Monday, April 23, 2007

Psalm 51: On Being Sustained

It's a curious phrase, "and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me." What does it mean to be sustained by a willing spirit? What is it that David prays for here and how does it fit with the confession that makes up the rest of this remarkable Psalm?

Human beings are simply not self-sustaining and we were never designed to live as if we are. The doctrine of creation confronts us with the reality that we are neither physically or spiritually self-sustaining. We were created to be dependent. Dependency is not therefore a sign of weakness. Rather it is a universal indicator of our humanity. Humans are dependent beings. Yet we do not like to be dependent. It is the legacy of our falleness to do everything we can to conceptually and functionally repudiate the doctrine of human dependency.

So, all fallen human beings tend to buy into two attractive, but dangerous lies. These are the lies that were on the tongue of the serpent on that fateful day of manipulation and disobedience in the Garden. The first lie is the lie of autonomy, which tells me that I am an independent human being with the right to invest my life however I choose. The second lie is the life of self-sufficiency, which declares that I have everything I need within myself to be what I am supposed to be and do what I am supposed to do. Because we do not want to live for God, but for ourselves, we are easily seduced, at the mundane, everyday level, by these lies.

But David now has his eyes open. He sees the lies for what they are. He had wanted his own way. He had opted for independence. He had stepped outside of God's boundaries. He had used his power in the service of his own kingdom, rather than God's. And it had all been exposed and came crashing down around his feet. David had tried the path of independent, self-sustenance. This is his prayer of repentance.

God has promised to sustain us by his grace. He has promised us the sustaining grace of forgiveness, so that we can stand before him unafraid. He has promised the sustaining grace of enablement, giving us the strength to do what he calls us to do. He has promised us the sustaining grace of protection, delivering us from evil. He has promised us the sustaining grace of wisdom, protecting us from our own foolishness. He has promised us the sustaining grace or perseverance, keeping us until the final enemy has been defeated. He has promised the sustaining grace of eternity, giving us the hope of a day when the struggle will be over.

It is a willing heart that causes us to seek the grace that has been promised. When we turn from our own way and recognize our inability to live his way, we begin to seek the full range of resources that he has promised us in his Son. Grace is for the willing and we only become willing when we confess not only the gravity of our sin, but our inability to deliver ourselves from it. Then our willingness opens to us all the sustenance of heart that can only be found in the Son.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Psalm 51: Something in My Hands I Bring

God doesn't want you to come to him empty-handed.
No, you can't come to him full of yourself,
And you can't come to him based on your track record
And you can't use your performance as a recommendation.
No, you can't come to him based on your family,
Your personality,
Your education,
Your position in life,
The successes you've had,
The possessions you've accumulated,
Or the human acceptance you've gained.
But God requires you to come with your hands full.
He requires you to bring to him the sweetest of sacrifices,
The sacrifice of words,
He calls you to bring Hosea's offering.
"Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God,
Your sins have been your downfall!
Take words with you
And return to the Lord.
Say to him;
Forgive all our sins
And receive us graciously,
That we may offer our lips as the sacrifice of bulls."
God doesn't want you to come to him empty-handed.
He asks of you a sacrifice.
Not a grain offering,
Not a lamb or a bull,
No, that requirement had been satisfied
By the blood of the Lamb.
Yet God asks of you a sacrifice,
It is the offering of words,
Words of humility,
Words of honesty,
Words of moral courage,
Words of moral candor,
Words that could only be spoken,
By one who rests in grace.
Words of confession are what you must bring.
Place words,
Free of negotiation or excuse,
On his altar of grace,
And receive forgiveness and cleansing.
Uncover your heart,
Exposed by words, and say:
"We will never again say, 'Our gods'
To what our own hands have made,
For in you the fatherless find compassion."
What David willingly did he requires of you,
Come with words,
It is the way of grace,
It is the way of freedom,
It is the way to God.

