,”Nothing that we despise in other men is inherently absent from ourselves. We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or don’t do, and more in light of what they suffer.” Wickedness, sin, guilt and shame are suffered by those within our communities and those outside of them. May we grow in our trust that God is forgiving and good, becoming honest with ourselves and vulnerable before God, so that we too can be surrounded by the steadfast love of the Lord and filled with gladness and joy.
Lead Pastor, Nexus Community Church of the Nazarene