Then I Confessed My Sin Back to all sermons

Date: June 21, 2013

Speaker: Pastor Cameron Arensen

Series: Psalms

Category: Psalms

Scripture: Psalm 51

Tags: Psalms, psalm, sin, guilty

Synopsis: There is nothing more painful to the child of God than the torment of a guilty conscience and the resulting sense of alienation from God. We look at Psalm 38 for a description of that misery. We then examine Psalm 51 for the remedy in this message entitled Then I Confessed My Sin.

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It is one of, if not the most dramatic falls from grace recorded in the Scripture. King David, the man after God’s own heart, the model king by which all subsequent kings of Israel would be measured; this man took a walk on the roof of his palace one evening. From his lofty vantage point, he looked down into a private area where a woman was bathing. Curiosity turned to lust, lust became adultery. That act of adultery resulted in a pregnancy. Because the woman’s husband was away at war, their act was about to be discovered. So David engaged in an elaborate scheme to cover up his sin; a scheme that ultimately required him to indirectly have the man murdered by having him ordered into a defenseless position in battle. David then took the woman as his wife. The sin had been covered up. Nine months later the baby is born. The nation is none the wiser. All is well.

This story, recorded for us in II Samuel 11, is related in rather typical Hebrew prose and narrative style: the facts, just the facts, nothing but the facts. There is almost no reference to any emotions anywhere in the chapter. With one glaring exception. That exception is saved for the very last verse of the chapter. And this emotion is attributed to God. In one, simple declarative sentence we read these words: But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord.

Before we explore that sentence, however, let’s use some sanctified imagination. The fact that the narrative in 2 Samuel 11 does not describe David’s feelings does not mean he didn’t have them. So let me ask you: what do you think David’s emotional state was during that 9 month time period? Can you put yourself in his sandals? Can you imagine the turmoil of his soul?

This is the emotion that we are going to explore in our message this morning. It goes by different labels: guilt, shame, a guilty conscience. It is the emotional reaction of the human soul to its own sin and sinfulness; the torment of a defiled conscience.

Let me pause for a moment here to briefly explore a tangent. There has been some very interesting and helpful thinking and writing in recent years about the difference between guilt and shame, and cultures that are shame-based versus cultures that are guilt-based. It is a useful distinction. I think this story gives us a helpful, short-hand way to understand the difference. I believe the concept of guilt can be best summed up in that final verse of chapter 11: But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord. Guilt is what God thinks and feels about our actions. God is the ultimate, righteous judge of all the universe. If God is displeased, then we are guilty. It doesn’t matter what we do or don’t feel about our actions, or who else does or does not know about us and what we have done. God is displeased. We stand condemned before him.

On the other hand, shame and the torment of a guilty conscience is what David felt about what he had done. This is where we are going to focus in this message. I asked you a moment ago to put yourself in David’s sandals and imagine what he must have felt during that time period. Well, we are going to do more than imagine his feelings. We are going to listen in as David describes his feelings. We are going to look at two different psalms. One of them, Psalm 51, we’re told was actually written by David after the prophet, Nathan, came to confront him about his sin. We’ll get to that one in a moment.

Before we do, though, I want to look at another psalm: Psalm 38. Psalm 38 is another psalm written by David. This one is not tied to his sin with Bathsheba. In fact, it is not related to any particular event in David’s life. But his description of the sin-tormented soul in the psalm is so vivid that it is clear that as he wrote, he was drawing out of the well of his own life experience.

As I read it, imagine it as a description of his emotions following his sin with Bathsheba and the cover-up that followed:

1 O Lord, rebuke me not in your anger,
nor discipline me in your wrath!
2 For your arrows have sunk into me,
and your hand has come down on me.
3 There is no soundness in my flesh
because of your indignation;
there is no health in my bones
because of my sin.
4 For my iniquities have gone over my head;
like a heavy burden, they are too heavy for me.
5 My wounds stink and fester
because of my foolishness,
6 I am utterly bowed down and prostrate;
all the day I go about mourning.
7 For my sides are filled with burning,
and there is no soundness in my flesh.
8 I am feeble and crushed;
I groan because of the tumult of my heart.
9 O Lord, all my longing is before you;
my sighing is not hidden from you.
10 My heart throbs; my strength fails me,
and the light of my eyes—it also has gone from me.
11 My friends and companions stand aloof from my plague,
and my nearest kin stand far off.
12 Those who seek my life lay their snares;
those who seek my hurt speak of ruin
and meditate treachery all day long.
13 But I am like a deaf man; I do not hear,
like a mute man who does not open his mouth.
14 I have become like a man who does not hear,
and in whose mouth are no rebukes.

