We are now a little over a week away from Palm Sunday, and the beginning of Holy Week; Lent is swiftly drawing to a close, and I hope that so far it has been a productive one for all. Yet there is still time to run, and there is still more to do. And in the interest thereof, I want to direct the reader to one of the “Penitential” Psalms which we often read during Lent, as being very fitting for this season, and what we can learn about the relationship between sin, ourselves, and God from the example of King David.
We are told in the Bible that Pslam 51 was composed by King David, after the Prophet Nathan chastised him for David’s liaison with Bathsheba, and for the evil that came out of it. More on David later, but first the excerpts of Psalm 51:3-6, 11-14, which I would like us to think about:
Have mercy on me, God, in accord with your merciful love;
in your abundant compassion blot out my transgressions.
Thoroughly wash away my guilt;
and from my sin cleanse me.
For I know my transgressions;
my sin is always before me.
Against you, you alone have I sinned;
I have done what is evil in your eyes
So that you are just in your word,
and without reproach in your judgment.
Turn away your face from my sins;
blot out all my iniquities.
A clean heart create for me, God;
renew within me a steadfast spirit.
Do not drive me from before your face,
nor take from me your holy spirit.
Restore to me the gladness of your salvation;
uphold me with a willing spirit.
Now of course, it is very easy to distance ourselves from these lamentations. We can sit back and say to ourselves, “Well, I’ve never done anything as bad as arrange for the death of the spouse of someone I am in lust with, and since King David really screwed up, of course he would write something like this.” Yet I think that there are larger implications for all of us in this Psalm.
For Catholics, Christianity is a package deal: it is a “both and”, and not an “either or” faith. The Catholic believes that you cannot claim to accept Jesus Christ as the Lord of your life, and then run around acting like the Devil on Spring Break, and expect to receive a front-row seat in Heaven. To paraphrase St. James, even the Devil knows that Jesus Christ is Lord, but he doesn’t win any merit badges for believing it.
In the Psalm excerpted above, King David clearly understood that belief in God alone is not enough to provide an iron-clad guarantee of salvation. “My sin is before me always”, David tells us, as he expresses his worry that God will abandon him forever, without genuine repentance and amendment. David recognizes that if he does not seek God’s grace to act, and thereby change his behavior and make reparation for what he has done, then neither his belief in God nor his admitting that he has sinned is going to be enough to preserve his relationship with God.
Let us also remember who King David was, for he was not just anybody. David was particularly beloved of God, as we heard last Sunday at mass from the 1st Book of Samuel, and anointed King of Israel by Samuel based on God’s specific command. Moreover, David was also chosen by God to be the ancestor of His Son Jesus Christ, as Christians are very much aware.
In other words, and not to put too fine a point on it, but King David was rather more important in the history of salvation than either you or I. Yet despite the Divine favor which he enjoyed, and despite the knowledge that God was always close to him and protecting him from harm, after he sinned David held a legitimate fear that if he did not repent of his sin and amend his ways, he would be permanently cast out of God’s presence. If David, of all people, could ruin his relationship with God, even though there is no question that he believed in God, and in fact interacted with Him on a regular basis in a very personal and indeed supernatural way, then surely we ought to be a little more cognizant of the fact that the same can happen to us. And as much of an average man as I am, King David’s description of how his sins are always before him is something which very much resonates with me.
However, this does not mean that there is no cause for hope. There is, paradoxically, a strength which comes from recognizing that one has failed, if that recognition is properly acted upon. You and I will no doubt sin countless numbers of times during our respective lifetimes, and we will need to seek God’s forgiveness. We do not deserve His forgiveness, though He gives it freely if we ask for it.
Yet at the same time, He expects us to act upon His gift – not just say “Thanks,” and go back to whatever it was that we were doing that got us into that sinful situation in the first place. As King David clearly understood, and as Christ demonstrated repeatedly throughout in the Gospels, God forgives if we ask for His forgiveness, but He expects us to stop sinning. He acts, but we must take action as well, through the Grace He provides us to amend our ways when we repent and seek Him out.
With the remaining time that we have during this season of Lent, let us be sure to seek God’s forgiveness, with a firm purpose of amendment to how we live our lives, in order to avoid falling into sin again, and not just assume that we are forgiven because we would like to believe that we are.