Friday, July 27, 2007

Psalm 51: Grace that Hides

It seems like the last thing you would want to pray. It seems like it would be the thing that you'd fear the most. Who would want God to "hide his face?" God "shining the light of his face" on us is a picture of acceptance and blessing. The darkest moment of suffering for Christ was when God turned his back on him in those final moments on the cross. In a horrible moment of grief Christ cried out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Yet, as David stands before God as a humble repenting man, he does what seems to be unthinkable; he asks God to hide his face. What is it that David is pleading with God to do?

On the other side of lust, adultery, and murder, David is filled with the sense of the enormity of his sin. The weight of what he's carrying isn't just about how he used his God-given position to take a woman who wasn't his and use her for his pleasure. The weight on him wasn't just about how he plotted the death of Uriah, Bathsheba's husband. The weight had to do with his understanding of the extent of his problem with sin. David acknowledges the fact that he came into the world with this profound moral problem (v.5). He scans his life and can't recognize a point where sin wasn't with him. But there's an even deeper awareness that sits on David's heart like a lead weight. He's come to understand that his sin was directly and personally against God. What he did, he did in the face of God. He rejected God's authority and made himself his own master. He rejected God's wisdom and acted as if he knew better. He rejected God's call and decided to do what pleased himself rather than what pleased God. In the middle of the outrageousness of his rebellion, how could David ever stand before a holy God?

This confusing request actually demonstrates that David gets it right. He understands the comprehensiveness and the directness of the rebellion of his sin.
He understands that as a sinner he can't stand in the presence of a holy God. What David doesn't understand is that when he prays for God to hide face, he's praying for the Cross. Something needs to come between God's holiness and my sin. Something needs to happen so that sinners, like David, can stand in God's presence and be completely unafraid. David couldn't have possibly known where the story of redemption is going, so he asks the only thing that makes sense to him, "Lord, won't you please hide your face from my sin, because if you don't, I'm doomed."

The Cross was what David was pleading for. The Cross provides our covering. The Cross provides our cleansing. The Cross makes it possible for God to accept us fully without compromising his holiness. The Cross allows me to be accepted, not based on what I've done, but based on what Christ has done. The Cross allows sinners to be declared righteous! Christ covers us, so that as God looks on us he sees the perfect righteousness of Christ that's been given to our account.

Isn't it amazing that the the life, death, and resurrection of Christ means that sinners no longer have to be afraid of God's face? Christ has answered David's prayer. He took the Father's rejection so that we'd be able to stand in the Father's presence and be unafraid. So we don't have to ask God to hide his face and we don't have to search for ways to hide from God. Jesus has made it possible for sinners to stand before a holy God and rest until the sin inside those sinners is no more.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Psalm 51: The Amazing Grace of Self-Knowledge

I have counseled people for many years and one of the things that has impressed me over and over again is how self-deluded people (including me) can be. It's amazing how hard it is to see ourselves with accuracy. It's been my experience over and over again that we see the other person with a fairly high degree of accuracy, but can't seem to see ourselves with the same precision. I've had angry people get quite angry when I would suggest that they were angry! I've had controlling people posit that they thought themselves to be quite serving. I've watched vengeful people seem unaware that they lived to settle the score with others. I've worked with men who are eaten with the cancer of lust, tell me that sex wasn't a big struggle for them. I've had bitter wives give me the litany of ways they thought that they were loving their husbands. I've counseled a gymnasium full of teenagers who really did think that they were wiser than the surrounding authorities. I've sat with ungracious and legalistic pastors and heard them talk of their allegiance to a theology of grace.

Why are we so deluded? The reasons are many. We make the mistake of comparing ourselves to the diluted standards of the surrounding culture; standards that fall far below God's will for us. We also make the mistake of comparing ourselves to others; always able to find someone who appears to be more sinful than we are. We spend so much time arguing for a righteousness that it leaves little time to reflect on the reality of remaining sin. Add to all of this the basic nature of sin. Sin is deceitful. It hides, it defends itself, it wears masks, it bends its shape into more acceptable forms, it points fingers of blame, and it even questions the goodness of God. Sin always first deceives the person who is sinning the sin.

So, since sin is by its very nature deceitful, we need help in order to see ourselves with accuracy. Another way to say this is that personal spiritual insight is the result of community. We don't get it all by ourselves. We need ministry of two communities in order to see ourselves with the kind of surgical clarity with which David speaks in this Psalm. First, we need community with God. He's the ultimate opener of blind eyes. Through the convicting ministry of the Holy Spirit we begin to see ourselves with accuracy and become willing to own up to what we see. But the Spirit uses instruments and this is where the second community comes in. God employs people in the task of giving sight to other people. For David, that was the prophet Nathan. With the skill of a seasoned pastor, he got inside of David's defenses and told him a story designed to engage his heart and stimulate his conscience. Through the words of this wise man and through the lens of this simple story, David's heart broke as he saw who he was and what he'd done.