There are several themes that come through clearly in this psalm. There is a fear of God’s judgment and discipline, as well as a sense of isolation from God. There are numerous descriptions of physical symptoms; searing pain, a palpitating heart, weakness, deep, festering wounds. There is self-loathing: it is all “because of my foolishness.” “How could I have been so stupid? There is a sense of isolation from his friends. There is also a sense of humiliation before his enemies; they can now attack him and he has no way to answer them.

So now my question comes. Have you ever felt this way? Have you ever felt the torment that David is describing in this psalm? More importantly, are you feeling this way today? We are reading the psalms for emotions; for language that helps us put what we are feeling into words; for the shared reality of human experience that lets us know that we are not alone in what we feel. I think, if we are honest, that we have all felt like David to a greater or lesser degree at some point in our lives.

We are also studying the psalms for remedies. What can we do? What should we do when we feel this way? One of the themes of this series of messages is that I will be continually reminding you that healthy dealing with our emotions begins by processing our feelings with God. But with this one, we face a great dilemma, don’t we? Our sin has created a barrier between us and God. Psalm 66:18 tells us: If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened. There are many times in the psalms in which the psalmist’s troubles caused him to feel like God had abandoned him. But that is a feeling, not a fact. God never abandons those who trust in him. But when we sin and then hide that sin and cover it in our hearts, then God does withdraw the reassurance of his presence from us. Listen to the prophet, Isaiah in Isaiah 59:1-2:

Behold, the Lord’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save,
or his ear dull, that it cannot hear;
2 but your iniquities have made a separation
between you and your God,
and your sins have hidden his face from you
so that he does not hear.

So how do we process this particular torment of the soul with God if God is not listening to our prayers? The answer to that question is found in this same psalm (Psalm 38). There is one prayer that God will always hear, no matter what we’ve done, or how far we’ve drifted away, or how long we have been gone from his presence. It is found in Psalm 38:17-18:

For I am ready to fall, and my pain is ever before me. 18 I confess my iniquity; I am sorry for my sin.

God is always ready to listen and to respond to our prayers of confession. To explore this further, let’s turn over to Psalm 51. As I mentioned before, this psalm was written by David as a description of his experience when the prophet Nathan confronted him about his sin with Bathsheba. In the account of the story found in 2 Samuel 12, we have a very abbreviated version. In that chapter, when Nathan faces David with his sin, David’s response is recorded simply in these words: “I have sinned against the Lord.” But in Psalm 51, we have a more complete record of his words, thoughts and feelings.

Let’s read the first six verses:

Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin!
3 For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
4 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 judgment.
5 Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,
and in sin did my mother conceive me.
6 Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being,
and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart.

This a classic prayer of confession. From it we can learn some very valuable lessons about confession; what it is and how to do it. I would like to highlight these lessons:

1. A prayer of confession is a plea for God’s mercy, grace and compassion.

Verse 1 says it clearly:

Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.

There is no appeal here for God’s justice, is there? David does not ask for God to be fair. He knows what that would mean. He knows he only has one plea in the presence of God; that is a plea for his mercy and grace. Any prayer of confession must begin and end with that realization. “O God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

2. A prayer of confession is a request for forgiveness and cleansing.

It is interesting that David never actually uses the word “forgiveness” in this section. But he does describe it in other words. “Blot out my transgressions.” Blot them out so that they can be seen no more. The next verse continues:

2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin!

This is no ordinary cleansing that David is asking for. It is a great, over the top, thorough cleansing. And the word for cleansing actually comes from a root word which meant to tread under foot. This is a good old fashioned hand cleansing he has in view. My memory takes me back to the rivers and lake shores of my childhood in Africa and the women gathered there to do the weekly washing; pounding the clothes against stone, wringing them out and then pounding them again. He is desperate to feel clean again.

3. A prayer of confession is a recognition and acknowledgement of specific sins.

3 For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.

David knew what he had done. The first line refers to transgressions in the plural. In the second line he refers to “my sin” in the singular: a specific reference to a specific act of willful disobedience to God. I believe confession needs to be specific and the more specific the better. “I know it. I did it. I know exactly what I did, and I confess it to you, O Lord.” The New Testament word for confession literally means “to agree with.” When we confess to God, we are agreeing with him that we have committed the act and that the act was a transgression of his law and standards; that it was wrong. There can be no excuses, no hiding or cover-up in true confession.

4. A prayer of confession is a recognition that my sin is an act of rebellion against God.

The first half of verse 4 reads:

4 Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight,

We often think of sin as something we have done against other people. In most cases, it is that. But true confession to God recognizes that all sin is first and foremost against God. It is a violation of his character. It is a rejecting of his authority. Yes, other people often get hurt in the process. I don’t want to minimize that. But sin is ultimately an issue between me and God and that is where I must deal with it first. When Nathan confronted David, his first words were, “I have sinned against the Lord.” Yes, he had also sinned against Bathsheba. He had sinned against Uriah, her husband. He had violated the trust his nation put in him as their king. All of this was true and serious in its own right. But the greatest violation of all was against God. “The thing that David had done displeased the Lord.” This was the matter that had to be dealt with first.

