Hope Builder #15: Confess Your Sin (Psalm 51)

After 21 years in ministry, unfortunately, it is no longer easy to surprise me with grueling stories of abuse, abandonment and evil of all shapes and sizes. Horror stories are everywhere. They cross all boundaries — national, economic, racial, religious, gender — and explain much of the depression and addiction we see in society. I am more convinced then ever that all people, even religious people with impeccable moral standards, are capable of really big sin. As Christians, we should expect as much. The Bible clearly describes all humans as sinful from birth. The church has long recognized that large portions of the Bible were written by murderers and adulterers (Moses, David, Solomon, Paul) and that these writers withered in the darkness of their sin and despair until God intervened with his healing grace.

For example, King David penned Psalm 51 after his vilest sin was exposed by Nathan the prophet. David had attempted to cover up an affair with his best friend’s wife, Bathsheba. After his cover up proved futile he ordered the commander of his army to abandon his friend (Uriah) on the battlefield so that he’d be killed by the enemy. David was chivalrous enough to allow Bathsheba to morn her husband’s death, then quickly took her for a wife before anyone suspected that the child she carried was not Uriah’s.

Psalm 51 certainly warns us not to be naive for even the best of us are capable of gross immorality, but it also shows us the path to restoration and forgiveness if only we come out of the darkness and confess our deeds in the light.

  • Call To God For Mercy: David pleads, “Have Mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.” Notice David does not base his plea for mercy upon anything he can do to make things right. Rather he bases his hope for mercy only on God’s steadfast love. Only God can blot out his transgressions. Like a sponge that blots out a stain, David trusted that God could somehow soak up his bloodguilt. David looked to the sacrificial lamb as an object lesson to understand how God would absorb sin from a guilty party through an innocent substitute. But we see more clearly. Jesus Christ is the Lamb of God who absorbed our sin on the cross and died in our place. Don’t base your confidence for receiving mercy upon anything you do — feeling crummy enough for long enough — for that will only lead to more insecurity. Place your confidence in the fact that God is merciful to sinners, and he blots out their sin by absorbing it into himself and bearing the cost of it in full.
  • Take Full Responsibility: Only when you have hope in God’s mercy will you have the courage to look your sin in the face and own it in full. David cries, “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you only have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgement. Behold I was brought forth in iniquity and in sin did my mother conceive me.” David cannot stop thinking about his sin against God. He refuses to label it a lapse of judgement. Rather, he calls his actions evil and declares God is right to judge him. He confesses that his actions flowed from a selfish heart, sinful from the beginning (from conception). His brokenness is comprehensive, not superficial. And though he sinned grievously against Uriah and Bathsheba, David states he has sinned against God alone. Far from failing to admit his offense against others, David used hyperbole to communicate that his primary offense was against God. Even if Uriah was unaware of David’s sin and Bathsheba was complicit; David’s sin grieved a Holy God.
  • Plead For Deep Cleansing and Heart Change: In verses 7-12 notice what David does and does not ask for from God. He does not ask God to relieve his circumstances or save his reputation or deliver him from consequences. Rather he asks God to: purge him, wash him, blot out his iniquity, and create a new heart in him. David doesn’t bother with situational relief. He wants deep cleansing and inside-out change. He pleads with God to not cast him away from His presence or take His Holy Spirit from him. David doesn’t seem concerned about God removing his blessings but he is concerned that God might leave him! So he pleads for God to abide with him. If you’re a big sinner like David, focus is on being restored to God, not regaining your comfort and status.
  • Recognize God’s Plans for Repentant Sinners: Big sinners often feel their life is such a mess that God can’t possibly have a use for them. But in verses 13-19, we learn how repentant sinners are useful to God and to others. They tend to be more sympathetic toward other moral failures and quick to talk about God’s grace. They’re usually raw in their worship and contagious in their joy. They model generosity by offering God their very best. If you’re a repentant sinner, take courage that God has plans to use you powerfully for his purposes.

Too many people are wilting away in despair and darkness because of unconfessed sin. If that is you, let today be the day you come into the light. God was able to work in King David’s situation. What makes you think he cannot work in yours?

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Hope For When You’re Attacked By Insiders

We expect enemies to be somewhere “out there” — a thief in a dark ally, a spy from foreign nation, or a competitor from another company. We assume enemies are easy to identify. Most of us aren’t naturally suspicious of friends or family or teammates; so when betrayal happens it is all the more shocking and painful. Being stabbed in the back causes an agony that is unrivaled.