* Quotes are from Hosea 14:1-3.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Psalm 51: Big Grace

What a devastating and hard to swallow description! Maybe you had it happen to you? A friend tells you they want to talk to you, and when you get together, you realize that what they really wanted to do was confront you. You're not really excited about being told bad things about yourself, but this is your friend, so you're willing to listen. As they begin to lay out their concerns, you begin to feel pain inside. You can't believe what you're being told about yourself. Silently and inwardly, you begin to rise to your own defense. You marshal arguments that you're a better person than the one being described. You want to believe that what you're hearing is a distortion, lacking in accuracy and love, but you know you can't. You're devastated because deep down you know it's true. Deep down you know that God has brought this person your way. Deep down you know what you're being required to consider is an accurate description of you.

Such a description is found in Genesis 6:8, "The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time." (ESV) What a devastating description! It's hard to swallow isn't it? You want to think that this biblical description is of the people who are more sinful sinners than you and I are. But this verse is not describing a super-sinner class. No, it's a mirror into which every human being is meant to look and see himself. It is capturing in a few powerful words what theologians call "total depravity." Now total depravity doesn't mean that as sinners we are as bad as we could possibly be. No, what it actually means is that sin reaches to every aspect of my personhood. Its damage of me is total. Physically, emotionally, intellectually, spiritually, motivationally, socially, I have been damaged by sin. It's ravages are inescapable and comprehensive. No one has dodged it's scourge and no one has been partially affected. We are all sinners. It reaches to every aspect of what makes us us. Sadly, when each of us looks into the mirror of Genesis 6:8, we see an accurate description of us.

Now, you have to ask yourself: Why is Genesis 6:8 so hard to accept? Why do we spontaneously rise to our own defense? Why are you and I devastated when our weakness, sin, and failure is pointed out? Why do we find confrontation and rebuke painful even when they are done in love? Why do we want to believe that we are in the good class of sinners? Why do we want to believe that we are deprived, but not depraved? Or that we are depraved, but not totally? Why do we find comfort in pointing to people who appear to be worse sinners than we are? Why do we make up self-atoning revisions of our own history? Why do we erect self-justifying arguments for what we have said or done? Why do we turn the tables when someone points out a wrong, making sure that they know that we know that we're not the only sinner in the room? Why do we line up all the good things we've done as a counter-balance for the wrong that is being highlighted? Why is this all so hard to accept?

There's only one answer to all of these questions. There's only one conclusion that fits. We find this all so hard to accept because we studiously hold onto the possibility that we're more righteous than the Bible describes us to be. When we look into the mirror of self-appraisal, the person we tend to see is a person who is more righteous than any of us actually is!

We were at the end of a wonderful service at Tenth Presbyterian Church, that had been punctuated by a powerful sermon from the Ten Commandments. I immediately turned to my wife at the end of the service and said, "I am so glad our children were here to hear that sermon!" She didn't even have to say anything to me. She simply gave me that look. You know, the one that says, "I can't believe you are actually saying what you are saying." Immediately I felt embarrassed and grieved. It had happened to me so subtly and quickly. I had placed myself outside of the circle of the sermon's diagnosis. I had accepted the fact that whatever Exodus and Phil Ryken were describing did not include me. And I was glad that the people in my family who really needed the diagnosis had been in attendance.

"Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God." (Romans 5:1-2, ESV) If the Bible's description is accurate, then God's grace is our only hope. Thank God that He has given us big grace! Each one of us needs grace that's not only big enough to forgive our sin, but also powerful enough to free us from the self-atoning prison of our own righteousness. We're not only held captive by our sin, but also by the delusion of our righteousness as well. Resting in God's grace isn't just about confessing your sin, it's about forsaking your righteousness as well. So we all need the big grace that's only found in the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ.

We must all, with humility, say to the God of big grace, "Behold I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me...Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin!" (Psalm 51:5, 2, ESV) And then rest in his righteousness alone.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Psalm 51: A Rabbi and Two Imams

It was a wonderful opportunity. I was asked to participate in an open discussion about death and dying from a patients perspective. The event was held at a local medical college. It was the first ministry situation I had ever been in where I had sat between a rabbi and two imams. My Jewish and Islamic colleagues were all very warm and articulate, but I had an unfair advantage, I came armed with the Gospel. I carried something into the room that no one else had and as the evening went on this message glistened with greater and greater beauty.