5. A prayer of confession is an acknowledgement that God’s standards are right and his judgment justified.

The second half of verse 4 states this clearly.

so that you may be justified in your words
and blameless in your judgment.

Once again, there is no attempt at self-justification. Our confession is ultimately a justification of God; his standards, his judgments. We are once again agreeing with God. Not only did we commit the sin, but we committed the sin against his righteous standards and we are therefore liable to God’s righteous assessment and judgment. That is why we dare not ask for God’s justice, but only for his grace and his mercy.

6. A prayer of confession is a recognition and acknowledgement of my sin nature.

Verse 5 states it this way:

5 Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,
and in sin did my mother conceive me.

David recognized that sin was bred in him. David is not making any specific reference to his own mother and father and the conditions of his conception or birth. He is acknowledging what we all need to recognize. We are sinnerss by nature and by birth. Sin is part of our inheritance from the first man and the first woman; from Adam and Eve.

Modern thinking would tell me: “I am a basically good person who occasionally slips and does a bad thing.” This is not the Biblical perspective or the Biblical teaching. We are sinners. Sin is not just a surface issue. It is deep within me. I have no “do it myself” remedy. I can only come, humbly, and seek God’s cleansing.

There is a fine line in Biblical theology and Biblical thinking here. We must confess our sinfulness and our sin nature, and the deep malady of our sin problem if we are to receive God’s remedy. But at the same time we must not and cannot use our sin nature as an excuse to continue in our sinful ways. That brings us to my seventh point:

7. A prayer of confession is a recognition that God desires holiness at the deepest levels of my heart and in the innermost places of my soul.

Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being,
and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart.

Another defense mechanism we have is the attempt to convince ourselves that our sin is not such a big deal. After all, if everyone does it, how bad can it be? A little sponge bath to make us presentable to other people ought to suffice, right? It’s all about appearances. This is the shame and honor approach to sin. As long as no one knows, all is well. True confession recognizes that God’s desire for cleansing and holiness and truth go deep into the inner being and into the secret places of the heart. It asks the question: Is God pleased with what he sees or is he displeased? And remember he sees it all; even the secret closets of your life. Is he pleased? Is he delighted with what he sees there?

This is what true confession looks like. This is its content. And how shall we offer it? Here we come to the very heart of the matter; the essence of confession that binds all of these other elements together. Let us drop down to verse 16-17:

For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it;
you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.
17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

This is the sacrifice that God will accept. This is true confession. It is the offering of a broken spirit and a broken and contrite heart. This is the remedy to the torment of a guilty conscience.

8. The true prayer of confession is the offering of a broken and contrite heart.

Let’s look at what happens when we confess our sins as David describes it in the rest of this psalm.

7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
8 Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have broken rejoice.
9 Hide your face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.
10 Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and renew a right spirit within me.
11 Cast me not away from your presence,
and take not your Holy Spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and uphold me with a willing spirit.
13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
and sinners will return to you.
14 Deliver me from blood guiltiness, O God,
O God of my salvation,
and my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness.
15 O Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth will declare your praise.
16 For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it;
you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.
17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
18 Do good to Zion in your good pleasure;
build up the walls of Jerusalem;
19 Then will you delight in right sacrifices,
in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings;
then bulls will be offered on your altar.

Let me quickly highlight what David’s expectations were and indeed his experience was as a result of his confession.

1. There is cleansing and forgiveness.

7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.

The reference to “hyssop” in verse 7 is a reference to the practice of sprinkling the blood of sacrifice using the hyssop plant (a kind of wild oregano with a stiff stalk) – a symbol of divine cleansing through sacrifice. This is a reference to ceremonial cleansing.

But I especially love the reference to a clean heart and a right spirit in verse 10: Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. The soul refreshing bath of divine forgiveness is a gift and a blessing beyond compare and without parallel.

2. There is a restoration of joy and gladness.

Look at verse 8:

Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have broken rejoice

Then in verse 12.

Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and uphold me with a willing spirit.

This joy erupts in singing and praise as we see in verse 14 and 15:

and my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness.
15 O Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth will declare your praise.

Joy and praise is an emotion that was missing from Psalm 38, wasn’t it? But now, by confession and cleansing, the joy can be restored.

3. There is a restoration of fellowship with God.

11 Cast me not away from your presence,
and take not your Holy Spirit from me.

It is stated almost in backward fashion. By not being cast away from God’s presence, and by the restoration of his Holy Spirit, we are once again in fellowship with God. The barrier that stood between us has been removed.

4. There is a restoration to effective ministry and testimony.

This is the promise of verse 13:

Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
and sinners will return to you.

We cannot serve God effectively while we harbor unconfessed sin in our hearts. But confession will restore us to a place of effective ministry and testimony.

