We’re looking at the topic of relationships this month and next. Relationships are rewarding, but they’re also incredibly challenging. It seems that everywhere we look, other people’s issues are in our face. We deal with other people’s anger and gossip. We deal sometimes with well-meaning people with the best of intentions, but who let us down. If you live in relationship with others for any amount of time you begin to understand that you’re dealing with other people’s junk, and all of this can make it hard to have any type of relationship.
But this morning I want to consider another possibility: what if the problem is you? What do you do when you are confronted with your own failure? We’re very well equipped to spot the issues in other people. But sometimes admitting that we have a problem, that we have sinned, is very difficult – even when we’re admitting this to only ourselves.
A man decided to attend a treatment group for alcoholics. Early on in the treatment program they had to sit in a circle with a leader and tell the truth to themselves, and to the other people in the group, about the extent of their drinking.
So they went around the circle and they all told the truth, except for one business guy named Max. When it came time for him to reveal the extent of his drinking, he said, “I never really drank that much.”
They said, “Max, you’re in an alcoholic treatment center for a month. You weren’t sipping cokes. Tell the truth to yourself. Admit it.” He said, “I’m being honest with you. I’ve never really had all that much to drink.”
The leader of the group had information on Max. He phoned the bartender close to Max’s office, who confirmed that Max drank like a fish. He called Max’s wife. Listen to what happened:
The wife describes this to the group, and Max falls off his chair and starts convulsing on the ground. He just couldn’t bear telling himself the truth about what he had done. He couldn’t face it. He was going to live the rest of his life in some fantasy world of denial about what he had done.
You may not have an alcohol problem, but every one of us is going to reach the point at which we’re confronted with our sins and failures. What do we do when the problem is us? What do we do when we’re caught red-handed, when it’s clear to us that we’ve sinned?
This morning, the psalm that we read is going to help us answer this question. And we’re going to see that the psalmist David describes the normal way that we handle our sins and failures, before he describes for us the wise way to handle them. And then, finally, he’s going to tell us what difference this can make not just individually, but in our community as well.
So first, what is the normal way that we handle our sins and failures?
In Psalm 32:1-2, David introduces us to the subject of this psalm:
Blessed are those
whose transgressions are forgiven,
whose sins are covered.
Blessed are those
whose sin the LORD does not count against them
and in whose spirit is no deceit.
So the subject is sin, in particular how we handle our own sins. What’s interesting is that David uses three words to describe sin: transgression, which is rebellion against God; sin, which is a more general term; and iniquity, which is about distortion, criminality, or the absence of respect for the divine will. David is not intending to give us a study of the different types of sin, but just by what he writes he’s showing us the fullness of the many different types of sin. Sin is multifaceted, and David is dealing with with the question of how we handle sin of any type. How can we be happy – which we all want – when we have to deal with the reality of sin in our lives?
David begins by describing the normal way that we handle our sins and failures in verses 3-4:
When I kept silent,
my bones wasted away
through my groaning all day long.
For day and night
your hand was heavy on me;
my strength was sapped
as in the heat of summer.
Notice what David says here: “When I kept silent…” David knows that the default way that we deal with our own sins of any kind is to minimize and deny and keep silent about what happened. It’s like the cartoon I saw this week:
“I’m going to start apologizing to all the people I’ve insulted by telling them, ‘I’m sorry you were offended.’”
“Is that a real apology?”
“No. That’s what’s so great. It allows me to retain the impact of the original insult while tacking on the implied bonus insult of, ‘You are an overwhelming ninny.’”
“But that’s kinda rude cause it’s sorta saying the guy is too dumb to realize that.”
“I’m sorry that you were offended.”
The problem is that many of us react to our sin by minimizing what we’ve done and keeping silent about what’s happened, or passing on the blame to others. We don’t just do this with others; we do this with God. And look at the results: “When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy on me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer.”
We don’t know what particular sin David is talking about here. It could have been his adultery with Bathsheba, and the resulting coverup which led to murder. We simply don’t know. We do know that hidden sin leads to agony. If you look at what David describes you see:
- A physical destruction. “My bones wasted away. . .”
- A conscience that plagues us daily. “Through my groaning all day long. . .”
- A sense of God’s fatherly displeasure. “Your hand was heavy upon me. . .”
- Depression of the spirit. “My strength was sapped as in the heat of summer . . .”
One commentator writes:
Those who have experienced bouts of depression probably recognize the symptoms here. An interior darkness opens up that threatens to swallow the sufferer. A normally energetic person can be reduced to inactivity – feeling almost drugged and unable to lift a finger to move…
It is interesting that the suffering appears less as the result of a divine assault than the outworking of the psalmists’ own repressed guilt. This is perhaps too modern an interpretation, but one with which many moderns are thoroughly familiar. The destructive effects of repressed and unexpressed emotions and anxieties can be powerfully experienced in physical pain and psychological disintegration. (Gerald Wilson)
There have been a number of movies about this lately. Get Low is about a mysterious hermit who hires a funeral director to carry out a “funeral party” for him. He wants the memorial service is to be held before he’s actually dead, in order that he would be there to hear all the stories folks would tell about him. It turns out that there’s a reason that this man is a hermit. Something happened many years ago, a secret, an unconfessed sin, and it’s caused him to punish himself and live as a hermit for forty years. He doesn’t know what to do with the guilt. As one theologian said after watching the movie:
I was jarred by the guilt that throbbed through the whole of it….The film portrays something the Christian Scriptures insist to be true. Guilt isn’t something society foists upon us. There’s something primal, something real, in the guilty conscience.