The men on either side of me were gentle and caring. They knew their faith well, but they had one distinct disadvantage, the only message they brought into the room was the message of the law. The only hope they could give was the hope that somehow, someway, a person could be obedient enough to be accepted into eternity with God. The more they spoke, the more beautiful the Gospel looked.

The most significant moment of the evening came when we were asked about what we would say to a family of someone who had committed suicide. It was at this moment that the Gospel shined the brightest. I said, "Suicide doesn't change the paradigm. Think with me, who of us could lay in our bed during the last hours of our life and look back and say to ourselves that we have been as good as a person could be? Wouldn't all of us look back and have regrets about things we have chosen, said, and done? None of us is able to commend ourselves to God on the basis of our performance. In this way, the person who has committed suicide and the person who hasn't are exactly the same. Both of them are completely dependent on the forgiveness of a God of grace, in order to have any hope for eternity."

You and I share identity with the hypothetical suicidal man just as we share identity with the adulterous and murderous king of Psalm 51. Our only hope is one thing, God's "unfailing love" and his "great compassion."(verse 1) We cannot look to our education, or family, or ministry track record, or our theological knowledge, or our evangelistic zeal, or our faithful obedience. We have one hope, it is the hope to which this ancient Psalm looks. Here is that hope in the words of a wonderful old hymn, "Jesus Paid it All."

"Since nothing good have I
Whereby Thy grace to claim,
I'll wash my garment white
In the blood of Calvary's lamb.

Jesus paid it all,
All to Him I owe;
Sin had left a crimson satin;
He washed it white as snow."

I said goodbye to the rabbi and the two imams and got in my car to drive home. But I didn't just drive, I celebrated! I was very excited as I thought about the evening, not because I had had such a golden opportunity to speak the Gospel, but because by means of God's grace I had been included in it!

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Psalm 51: Accurate Self-Assessment

Sin lives in a costume, that's why it's so hard to recognize. The fact that sin looks so good is one of the things that make it so bad. In order for it to do its evil work, it must present itself as something that is anything but evil. Life in a fallen world is like attending the ultimate masquerade party. Impatient yelling wears the costume of a zeal for truth. Prevented lust masquerades as a love for beauty. Gossip does its evil work by living in the costume of concern and prayer. Craving for power and control wears the mask of biblical leadership. Fear of man gets dressed up as a servant heart. The pride of always being right masquerades as a love for biblical wisdom. Evil simply doesn't present itself as evil, that is part of its draw.

You'll never understand sin's slight of hand until you acknowledge that the DNA of sin is deception. Now what this means personally is that as sinners we are all very committed and gifted self-swindlers. I say all the time to people that no one is more influential in their own lives than they are because no one talks to themselves more than they do. We're all too skilled at looking at our own wrong and seeing good. We're all much better at seeing the sin, weakness, and failure of others than we are our own. We're all very good at being intolerant of others of the very things that we willingly tolerate in ourselves. The bottom line is that sin causes us to not hear or see ourselves with accuracy. And we not only tend to be blind, but to compound matters, we tend to be blind to our blindness.

What does all of this mean? It means that accurate-self assessment is the product of grace. It is only in the mirror of God's Word and with the sight-giving help of the Holy Spirit, that I am able to see myself as I actually am. In those painful moments of accurate self-sight, we may not feel as if we are being loved, but that is exactly what is happening. The God who loves us enough to sacrifice his Son for our redemption, works so that we would see ourselves clearly, so that we would not buy into the delusion of our own righteousness, and with a humble sense of personal need, seek the resources of grace that can only be found in him.

In this way, Psalm 51 is both the saddest and most joyous of all the Psalms. It is sad that David has to confess what he must confess, but at the same time, the face that he is accurately seeing, and fully acknowledging his sin, is a cause for celebration. Only Jesus can open blind eyes. Whenever a sinner accurately assesses his sin the angels in heaven rejoice, and so should we.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Psalm 51: Violent Grace

Our relationship with the Lord is never anything other than a relationship of grace. It is grace that brought us into His family. It is grace that keeps us in it and it is grace that will continue us in it forever. But the grace that we have been given is not always comfortable grace. Here is why.