There's a whole lot of people who are blindly stumbling their way through life. But their blindness is made even more powerful and dangerous by the fact they they tend to be blind to their blindness. A physically blind person is never blind to his blindness. He's immediately confronted with the fact that he's unable to see and he gives himself a whole catalog of ways of living inside the boundaries set by this profound physical deficiency. The scary reality is that one of the things that keeps spiritually blind people blind is that they're not only convinced that they see, but they're convinced that they see quite well! And so they don't seek help for their blindness. Why see help for a condition from which you're convinced you don't suffer?

So, you know whenever you encounter a person who sees him or herself with precision, clarity, and accuracy, you know for sure that grace has visited them. It's only God's grace that can enable blind eyes to see and it's only God's grace that can produce in us the willingness to accept what we've seen.

From the very first words of Psalm 51, you know you're reading the words of a man of unusual personal insight. From the beginning you know you're listening to a man who's humble and clear. People simply don't usually talk about themselves with such clear and self-indicting words. And so you know this man's been visited by a God of grace and one of his tools of grace, because sinners simply don't arrive at this kind of clarity alone.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Psalm 51: Forgiveness

If the universe wasn't ruled by a God of forgiveness, there would be no Psalm 51. It would be an act of self-destructive irrationality to stand before the One who controls it all and admit that you've willingly rebelled against his commands; but that's exactly what David does. He embraces the two realities that if understood and acted upon, will fundamentally transform your life. The narrative of redemption, that is the core content of Scripture, is the story of the interaction of these two themes. They provide the sound and smoke of the drama of life in this fallen world.

These two themes are, in fact, the major themes of every system of philosophy or religion. They come to us in two questions that somehow, someway, everyone asks. What is people's biggest most abiding problem? (Or, why do people do the things they do?) And, how will this problem ever get solved? (Or, how does lasting change in a person take place?) The thing that separates one worldview from another is that each worldview gives a different answer to each question.

By coming to God with humble words of confession, David demonstrates that he's embraced the unique answers that God (in his Word) gives to these universally asked questions. What's wrong with people? The Bible is very clear and very simple; the answer is sin. The Bible directs us to look inside of ourselves and not outside. The Bible calls us to admit that we are our greatest problem. And the Bible chronicles how sin within distorts our thoughts, desires, choices, actions, and words. But the Bible does more. It shows us how sin puts us at war with God. It demonstrates to us how sin causes us to want to be self-sovereigns and our own law givers. Scripture pictures what happens when we try to set up our own little claustrophobic kingdoms of one, rather than living for the kingdom of God. The Bible requires each of us to accept, at the most practical of levels, that we have profound moral flaws within us that we can do absolutely nothing in ourselves to solve.

But David's words of confession prove that David has embraced something else. He comes because he really does believe that there's hope and help to be found. He knows that admitting sin is not a death sentence. He knows that, although he can't solve his greatest problem, there's a place where the solution can be found. The only hope for sinners is forgiveness. To put it even more forcefully, the only hope for sinners is that the One who's in charge of the universe is a God of forgiveness. The bottom line is this; if God is unwilling to forgive, we're doomed. But he's willing! The story that winds its way across the pages of the Bible is a story of God's active willingness to forgive. He controls the forces of nature and directs human history to bring the universe to the point where the Final Priest, the Sacrificial Lamb, the Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ comes to earth, lives a perfect life, and gives himself as a sacrifice for our sins. All of this is done so that our deepest problem (sin) will find its only solution (forgiveness) without God compromising his character, his plan, or his law in any way.

The content of the Bible is the worst of news (you're a sinner) and the best of news (God is willing to forgive). It's only when you're ready to admit the worst that you then open yourself up to what's best. All of this means that you and I don't have to live in denial and avoidance. We don't have to play self-excusing logic games with ourselves. We don't have to give ourselves to systems of penance and self-atonement. We don't have to point the finger of blame at others. We don't have to perform our way into God's favor. No, we can come to him again and again just as we are, flawed, broken, and unclean and know that he'll never turn away anyone who comes to him and says, "I have sinned, won't you in your grace forgive?"

There's no sin too great, there's no act too heinous, and there's no person beyond hope. The offer is open and free. There's no requirement of age, gender, ethnicity, location, or position. God welcomes you to come. He only asks that you admit your sin and you seek what can only be found in him, forgiveness. He is able, he is willing, and with grace that we will maybe never be able to fully grasp, he says, "Come."

Arise, my soul, arise; shake off thy guilty fears
The Bleeding Sacrifice in my behalf appears
Before the throne my surety stands my name is written on His hands

He ever lives above, for me to intercede
His all redeeming love, His precious blood to plead
His blood atoned for all our race And sprinkles now the throne of grace

Five bleeding wounds He bears, received on Calvary
They pour effectual prayers; they strongly plead for me
“Forgive him, O forgive,” they cry “Nor let that ransomed sinner die!”

The Father hears Him pray, His dear anointed One
He cannot turn away, the presence of His Son
His Spirit answers to the blood And tells me I am born of God

My God is reconciled; His pardoning voice I hear
He owns me for His child; I can no longer fear
With confidence I now draw nigh And “Father, Abba, Father,” cry.

(Arise, My Soul, Arise by Charles Wesley)