This is the first Sunday in the season of Lent which is kind of a countdown to Easter. The focus of Lent for many people is giving something up, but what is the purpose of that and what does it really mean? Merriam Webster’s Dictionary defines it as “a period of penitence and fasting.” Wikipedia states that “The traditional purpose of Lent is the preparation of the believer — through prayer, repentance, almsgiving and self-denial — for the annual commemoration during Holy Week of the Death and Resurrection of Jesus...”
Because we are doing the Scripture readings which relate the calendar to the events of Jesus’ life, we will be reading a lot of Scripture which will help us prepare for the celebration of the death of Jesus in the next little while. During the advent season we prepare for the coming of Jesus into the world. During lent, we prepare ourselves to consider and celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus. How can we prepare? The death of Jesus on the cross will become more meaningful when we know who we are and when we understand our need for His great gift. My hope is that reflection on the Scriptures related to Lent, over the next 40 days or so will prepare us to celebrate Easter with more depth and meaning. We will think about why we need salvation and why it was so important that Christ had to come. We will consider the depth of our lost condition and reflect on the importance of repentance so that when we hear the news of Jesus’ death on April 22 we will be very glad that a way has been provided and when we hear the news on April 24 that Jesus rose from the grave, we will be filled with joy at the wonder of this gift. That is my hope for the next six weeks. So we want to start by looking at Psalm 32.
We are all tempted. In fact the Bible tells us that even Jesus was tempted. However, unlike Jesus we have all yielded to temptation. The Bible calls this sin. In Hebrew this Psalm uses three words for sin to help us understand a little bit more of what sin is. The New American Standard picks up on this when it translates verses 1, 2 using the words – “transgression,” “sin,” and “iniquity.” The first word emphasizes that sin is rebellion against God. It is a deliberate act of not doing the things God wants us to do or doing the things God does not want us to do. Sin is against God. Although we affect ourselves and others when we sin and often sin against others, ultimately all sin is against God. The second word give us a little different shade of meaning in that it emphasizes sin as missing God’s revealed will. Whereas the first word focuses more on the act of rebellion, the second focuses more on deviating from what is intended and what is good and what is God’s will. The third word emphasizes the perversity of sin. It reminds us that sin always is a deviation from what is right and good. In other words, sin always destroys.
Although we shouldn’t put too much emphasis on the distinctions, they do help to remind us what sin is. It isn’t just an “oops” or a slip. All sin is a deliberate act of disobedience against God which deviates from God’s perfect will and so transgresses into acts and attitudes that destroy.
When we sin, and we all sin, there are always consequences. As we have said, Sin destroys. If we choose to gossip, we destroy someone’s reputation. If we tell a lie, besides whatever damage the lie does, we brand ourselves as untrustworthy. Ultimately the consequence of sin is final destruction, which we call death. The Bible says in Romans 6:23 that “the wages of sin is death.”
Another consequence of sin occurs when we hide our sin. It is tempting to hide sin because we are proud people. We have this strange notion that we are pretty good and don’t really do that badly and we hate to have people find out what we are really like. So when we sin we are tempted to cover up our sin. When we do that, our conscience begins to bother us.
We hate pain but pain is really a wonderful gift of God. If we did not feel pain, we would be in great danger of injuring ourselves because we wouldn’t know that we need to pull away from a flame or avoid the business end of a sharp knife. Our conscience is like pain in that it is a warning for us to deal with sin. Like pain, if we ignore the warning, it is very uncomfortable. The Psalmist tells us his story of a time when he had sinned and was ignoring his conscience and as a result was terribly uncomfortable. He uses graphic language to speak of his discomfort.
He compares the pain of a guilty conscience to bones wasting away. In other words, he felt as if he had no structural strength.
He says his “strength” was sapped. The word for “strength” is “delight” and is a word used for a sweet treat, a dainty. When we cover up sin delight is gone. When we sin and have a guilty conscience, the joy of living is taken away.
He describes it as a summer day when the humidity is high and the temperature is hot. I don’t know about you, but on those days I have no energy to do all the things I would like to do. A similar feeling occurs when we live with a guilty conscience.
Many people live with this pain and get around it by numbing their consciences with a lot of noise, by being so busy that they mask their true feelings, or by self medicating with overeating or alcohol or partying. Hiding our sin has the consequence of discomfort and pain and if we continue to hide our sin, it has the even more serious consequence of numbing us to God’s hand in our life. In fact if we get to the point where our conscience bothers us less and less, we are in real trouble because then our hearts are becoming hard and insensitive to God.
Hiding our sin leads to a negative consequence, so the only solution is openness. The Psalmist tells us of his experience. This is no theoretical discussion, but arises out of a life lived and reveals important fundamental spiritual truths. As long as we hide our sin, we will find, as the Psalmist did, that it is just too painful. He recommends, out of his own experience, what God also wants us to do and that is to be open about our sin. He uses four expressions which help us understand what that means and point us to the path of how to do it.