In Psalm 3:1 King David laments “O Lord, how many are my foes! Many are rising up against me.” Most readers assume that the enemies David complains about are foreigners and strangers. But the subtitle of the Psalm clarifies that David wrote this Psalm after Absalom, his son, rallied Israel to turn against him. For those who are living under attack at home, like David, this Psalm provides a model for how to handle the situation.

  • Trust God As Your Shield: David’s admits he cannot fully protect himself. So he declares, “You, O LORD, are a shield about me.” (3.3) David trusts that God can protect him from attack on all sides, even when his son unexpectedly tries to stab him from behind.
  • Trust God For Your Dignity: A betrayed person is often suffocated by shame. They can feel foolish for not anticipating the betrayal or guilty for somehow having caused it. But rather than focus on regrets, David says “You, O LORD, are my glory and the lifter of my head”. (3.3) David tells us how he maintains his sense of dignity — how he’s able to hold his head high. Most kings based their glory on the wealth of their kingdom or the size of their military. But David doesn’t hold his head high because he was a great king (even though he was). Nor does David hang his head low because he was a terrible father (which was also true). Rather, David finds glory in His God. He essentially says, “Because my dignity is established by God, I can hold my head high no matter my successes or my failures!” How does this apply? After a betrayal, don’t trust in your efforts to reestablish your honor. Instead rest upon the glory already established for you by God. Only God can free you from your shame and enable you to walk with your head held high.
  • Watch for God’s Answer: After a betrayal we may wonder if God is listening to our cries for help. Will He answer us, and if so, what will He say? When David cried to God after his son betrayed him, he wrote, “[The LORD] answered me from his holy hill.” (3.4) David found his answer on Mt. Zion for on that mountain stood the ark of the covenant and the tabernacle — reminders of God’s abiding presence and faithful promises. God’s clearest answer would come later when His own Son, Jesus, would bear the cost of every betrayal on that same holy hill so that victims (and perpetrators) of betrayal could find hope. Victims would discover a sympathetic God who knew what it was like to be destroyed by those who should have loved him. Perpetrators would be moved to repentance as Jesus cried, “Father, forgive them. They know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34) How does this apply? God has also answered you from his holy hill. Look to the place where Jesus was crucified and find a God who suffers betrayal with victims and for perpetrators.
  • Pray with Hopeful Anger: How do you pray when your enemies are not outsiders but insiders… when your foes are “family”? Pray the only way you can — with pain-filled anger. But take warning, if you let your anger turn hopeless it will lead to paralyzing apathy or self-destructive bitterness. When David prays for “insider” enemies (his son and his citizens), he asks God, “Strike all my enemies on the cheek…break [their] teeth. Salvation belongs to the Lord; your blessing be on your people!” (3.7-8) Because his enemies are God’s people (and his people) David is praying for one group of people, not two. David is not asking God to destroy these enemies, only to strike them and shut them up (break their teeth). In fact, ultimately, he wants God to restore his enemies so they can be one family and one nation again. In other words, David is asking God to cut as deeply as necessary to remove the deadly tumor of betrayal. What can we learn from David’s prayer? Bitterness and apathy are warning signs that our anger is turning hopeless. Remember, God can reach the hardest of hearts. As a great physician, God is willing to cut more deeply than we expect but never deeper than necessary. If the cross of Jesus Christ teaches anything, it tells us just how deep God will cut to restore relationships with those who have betrayed Him.

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Embrace Imperfect Community

Scholars call Genesis chapter one The Song of Creation. As God creates, He sings for joy. Like an artist who steps back to appreciate his work, God breaks out in poetry and at the end of each stanza (each day) he sings, “It is good!”

From the perspective of Genesis 2, the Song of Creation builds to a crescendo on the sixth day, after God creates Adam in His image; and then suddenly the song screeches to a halt. God yells, “It is not good!” God then, seemingly, walks off stage at the climax of the concert and takes the composer’s sheets with him. He scribbles new notes as the orchestra and audience wonder, “What’s wrong?”

What is so problematic that God interrupts the song of creation?

“It is not good for man to be alone.” God said. (Genesis 2:18) So, He created a friend for Adam, named Eve.