As sinners we all become way too comfortable with our sin. The thought that once bothered becomes an action that no longer plagues our conscience. The word that troubled us the first time it was uttered, now is accompanied by others that are worse. The marriage that was once a picture of biblical love has now become a relationship of cold-war detente. Commitment to work degenerates into doing as little as I can for as much pay as I can negotiate. A commitment to a devotional life now become perfunctory and empty duty, more like getting my ticket punched for heaven than enjoying communion with my Lord. Minor, unexpressed irritation, which once troubled my heart, is now fully expressed anger that is easily rationalized away. Sin is like the unnoticed drips of water that silently destroy the foundation of a house.

You see, we all have a perverse capacity to be comfortable with what God says is wrong. So God blesses us with violent, uncomfortable grace. Yes, He really does love us enough to crush us, so that we would feel the pain of our sin and run to Him for forgiveness and deliverance. David says, "let the bones You have crushed rejoice." (verse 8) It is a curious phrase. Crushed bones and rejoicing don't seem to go together. You wouldn't say, "Hooray, I have a broken bone!" But that is very close to what David is saying. He is using the searing pain of broken bones as a metaphor of the pain of heart that you feel when you really see your sin for what it is. That pain is a good thing!

Think about it. The physical pain of an actual broken bone is worth being thankful for because it's a warning sign something is wrong in that arm or leg. In the same way, God's loving hammer of conviction is meant to break your heart and the pain of heart you feel is meant to alert you to the fact that something is spiritually wrong inside of you. Like the warning signal of physical pain, the rescuing and restoring pain of convicting grace is a thing worth celebrating!

So God's grace isn't always comfortable because He isn't primarily working on our comfort, He's working on our character. With violent grace He will crush us because He loves us and is committed to our restoration, deliverance, and refinement. And that is something worth celebrating!

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Psalm 51: Aren't You Glad You're Not Like David?

Aren't you glad you're not like David,
Such blazoned sin, how could he?
Aren't you glad you're not like Saul,
Making up his own rules, what was he thinking?
Aren't you glad you're not like Cain,
Violence against his own brother?
Aren't you glad you're not like Rebekah,
Such planned deceit?
Aren't you glad you're not like the Israelites,
So easily seduced by idols?
Aren't you glad you're not like Absalom,
How could he be so jealous?
Aren't you glad you're not like Elijah,
How could he forget God, be so depressed?
Aren't you glad you're not like Nebuchadnezzar,
How could he be so obsessed with power?
Aren't you glad you're not like Samson,
How could he be so easily deceived?
Aren't you glad you're not like Jonah,
How could he run from the Father's call?
Aren't you glad you're not like the Pharisees,
So religiously right, yet spiritually wrong?
Aren't you glad you're not like Judas,
Selling the Messiah for a little bit of silver?
Aren't you glad you're not like the Corinthians,
So much better at division than at serving the Lord?
But wait.
You are like them, and so am I.
There is simply no denying it.
Their stories are a mirror into which we see ourselves.
We too are jealous and easily deceived.
We too are proud and obsessed with power.
We are better at division while we run from God.
We too get angry and get seduced by idols.
In sorrow we must say,
We stand with David,
And Saul,
And Rebekah,
And Jonah,
And Elijah,
And the rest.
These stories are for us to look into and see us,
so that we are not able,
to buy into,
the lie of our own righteousness.
But instead,
Run to His mercy,
Hold onto His unfailing love,
and finally rest,
In His great compassion.
Aren't you glad you can step out of the darkness of self-deceit,
and admit who you are?

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Psalm 51: Sinners and Unafraid

The older you get the more you move from being an astronaut to an archaeologist. When you're young you're excitedly launching to worlds unknown. You have all of the major decisions of life before you and spending your time assessing your potential and considering opportunities. It's a time of exploration and discovery. It's a time to go where you've never been before and to do what you've never done. It's a time to begin to use your training and gain experience.

But as you get older, you begin to look back at least as much as you look forward. As you look back, you tend to dig through the mound of the civilization that was your past life, looking for pottery shards of thoughts, desires, choices, actions, words, decision, relationships, and situations. And as you do this, you can't help but assess how you have done with what you have been given.

