Learning to Speak 2 (A Series of Ramblings on Prayer)

Sometimes clarity comes in the weirdest of places. The other day it happened in Kroger. I don’t know if you’ve noticed lately, but the checkout lane is….an interesting place these days. Your typical checkout line will showcase various celebrity magazines, lots of candy, and the occasional Time Life educational booklet. My personal favorite is the Weekly World News, the black and white “newspaper.” Over the years, the Weekly World News has set the journalistic standard by breaking stories like “Bat Boy Leads Cops on Three State Chase!” or “Scientists Plan to Blow Up the Moon!” (seriously, I saw that one). But perhaps even more ridiculous are the celebrity magazines.

These magazines/newspapers run articles on celebrities. They tell us when celebrities start to put on weight, when someone “might” be getting too thin. They also love to report weddings, but not as much as break ups. I mean, how many trees will have to die before Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt are finally happy? For some reason, we want to know. So we grab a Mr. Goodbar in the checkout lane and take in these juicy “morsels” (Pro. 18:8) that the National Enquirer serves up for us, even if we never take it off the rack. Which raises the question, “What does our desire to know both the absolute worst about people in the spotlight tell us about ourselves?”

We live in a world that LOVES absolutes. Black and white, no shades of gray required. You’re either this or you’re that. Fat or thin. Right or wrong. Conservative or liberal. Guilty or innocent. Smart or dumb. Fast or slow. Rich or poor. Hardworking or lazy. My best friend or my worst enemy. Pretty or ugly. We label both ourselves and others in this way. And we’re usually wrong. Most of us have this sneaking suspicion that its not that cut and dry. That the labels we’ve been given aren’t sufficient. That its becoming increasingly hard to dismiss people once you get to know them. Why else would we want confirmation that the people we like to pretend are perfect actually aren’t?

But most people aren’t comfortable with tension. It seems so…unresolved. How can someone be both of something?

Most people don’t realize it, but this truth, this tension, is at the heart of Christianity. Christians are both Sinner and Saint. Not one some of the time, and another some of the time. But both at the same time. Its the reason Paul could call the Corinthians “saints” (1 Cor. 1:2 NASB). You don’t have to skim too long in 1 Corinthians to see that these “saints” didn’t seem to live up to their name. But Paul calls them “saints” anyway.

The language of our culture puts great work into defining people. You fit in this box, or you fit in this one. One or the other. But the Psalms are a guide for learning a new language. The Psalms would have us believe that we are both sinner and saint. This new language is never more important than when learning to pray because our tendency is to follow our culture and either make too much of ourselves or too little, too much of our sin or not enough. And in the middle of this collection of poems and songs, we find a Psalm that testifies to this truth, Psalm 51.

A psalm of David.

When the prophet Nathan came to him after David had committed adultery with Bathsheba.

 1 Have mercy on me, O God,
   according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
   blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash away all my iniquity
   and cleanse me from my sin.

 3 For I know my transgressions,
   and my sin is always before me.
4 Against you, you only, have I sinned
   and done what is evil in your sight;
so you are right in your verdict
   and justified when you judge.
5 Surely I was sinful at birth,
   sinful from the time my mother conceived me.
6 Yet you desired faithfulness even in the womb;
   you taught me wisdom in that secret place.

 7 Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean;
   wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
8 Let me hear joy and gladness;
   let the bones you have crushed rejoice.
9 Hide your face from my sins
   and blot out all my iniquity.

 10 Create in me a pure heart, O God,
   and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me from your presence
   or take your Holy Spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation
   and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.

 13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
   so that sinners will turn back to you.
14 Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God,
   you who are God my Savior,
   and my tongue will sing of your righteousness.
15 Open my lips, Lord,
   and my mouth will declare your praise.
16 You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;
   you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
17 My sacrifice, O God, isa broken spirit;
   a broken and contrite heart
   you, God, will not despise.

 18 May it please you to prosper Zion,
   to build up the walls of Jerusalem.
19 Then you will delight in the sacrifices of the righteous,
   in burnt offerings offered whole;
   then bulls will be offered on your altar.

 

In this Psalm, David paints perhaps the most vivid picture of sin and confession in the Bible. From the very beginning, he seems to be saying that his sin gets out ahead of him, accusing him, shaping his day, telling him that this is who he is, that he’s worthless, that he will never catch it, that it will never be behind him. Sin is serious. It hurts. It wounds. And let me say this from my own personal experience, I think this picture is dead on.

This is what Christians do. We sin. We sinned yesterday, we’ll sin tomorrow. That doesn’t mean its not serious, and that doesn’t mean we can’t have victory over sin, it just means that the perfection our culture holds out in front of us is a lie. The only way we get out ahead of our sin is with God’s help (Verse 9-12). David even goes as far as to say we started sinning as before we were born.* We’re sinners.

But David, in the midst of the greatest mistake of His life, says something profound. He asks God to heal him so he can teach others (Verse 13). And he paints a picture of being really good at it. This is the power of confession. Apparently, sinners make good, even joyful, (Verse 12) saints.

In my walk with God, I often find myself swinging from one side of the pendulum to the other. I’m either worthless or perfect. Insecure or arrogant. We all have our tendencies. Some of us like to beat ourselves up. Some of think too highly of ourselves. Most of us do both. A Christian shaped by the Psalms will realize that even our best will sometimes have questionable motives, and that even our worst can be used for good. Sinner. Saint. Christian.

I encourage you to pray this Psalm when (not if) confessing sin or wrong, it doesn’t let you avoid it, and it doesn’t let you beat yourself up over it either. After all, the point of this prayer is to get on with life, to do it better. I’ll let you decide if that means reading the tabloids or not. 😉

 

Adam Daniels

Campus Minister

Georgia Christian Student Center

 

*Note that David is writing theology, but as a poet. Getting caught up on too much anthropology here misses the point of the Psalm.

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