Why did Adam need a human friend so desperately? Adam had God at his side. Was God not enough? Sin had not yet entered the world, so it couldn’t have been that Adam needed support for difficult times.

By including a dramatic pause in The Song of Creation, God was making a dramatic point. He was saying that human friendship is not merely beneficial, but absolutely necessary. If humans are made in God’s image, and God is a community (Father, Son and Holy Spirit); then no one can be fully human outside community.

At creation, Adam and Eve delighted in perfect community — with each other and with God. There was no shame, no fear, no disappointment. There was only beautiful intimacy.

Since the fall, our ability to function in community has been severely damaged. Community works about as well as a smartphone with a cracked screen. It still functions but the image has been distorted. This can cause enough frustration to tempt us to go without. But that would mean losing something that still has value and functionality.

It may be frustrating to live in community but it is unbearable to live outside of it. We tend to lose our humanity when we are separated from others for too long. We may not bother to make the bed, get dressed or use utensils. Like a hermit, we’ll appear more beastly over time.

Unfortunately, living in community usually gets harder during seasons of suffering. Even the most extroverted among us are tempted to pull away from the very people we need. We can anticipate how a certain person (or group of people) will respond. Stepping into community, we become vulnerable and we actually don’t know what someone may say and do! Facing this unknown is exhausting and stressful. It just seems easier to hide away and avoid all potentially uncomfortable situations.

People are a mixed bag of treats — sometimes sweet, sometimes sour. Suffering amplifies that experience. When a friend anticipates our needs without making a fuss; it leaves an unforgettable savor, like grandma’s chicken soup. But when they forget about us (and say something hurtful); it is like food poisoning that turns our insides out. We would do anything to avoid a second incident.

During seasons of suffering, we long for real rest. We want to be understood and encouraged. We need people to weep with us — to share our pain because we can’t bear it alone. We cannot handle all our normal responsibilities and our suffering at the same time. We need help, but we don’t know how to ask for it. Managing help requires more forethought and energy than we can spare. We need people to jump in and simply do what needs to be done, without being asked. Unfortunately they don’t always know what to do. And, the average person relates awkwardly. They don’t know what to say, so they say nothing; or they say something stupid.

The bottom line is during your season of suffering you must offer forgiveness toward people offering imperfect help. Walking this path is not easy, but it is better than the alternative — going down the isolating path of resentment.

Thankfully we have a Savior who showed us the way forward.  He not only suffers with us but he also shows us how to embrace the imperfect help of others.

“Keep watch and pray.” Jesus told his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane. They tried to help but failed him miserably during his greatest hour of need.

Remember, you are not alone. Everyone must embrace the only type of community available to them — an imperfect one. While it may be tempting to go without it, you simply cannot afford it and maintain your humanity.  The community surrounding you may be damaged but it is still functional. So embrace it. And, who knows, it may pleasantly surprise you!

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Make the Most of Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving Day calls us to reflect and give thanks to God and others. But, many charge through the day without a single thought of gratitude. Missing the point of Thanksgiving Day is tragic. Failure to give thanks stymies us — not just on Thanksgiving Day but every day. 

Here are five things that happen when we fail to give thanks.

  1. We miss out. After healing 10 lepers Jesus asked the one that returned to give thanks, “Were not all ten cleansed?  Where are the other nine?  Was no one found to return and give thanks to God?… Rise and go; your faith has made you well.” (Luke 17:17-19) All ten were healed physically, but only one received a second and greater blessing — faith that made him well. All ten appeared fully restored, but only one was heart-healed. It’s a tragedy when circumstances improve and yet our hearts remain sick. We miss out on total healing when we fail to give thanks.
  2. We harm relationships. Socially, ingratitude is like horribly bad breath. People avoid complainers whenever possible and endure them only when necessary. Energy drains out of a room when grumblers enter. Nothing alienates like failing to thank others who help along the way. Trust breaks down. Resentment builds. Ingratitude makes a person ugly, shallow and annoying.
  3. We sabotage our joy. Psychologically, thanklessness is self harming. We blame circumstances for stealing contentment but often another thief (ingratitude) was already inside and allowed to loot first. We get mad at others for assaulting our peace but don’t recognize how we may have already subverted it.
  4. We grow extra weary. Physically, ingratitude has the same effects as starvation. Health requires a steady diet of thanksgiving. But when we starve our heart of the nourishment it needs our body feels the effects — tiredness, muscle pain, head aches, clouded thinking and lowered immunity. (Medical studies show that practicing gratitude has many benefits including: heightened immunity, increased alertness, improved sleep, and decreased pain.) 
  5. We endanger our soul. “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened…[they] exchanged the glory of the immortal God for [idols]” (Romans 1:21,23)  Godless ingratitude, let unchecked, will consume our soul with darkness and eventually disintegrate our humanity.¹