The first word is “I acknowledged my sin to you.” To acknowledge is to say “yes” to our sin. If we say, “it wasn’t so bad,” or, “I didn’t do it,” or, “it wasn’t my fault,” we are in denial and as long as we do that God’s hand of conscience will remain upon us. When we say “yes, it was my fault,” “I did it,” or “I admit it,” that is the beginning of the path to freedom. Augustine said, “The beginning of knowledge is to know oneself to be a sinner.”
The second thing which the Psalm says is, I “did not cover up my iniquity.” It is pride which causes us to cover up what we have done wrong. The picture that comes to my mind is when mom asks junior, “Did you eat the chocolate bar which I told you not to eat?” While junior sits on the wrapper and says, “no” he covers up his sin. Yet at the same time the chocolate stains on his chin reveal a different reality. We may hide sin from others and we may even hide it from ourselves, but we can never hide it from God. If we want freedom from the pain of our guilt we need to get off the candy wrapper and stop hiding our sin from ourselves, from God and from the person we have sinned against.
When we get to that point, we get to the point of confession, which is the key place we need to get to in order to deal with sin. Confession is the act of taking that “yes” in our heart and declaring it to God. Acknowledging happens in our mind, as an admission of guilt. Not covering up happens with our deeds as an act of revelation. Confession happens with our mouth when we say, to God and to the person we have sinned against, “I was wrong and I admit that I did it and I am sorry.” Apart from such an action of the heart and hand and mouth, we will not find freedom from the guilt of our sin. Trying to make it right, covering it up, avoiding the issue or doing better next time will not bring us freedom. Only confession will bring freedom from the guilt of sin that we seek.
And we need to be very careful to be absolutely honest about it. One of the phrases the writer uses in verse1 to describe the blessedness of sins forgiven is “in whose spirit is no deceit.” You may have heard about the man who did not pay his taxes. When his conscience bothered him about this, he wrote a letter to the government with a check. He wrote, “Here is the money I owe on my taxes. If my conscience still bothers me, I will send the rest.” How often we deceive ourselves that we haven’t done that bad or that others have done worse things, yet our conscience still bothers us. The problem is that we still have within ourselves a spirit of deceit and until we are totally honest with ourselves and with God, we will not find freedom from our sins. The Message translates this verse, “…you’re holding nothing back from God.” Spurgeon writes, “He who is pardoned, has in every case been taught to deal honestly with himself, his sin, and his God.”
The promise of God, when we are honest with ourselves about our sin and confess it to Him, is that He will forgive. This was the experience of the Psalmist who wrote in verse 5, “I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord’ – and you forgave the guilt of my sin.”
Forgiveness is something that God does. Since it is primarily against God that we have sinned, it is God who must forgive us. Scripture repeatedly tells us that this is what God does for us. David discovered the relief and blessing of forgiveness and we will as well if we repent.
From the perspective we have, following the death of Jesus on the cross, we know that this forgiveness is assured in Jesus Christ. Because He died on the cross in our place, we have the knowledge and assurance that He is willing and able to forgive our sins. I John 2:12 says, “I write to you, dear children, because your sins have been forgiven on account of his name.”
What a wonderful experience it is to have forgiveness. The pain of a guilty conscience is gone! Romans 8:1 assures us that “…therefore, there is now no condemnation!”
The experience of the Psalmist was that he was blessed. The Psalm begins with such a great affirmation. “Oh the blessedness of” or “How happy” the one whose sins are forgiven.
The three words for sin are matched by three words which describe the blessing of freedom.
Transgressions are forgiven which means that guilt is gone. Psalm 103:12 describes this assurance and blessing by saying, “as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.”
The second word is that God covers our sins. When we try to cover our sins, there is always something sticking out, but when God covers our sins, they are covered for good and will never be uncovered again.
The third word of blessing is “whose iniquity the Lord does not count against him.” This is the language of the balance sheet. As long as we keep quiet about our sin, it appears in the balance sheet as a liability against us, but when we confess our sins and God forgives our sins, the ledger is erased. It is not our good deeds which will create a positive balance sheet, but only God’s eraser which will wipe the slate clean and allow us to live in freedom. Truly this is blessedness!
These words arise out of the experience of the Psalmist. The story described in II Samuel 11:1 – 12:24 when David committed adultery and then murdered the husband of the woman with whom he had committed adultery, may well be the experience behind this Psalm. For a full year David hid his sin and he was miserable. We don’t know all the internal effects of his cover up, but we can well imagine how bad he must have felt because we know from experience what guilt is all about. After a year God sent the prophet Nathan to confront him and David confessed his sin and found the freedom he describes here. It was such a powerful experience moving him from the horror of un-confessed sin to the tremendous joy and freedom of forgiveness. The rest of the Psalm is an appeal to all of us to make sure we do not live with un-confessed sin, but to admit it and receive forgiveness.