The apostolic preaching confirms what human experience already affirms, a moral law is embedded in the human conscience. The conscience is not simply a kind of internal prompt for good behavior. It is instead a foretaste of judgment, of the Day when every secret is unearthed…Get Low portrays where we all are, apart from Christ.
This is how we normally respond to our sin: with silence. And it’s deadly. Unconfessed sin makes us fugitives. We become fugitives from God, from the person we’ve sinned against, from ourselves. No wonder that it leads to such physical and spiritual torment!
Well, what’s the alternative?
What is the right way to respond when it’s clear we need forgiveness? Look at what David says in verse 5:
Then I acknowledged my sin to you
and did not cover up my iniquity.
I said, “I will confess
my transgressions to the LORD.”
And you forgave
the guilt of my sin.
What are we going to do when we sin? David says that the right thing to do, the wise thing to do, is to confess the sin. David says he acknowledged it. He didn’t cover up or minimize it. He confessed his transgressions to the Lord, and the Lord forgave the guilt of his sin. The word “forgave” in verse 5 can literally be translated “lifted away.” It’s the beautiful image of removing the terrible crushing weight of guilt like a boulder. It’s immediate, and it’s freeing, and it’s full.
As Ken Sande writes:
As God opens your eyes to see how you have sinned against others, he simultaneously offers you a way to find freedom from your past wrongs. It is called confession. Many people have never experienced this freedom because they have never learned how to confess their wrongs honestly and unconditionally. Instead, they use words like these: “I’m sorry if I hurt you.” “Let’s just forget the past.” “I suppose I could have done a better job.” “I guess it’s not all your fault.” These token statements rarely trigger genuine forgiveness and reconciliation. If you really want to make peace, ask God to help you breathe grace by humbly and thoroughly admitting your wrongs. One way to do this is to use the Seven A’s.
- Address everyone involved (All those whom you affected)
- Avoid if, but, and maybe (Do not try to excuse your wrongs)
- Admit specifically (Both attitudes and actions)
- Acknowledge the hurt (Express sorrow for hurting someone)
- Accept the consequences (Such as making restitution)
- Alter your behavior (Change your attitudes and actions)
- Ask for forgiveness
When we confess our sins, we can know that God takes away the weight of sin. At the cross, Jesus himself bore our sins. He took responsibility for our sin, lifting up the crushing stone of guilt that pinned us down, giving us joy and the “glories freedom of the children of God” (Romans 8:21).
That’s why you notice that this psalm is a joyful one. People think that repentance has to be sad. The only sad part in this psalm is when David didn’t repent. Once he repents, he’s full of joy. That’s why we can talk about joyful repentance. “Repentance increases joy. It’s not traumatic; it’s joyful and it’s healing” (Tim Keller). When you sin, choose joyful confession over deadly silence.
Notice one more thing with me this morning.
This isn’t just a lesson for us as individuals; this is a lesson for us as a community.
Do you notice what David says in verse 6?
Therefore let all the faithful pray to you
while you may be found;
surely the rising of the mighty waters
will not reach them.
Do you see what David is doing here? He’s turning to God’s people and saying, “Let’s all become repenters together.” David isn’t just happy repenting by himself. He envisions a community that never covers over sin, that quickly and joyfully turns to God in repentance.
He goes even further in verse 9:
Do not be like the horse or the mule,
which have no understanding
but must be controlled by bit and bridle
or they will not come to you.
David is essentially saying, “Okay, ignore me if you’d like. Keep silent and minimize your sins. It’s your choice, if you enjoy being like a stubborn mule.” Or, David is saying, we can be a community that regularly and joyfully engages in confession, not cover-up. We can be a community that, when we sin, chooses joyful confession over deadly silence and cover-up.
Can you imagine what could happen in our relationships and in our church if we did this? In 1935, Blasio Kugosi, a schoolteacher in Rwanda, Central Africa, was deeply discouraged by the lack of life in the church and the powerlessness of his own experience. He followed the example of the first Christians and closed himself in for a week of prayer and fasting in his little cottage. He emerged a changed man. He confessed his sins to those he had wronged, including his wife and children. He proclaimed the gospel in the school where he taught, and revival broke out there, resulting in students and teachers being saved. They were called abaka, meaning “people on fire.”
Shortly after that, Blasio was invited to Uganda to share with the Anglican Church there. As he called the leaders to repentance, the fire of the Spirit descended again on the place, with similar results as in Rwanda. Several days later, Blasio died of fever. His ministry lasted only a few weeks, but the revival fires sparked through his ministry swept throughout East Africa and continue to the present. Hundreds of thousands of lives have been transformed over the decades through this mighty East African revival. It all began with a discouraged Christian choosing joyful confession over deadly silence and cover-up.