A few days ago I celebrated Ash Wednesday, the day that marks the beginning of the season of Lent. Lent is a time when Christians historically have prepared themselves for the celebration of Easter by repenting, fasting and reflecting on their humanity and deep need of a Savior. The Ash Wednesday service is meant to remind each person of his or her mortality.
In thinking about the Grace for the Sinner series in light of Ash Wednesday and Lent, I am reminded that we cannot fully understand the grace Jesus Christ offers without first understanding our great need of it. It is when we are aware of our own mortality and sinfulness that the grace of Christ can become a transformative reality in our lives. We cannot be pardoned of our sins without first acknowledging that we have sin that needs pardoning. It is in this broken, aware-of-sin, repentant state that Jesus meets us and pardons us.
This is where we find David in Psalm 51. Unlike his predecessor Saul, when David was confronted with his sin (the one where he killed a man and committed adultery) David acknowledged it and repented (cf. 1 Sam. 12:13ff). It is sometime after the prophet Nathan’s confrontation with David that David composed Psalm 51.
David begins the psalm with a plea for God’s mercy. “Have mercy on me, O God.” This is a cry that probably many of us know well. I am a sinner! Have mercy on me, O God!
Recently I, too, pleaded before God, “Have mercy on me.” I have an inclination to want to control my life. This desire to control materialized in two ways recently. For one, my husband and I have been trying to conceive. For several weeks I was obsessed with wanting to control the circumstances surrounding conception as well as obsessing with signs and tests that would tell me if I were pregnant. I became anxious and tried to exert “control” by talking and thinking about it obsessively. Secondly, I hate flying. I am scared of the idea of falling, but most of all I don’t like the feeling of being completely out of control of the situation. I don’t know how to fly an airplane if a pilot got sick and they needed an extra one. I can’t control the weather to make it so that we have perfect flying conditions. As we were to fly home a few days ago, I tried to control the uncontrollable by again obsessively worrying about the flight. I dreamt about it. I talked about it. I looked at the weather app non-stop. I was physically sick to my stomach as my nerves only increased with each day that grew closer to the day of our flight.
It was in the midst of trying to control two uncontrollable situations that my husband, like Nathan, spoke truth into my life. He said, “Kristen, you trying to control these situations is idolatrous.” His words were like a sharp arrow to my soul. Conviction spread across my body. And as I left that conversation in prayer the rest of the day, God began speaking to me about this area of sin. In my frail attempt at trying to exert some control over these situations I had made for myself an idol. I was trying to sit in God’s rightful place as sovereign Lord of my life. Instead of trusting God, I was trying to manipulate God or rather manipulate the situations as if God had no role and was nonexistent. This is a serious sin and one that I am ashamed to admit to you today.
“Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.”
God’s mercy is dependent on and a natural causation of God’s great and abounding love for us. If we get what we deserve according to our sins God is just and blameless (Ps. 51:4)! But mercy gives us what we do not deserve as it acts not according to our sin but according to God’s steadfast love.
David recognizes his sin and his deep, deep need for forgiveness. “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.”
Over and over again in Scripture God pleads with his children to recognize their sin for what it is so that they might repent and so that he might show mercy (cf. Psalm 103:8-19).
“Yet even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.” Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster. Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the Lord your God? (Joel 2:12-14)
The first step in receiving the grace and mercy of our great God is acknowledging sin and turning from it. And when God pardons you and me from sin it is not a pardoning with strings attached or pardoning that lasts only for a night. No. Grace, like its giver, doesn’t wear out with time or change like the moods of humans but rather is steady and sure. Grace does the work for which God intends it.
David in his prayer says, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me (v. 10).” The goal of the believer when he or she leaves that place of repentance and pardoning is a clean heart. God cleans up the sin and mess we make and sets our hearts back on him and on truth. He restores the joy of our salvation and places his praise on our lips (Ps. 51:12, 15).
I was still a little nervous when I flew home earlier this week, but I did not want to sin against God in the way that I had before. So I prayed that He would help me to trust in his sovereignty and his perfect will for my life. For those two flights home he placed an off-duty pilot going home across the aisle, a woman next to me whose hand I needed to hold because she was nervous, and a senator from Tennessee who loves the Lord. He surrounded me with people that brought calm and comfort to me. God is so, so good to us even when our terrible sin against him deserves the worst for us. He showed goodness and mercy and kindness to me by not only pardoning my sin but placing people to comfort me in the midst of something difficult. That, my friends, is great, amazing grace.
What areas of your life need cleansing? Is there sin in your life that you are refusing to recognize as sin? Or, are you aware of your sin but afraid to turn to God? Like me, do you sin against God by trying to take control of your life through worry or manipulation? Are you guilty of idolatry? Slander? Failure to trust God? Hate? Greed? Lust? Lies?
Spend a few moments confessing to God knowing that He is ready to meet you with grace and mercy and that He is ready to make your heart clean, your spirit right so that you might walk in truth and righteousness.
Most merciful Lord, your love compels us to come in. Our hands were unclean, our hearts were unprepared; we were not fit even to eat the crumbs from under your table. But you, Lord, are the God of our salvation, and share your bread with sinners. So cleanse and feed us with the precious body and blood of your Son, that he may live in us and we in him; and that we, with the whole company of Christ, may sit and eat in your kingdom. Amen. (The prayer of humble access; The Book of Common Prayer)