The appeal is an appeal not to be stubborn. There are two ways for us to walk with God. We can either do it willingly with an open heart, a clear conscience and a clean slate or we can do it under the pressure of God’s hand upon us.
People who ride horses know that you don’t just get on the animal and tell it to turn right or left, speed up or slow down. Manipulation is required to make the animal do what we want it to do. There are two ways of control in the spiritual life, either from within with understanding and desire or from without with controls and laws. The Psalm is appealing for the first and encouraging us that we walk in the right way by the desires from within. The appeal is that we will not be stubborn and refuse to heed the voice of conscience, but that we will gladly and willingly deal with our sin by confession.
The appeal is emphasized as the writer points to the consequences of each path in verse 10. If we want to continue in the path of wickedness and walking in sin and not confessing our sin, we will experience trouble. Is that what we want? There are consequences if we persist in hiding our sin. The consequences are always disastrous. The word can also be translated “pain” and means that if we persist in living apart from God pain is what we will live with. If we persist in slander, we will live with broken relationships. If we allow jealousy, we will reap hatred of others. If we allow hurt to become anger and anger, bitterness we will reap ulcers.
But there are also consequences to trusting in God and following Him.
Verse 6 mentions the consequence of open access to God and the assurance that as we pray to Him, He will be found. The only prayer to which a sinner can expect an answer is the prayer of repentance, but those who walk with the Lord with sins confessed have the confidence that they have His ear.
Verse 6 also mentions that those who walk with God can be confident of His protection. God is the hiding place, the protector of the one who trusts in Him and by walking with God we will experience many songs of deliverance. The picture is that of sudden flooding. There are many wadis, or river beds in Israel, which are most often dry. In fact, I recall seeing them when we were in Israel and that is where they were growing their barley crops. But when there is rain up in the hills, those wadi’s fill up with water which rushes down and causes sudden flooding. The image is that of trouble suddenly coming into our lives and overwhelming us, but the promise is that God will protect those who trust Him from such sudden disaster.
Verse 8 speaks of the unfailing love of the Lord, which surrounds those who trust in Him. If we live loving Him, we are assured not that we will sometimes experience His love, but that His love surrounds us. It is like a hug from God, like His strong arms of protection always encircling our lives.
It boggles my mind that they are creating a new housing development in the south end of Winnipeg. Whenever there is a south wind and we travel on the south perimeter, the stench from Brady Road Landfill is awful. I would hate to live anywhere near that putrid, rotting stench.
On the other hand, I have walked up to Lake Agnes near Lake Louise, Alberta. The clean mountain air, the clear waters of Lake Agnes and the incredible view of the Bow River valley is a place where it is beautiful to spend time.
Metaphorically we have just such a choice. We can live near the putrid, rotting stench of sin or we can live near the blessing of repentance, forgiveness and obedience.
As the Psalm comes to a close, following the powerful invitation to live with openness and forgiveness, there is an invitation to celebrate the blessing of forgiveness and of living in righteousness. We are invited to rejoice and to sing because God provides us with this amazing privilege. Although we sin, we do not have to live there. God is so gracious that He always gives us a way to clean up the garbage and to live in blessing. Confession is the path to life and when we experience forgiveness our response will be to rejoice and to sing because we are on the top of a beautiful mountain, the mountain of holiness, which we have been given by Christ.
A most dangerous place to be is to be self deceived. If we have covered up our sin so long that our conscience has been dulled, we are in great danger.
A most dangerous place to be is to be stubbornly holding on to our sin, covering it up.
The consequences of these dangerous places are a guilty conscience and ultimately death. But we don’t have to live there.
The invitation which arises out of this Psalm is to repent.
Where is the Spirit of God speaking to you? There is such a thing as false guilt. If we have a nebulous feeling that we may have done something wrong, that is the accusation of the devil. If we have guilt because we have broken a man made rule imposed on us by Pharisees, that is the guilt imposed by legalism. If, however, we have a clear understanding of the wrong we have done and we recognize that the sin we have committed is a violation of the word of God, then that is the Spirit of God speaking to us and pressing down on our hearts to invite us to repentance.
What do we do if God’s hand comes upon us producing guilt?
Step one is to stop covering up and acknowledge in our hearts that we have sinned and that what we have done was wrong.
Step two is to confess that to God. If our sin was against a specific person, then we must also confess our sin to them.
The promise of God is that when we confess our sins, we receive God’s forgiveness. 1 John 1:9 promises, "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness."
May we clean up our lives!
May we live in the freedom of forgiveness!