5. There is a restoration to true worship of the one true and living God.

Verse 19 concludes the psalm:

19 then will you delight in right sacrifices,
in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings;
then bulls will be offered on your altar.

Earlier in the psalm, we were told that God did not delight in sacrifice or burnt offerings, the expression and symbols of worship in ancient Israel. But now we are told that God will delight in those same sacrifices. Why? Because now they are right sacrifices, offered from a cleansed heart. I can’t help but wonder how many times David went to the tabernacle to offer sacrifices during the 9 months that he concealed his sin and refused to confess it. Those sacrifices and symbols of worship did not restore his relationship with God until he first offered the sacrifice of true confession with a broken and contrite heart. But then all was restored. Now the sacrifices of true worship had meaning and authenticity, and God was delighted to receive them.

The torment of a guilty conscience is one that we have all experienced. There is only one true remedy. It is to be found in the grace and mercy of God and it can be accessed only through the prayer of true confession. Let us be done with our excuses and our attempts at self-justification and bring our sins before the Lord.

Addendum: after giving the congregation time for self-examination and prayer, Pastor Cam added the following remarks.
Before we sing our closing hymn, I feel that I need to say two more things to make this message complete. Consider them off the record comments: pastor to congregation, shepherd to flock.

In this message we focused on confessing our sins to God and making things right with him. I made the point that all sin is first and foremost against God and restoring our relationship with him must be our first and highest priority. But I also want to stress that it may not be all that God desires from us. The sin that caused the rift in our relationship with God must be forsaken and with his help, overcome, if we would walk in victory and in the light of his continuing presence.

Also, many times our sins have consequences in our families, our friendships, our workplaces and our communities. These consequences also must be faced. Not all eggs can be unscrambled. Not all damage can be undone. But what can be, should be. What can be mended, should be mended. Where appropriate, apologies should be extended. Where necessary, what has been taken should be restored. Ask God to show you, by his Holy Spirit, what those actions are that he wants you to undertake.

The final word I want to speak is this: as wonderful as the remedy of confession and God’s cleansing is to the torment of a troubled conscience, there is a yet more excellent way. In the matter of a defiled conscience, I would stress to you that prevention is far better than the cure. As wonderful as the relief of cleansing described in Psalm 51, rewind the tape to the opening of 2 Samuel 11 and imagine that David had retreated from his roof top, contemplating the words of Psalm 119:9-11:

How can a young man keep his way pure?
By guarding it according to your word.
10 With my whole heart I seek you;
let me not wander from your commandments!
11 I have stored up your word in my heart,
that I might not sin against you.

If you find yourself this morning standing on the precipice of some sin, before you jump, read Psalm 38 again…and decide if you really want to go there.

QUESTIONS FOR THOUGHT AND DISCUSSION

Note: the contents of these two psalms bring up very personal and private issues and may create discomfort in your group. So you may want to begin your discussion by acknowledging that reality and agreeing that no one will be expected to share anything that they are not comfortable sharing.

1. Share an experience in your life when you got really, really dirty, and what it felt like to take a bath/shower and get clean.

2. Read Psalm 51 together.

For ease of reference, here is a copy of the sermon notes (fill-in-the blanks) that were printed in the bulletin:

Psalm 51
A prayer of confession is…

  1. a plea for God’s m_____, g_______ and compassion (v. 1)
  2. a request for f________ and c__________ (v. 2)
  3. a recognition and acknowledgment of s________ s______ (v. 3)
  4. a recognition that my sin is an act of r__________ against God (v. 4a)
  5. an acknowledgement that God’s standards are r______ and hi j___________ justified (v. 4b)
  6. a recognition and acknowledgement of my s______ n___________ (v. 5)
  7. a recognition that God desires h_________ at the deepest levels of my ________ and in the innermost places of my __________ (v. 6)
  8. the offering of a b________ and c_______ heart (v. 17)

Results of confession

  1. C_________ and f_________  (v. 7)
  2. Restoration of j____ and g__________ (v. 8, 12)
  3. Restoration of f_________ with God (v. 11)
  4. Restoration to effective m__________ and t_________ (v.13)
  5. Restoration to true w__________ (v. 19)

3. Go through the points in the outline and see if you can fill in the blanks. Discuss the implications of each point as you do it. If you are comfortable, you may share from personal experience, but you may also want to keep the discussion generic!

4. Pastor Cam closed his message with some pastoral remarks. One of them was that making things right with God may not be all that is required. “What can be mended should be mended.” Give examples of things that cannot be mended. Give examples of things that can be mended. How can we tell the difference?

5. In his closing remarks, Pastor Cam made the point that, in the matter of a guilty conscience,  “prevention is better than cure.” What did he mean by that? Read Psalm 38 together. How might this psalm serve to deter us from falling into sin?