It’s good to feed your stomach delicious food, but this Thanksgiving commit to feeding your heart gratitude.

  1. Remember Small Blessings: Take time to notice benefits, large and small. Thank God for food, shelter, health, relationships, modern conveniences and pleasant experiences.  By getting specific you’ll realize the innumerable blessings you take for granted. Recounting them will change your perspective from a restless emptiness to a serene fullness.
  2. Don’t Wait to Encourage: Take initiative to tell loved ones and friends at least one thing you appreciate about them.  Lead an “encouragement game” where participants are required to answer thoughtfully about others.  Start with these questions or develop your own:
    • What do you appreciate about _____?
    • How have you seen ______ care for another person?
    • How has ______ grown over the past year?
    • What special memories did you create with _______?
  3. Comfort Pain, Reflect Gain: Invite people to share about the year’s lows and thank them for their honesty. Offer grace by listening. As people share their pain be on the look out for positive character traits (strength, honesty, perseverance, wisdom, grit, grace, humor) and reflect them through encouragement. When you don’t know how to respond admit it.  Tell them you care and ask how you can help.
  4. Pass Forgiveness Forward: In Matthew 18:21, Peter asked Jesus, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?”  Jesus’ answer was unexpected (He replied seventy times seven times.) He raised the bar and told a story that illustrated the lavish forgiveness of God toward us. The moral of the story was — since God has forgiven you extravagantly, you can (and must) forgive others. Only when you’ve experience forgiveness can you pass it forward.  Thank God for the total forgiveness granted in Jesus Christ and let that melt your heart toward those hard to forgive.
  5. Enjoy Divine Peace“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:6-7) Only Jesus Christ is capable of winning the war with anxiety. Jesus overcame the worst of our broken world. His life proved God’s unending perseverance with you and his power transformed even death. You can trust God. Thankfully anticipating God’s goodness toward you and you will enjoy a divine peace, which surpasses your understanding.¹

Don’t blow another Thanksgiving. Make the most of the day. You won’t regret it and others may even thank you.

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¹Special thanks to Tom Hallman for suggesting I add a fifth danger and blessing.

Do You Struggle with Dark Memories?

Our core memories have a strong affect.  A bad memory can paralyze us in anger, fear and helplessness.  A good memory can free us to joy, hope and confidence.  But our memory isn’t static.  It changes over time.  Remembering rightly is difficult because our desires and our fears often reshape our memories; especially when we value self-protection, affirmation, revenge, or comfort more than truth.

51L9wnCkiiL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Miroslav Volf examines the role that memory plays in the lives of victims (and even abusers) in his book The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in A Violent World.  He clarifies God’s persistent call to remember responsibly in order to heal comprehensively.  He illustrates how the story of Jesus Christ gives unique resources, especially the necessary courage, to face even the most painful memories with truth and grace.   He writes with hope-filled humility and provides readers with a framework useful to redeem even their darkest memory and then set them on a trajectory toward a timely and healthy forgetfulness.

Volf writes vulnerably as a fellow pilgrim and wisely as a disciplined academic.  He is currently a Professor of theology at Yale Divinity School.  But, in 1984 he was summoned to compulsory military service in, then communist, Yugoslavia.  He was suspected of being a spy for the CIA simply for being married to an American woman and the son of a pastor.  His every step was monitored by secret police and his every word recorded by big brother.  He endured long-term arrest, aggressive interrogations, and psychological abuse.  He was threatened with 8 years of prison and denied an open trial.  He suffered most intensely under his inquisitor “Captain G”.  Volf’s real life story is a powerful testimony to the unique resources Christianity gives to people imprisoned by dark memories.

If you want to discover increased freedom from the dark memories that steal your joy and hope; or you know a friend who needs support and encouragement, this book can help.

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