Read Psalm 51.
After I became a Christian, most of the sermons I heard about sin talked about God’s law. Pastors explained how our sin made us guilty of breaking God’s law and how Jesus paid for our delinquency on the cross. Much of this was—though perhaps a bit excessive—helpful to those of us trying to follow Jesus. But I heard another message in the way those pastors talked about sin: true repentance requires that you feel the weight of your guilt. Which presented a problem, because—and this is my second confession—I don’t feel guilty very often.
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin! 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.
David starts this psalm recognizing the weight of his choice to break God’s rules. He throws himself before God and asks Him to have mercy and to erase out his wrongdoing.
David was the king. He was supposed to push back evil, sin, and brokenness and extend the goodness and wholeness of God’s presence. Instead of pushing brokenness back, he perpetuated it.
Yet David sees his sin as more than simply failing to keep up with God’s law; more than just guilt.
David recognizes that his sin—his choice to sleep with another man’s wife and then have that man killed—was not just against a rule or law but against God himself. David felt shame as much or more than he felt guilt. He knew that his actions were the actions of a rebel, a man standing in opposition to God and His purposes – a Jewish Benedict Arnold.
I grew up in a culture that is—like the ancient Israelites—much more shame oriented than guilt oriented. Guilt tells us we broke a rule and gives us the energy to stop breaking the rule or to fix what we broke. Shame is very different. Shame reveals how what we do is sometimes connected to who we are. We can’t simply correct the wrong, we have to face what our actions say about us and how—if we don’t want to be that kind of person—we won’t act that way again.
Most of us think of shame as harmful. The term itself, in English, carries a negative connotation. And I know firsthand how destructive shame can be when connected to a lie.
Nonetheless, a few old phrases—like “that's shameful” or “you should be ashamed of yourself”—point to a time when we used to have a better relationship with this emotion (though phrases like these can also be used in harmful ways).
Shame, when working correctly, has something important to tell us: that some actions or choices are more than just unwise or illegal, they are unfit for who we are as human beings. Shame is life-giving when it acts as a guardrail – an emotional caution sign against doing something inhuman.
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit.
At some point, I heard someone use the idea of rebellion to describe sin and it triggered my awareness of shame. When I began to think of sin as rebellion against God, I immediately understood that the things I did were not just an affront to an arbitrary set of do’s and don’t’s but against God himself. That made me a rebel, working against God and His Kingdom – someone I knew I didn’t want to be.
We hear David talk about his own shame in a similar way throughout the Psalm. David says that sacrifices alone do not appease God. He can’t just try to right the wrong he’s committed, there is something about who he is that needs God’s intervention. So David appeals to God’s mercy, asking God to clean him and reshape who he has become.
That doesn’t mean rules aren’t important. David finishes the psalm by saying that, after God has brought mercy to Jerusalem through its rebellious king, then their sacrifices will be worthwhile. After David’s restoration, being a good citizen will be more than just playing a part.
Doing the right thing after we sin is not enough. It’s as if we are trying to act like loyal citizens of our country after just committing treason. We need someone who will accept the brokenness we have brought on them and show us mercy instead of the strict justice we deserve.
That’s part of what makes Jesus’ sacrifice so amazing. Jesus did take all the times we broke God’s rules to the cross. But he also changed who we were and how God saw us. Jesus took the guilt of our rule breaking and the shame of our rebellion, giving us, instead, the honor as children of God.
-- Ben Larzabal