Now let's think about this for a moment. Who would be so arrogant and bold as to look back on their life and say, "In every possible way I was as good as I could have been?" Wouldn't we all hold some of those pottery shards in our hands and experience at least a bit of regret? Wouldn't all of us wish that we could take back words that we have said, decisions that we have made, or actions we have taken?

Here's what all of this means: If you and I are at all willing to humbly and honestly look at our lives, we will be forced to conclude that we are flawed human beings. And yet we don't have to beat ourselves up. We don't have to work to minimize or deny our failures. We don't have to be defensive when our weaknesses are revealed. We don't have to rewrite our own histories to make ourselves look better than we actually were. We don't have to be paralyzed by remorse and regret. We don't have to distract ourselves with busyness or drug ourselves with substances. Isn't it wonderful that we can stare our deepest, darkest failures in the face and be unafraid? Isn't it comforting that we can honestly face our most regretful moments and not be devastated? Isn't it amazing that we can confess that we really are sinners and be neither fearful nor depressed?

Isn't it wonderful that we can do all of these things because we have learned that our hope in life is not in the purity of our character or the perfection of our performance. We can face that we are sinners and rest because we know that God really does exist and He is a God of:
Unfailing love
Great compassion
Because He is, there is hope, hope of forgiveness and new beginnings!
Yes we really can fully acknowledge our sin and failure and yet be unafraid.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Psalm 51: No More If Only

It's so easy to slip into an "if only" lifestyle. I find myself slipping into it often. The "if only" possibilities are endless.
If only I'd been from a more stable family.
If only I'd had better friends as I was growing up.
If only my parents had sent me to better schools.
If only I'd been given better intellectual gifts.
If only that accident hadn't happen.
If only I'd had better physical health.
If only that degree program had been as good as advertised.
If only I'd been able to find a better job.
If only I didn't have to fight the traffic every day.
If only I'd been able to get married.
If only I hadn't gotten married so young.
If only I'd understood marriage more before I got married.
If only I had a more understanding spouse.
If only I'd come to know Christ earlier.
If only I'd found a good church when I was young.
If only I didn't have to struggle with my finances.
If only it was easier and more comfortable for me to communicate with others.
If only I could find a small group that I could be comfortable with.
If only I could have had children.
If only my children were more obedient.
If only I knew the Bible better.
If only that boss hadn't fired me.
If only I had a better place to live.
If only I could find some place where I feel like I really belong.
If only God seemed closer to me.
If only I didn't have to work so hard to make ends meet.
If only...

The seductive thing about our "if onlys" is that there is a bit of plausibility in all of them. We do live in a fallen world. We all face hardships of various kinds. We all have been sinned against in a variety of ways. None of us ever lived in ideal circumstances or in perfect relationships. The world is a broken place and we have all been touched in many ways by its brokenness. Yet, the "if only" lifestyle tends to say, "My biggest problem in life exist outside of me and not inside of me."

In Psalm 51 David says something very radical. It is counter-intuitive to a culture that tends to say that we all are the result of what our experience has made us. David says, "Surely I have been a sinner from birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me." David is saying that his greatest problem in all of life is not the result of what he has suffered in the situations and relationships of his life. Rather, David is saying that his biggest problem is internal and was there before he had any of these experiences! And David gives this deep and internal problem a name, sin. How humbling!

Think about it this way. It is the evil that is inside of you that either magnetizes you to the evil outside of you or causes you to deal with the evil outside of you in a way that is wrong. It is only when you begin to accept that your greatest problem in all of life is not what has happened or been done to you, that you begin to get excited about the rescuing grace of Jesus Christ. It is only when you begin to accept that your greatest need is something you came into the world with, that you will begin to hunger for the help that only God can give you. It is only then that you begin to hunger for more than changes of situation and relationship. It is only then that you begin to accept the most radical and personally liberating truth that you could ever conceive. What is that truth? It is that what you and I really need to be rescued from is us! We are the biggest danger to us. That is why God offers us the gorgeous promise of his grace which has the power to change us from the inside out.

Are you embracing that promise or are you still saying, "If only..."