The joy of the forgiven

1       introdcution and background

David took another man’s wife, slept with her and she became pregnant. The woman’s husband, a soldier, was ordered back from the battlefield by David. Surely David could cover all this up by ensuring that the soldier assumed the child was his, but Uriah was an honourable man and would not spend the night with his wife whilst his fellow soldiers remained engaged in the military campaign. Even after David arranged for him to drink to excess, Uriah slept with his servants. Having failed in plan A, David planned Uriah’s death by arranging for him to become isolated during battle. Plan B worked and David had a new wife. But David deep down knew he had done wrong and his sin gnawed at his soul. David’s adviser, Nathan told him of a poor man with one possession, a ewe lamb. He had raised the lamb and it had become as a family member, it had grown up with his children, eaten his food, drunk from his cup and even slept in his arms. A rich man prepared a feast for a visitor, but rather than killing one of his many sheep and cattle, he took the poor man’s ewe lamb. David was incensed and demanded that the man must die for his crime, who is he? He must pay for his pitiless crime! ‘You are the man,’ answered Nathan!

What a mess. David sought God’s forgiveness, the effect of his sin would be far reaching, but God forgave, and it seems David wrote two psalms in response. Psalm 51 is the first, in which he cries out for mercy from a broken spirit and a contrite heart. It seems Psalm 32 follows in which David describes the joy of forgiveness.

The Psalm begins with these words:

1Blessed is the one
    whose transgressions are forgiven,
    whose sins are covered.
Blessed is the one
    whose sin the Lord does not count against them
    and in whose spirit is no deceit.

In our days of atheism and unbelief we must first ask ourselves what sin is. The broadly accepted philosophy of our day is that there is no such thing as sin, it is considered to be a human construct of the mind. If the universe really did make itself from nothing and if the right atoms and molecules really did self-assemble to form life and if from that life, complexity evolved by natural selection, then we do indeed live in a world devoid of morality with no right and no wrong, no good and no bad. This is the prevailing view of our generation and it is not only wrong, but also destructive and damaging. David uses three distinct Hebrew words to describe his sin.  First, he uses the word pasha (translated as transgression in verse 1) – it relates to rebellion. Sin involves defiance and dissent from God’s perfect standard – David knew that from bitter experience. Secondly David uses the word hatta or chata to describe sin (verse 2: sin). Hatta means to miss or more specifically to miss the mark. There is a right path, an absolute moral standard and it is hatta to miss that target. Finally, David uses the word avon (verse 5: sin), it means something that is twisted – we may think of this as conveying the idea of depravity and perversion. David saw all these ideas in himself. They are in us too – this is our natural condition and it not only separates us from God, it damages our relationships and our mental health.

David had spent a year living with his sin and it had not been an easy, he said,

When I kept silent,
    my bones wasted away
    through my groaning all day long.
For day and night
    your hand was heavy on me;
my strength was sapped
    as in the heat of summer.

We hear a lot about mental health these days. Psychiatrists have historically considered religion to be for ‘the hesitant, the guilt-ridden, the excessively timid, those lacking clear convictions with which to face life’ (Clinical Psychiatry, Mayer-Gross et al, first edition 1954, later editions in 1960 and 1969). Interestingly the past president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, Professor Andrew Sims has said:

The advantageous effect of religious belief and spirituality on mental and physical health is one of the best kept secrets in psychiatry and medicine generally. If the findings of the huge volume of research on this topic had gone in the opposite direction and it had been found that religion damages your mental health, it would have been front-page news in every newspaper in the land. (From, Is Faith delusional?: why religion is good for your health, 2011).

I compare Professor Sims’ perspective with that of the prevailing opinion in our political, cultural and educational establishments; they advocate that practices described in the bible as detestable are not only to be promoted as normal and healthy, but those who think to the contrary are to be hounded from jobs and positions in public and private institutions. Such practices described by the bible as detestable are not surprisingly associated with deleterious effects on both physical and mental health. Suicide attempts amongst trans men run at a staggering 46% (Haas et al, American foundation for suicide prevention and the Williams institute, 2014). Moreover, in a report by a gay rights pressure group to the European parliament, the authors state: Nearly three decades of research have repeatedly demonstrated that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (“LGBT”) youth are significantly more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers.

David’s sin resulted in a ‘groaning all day long’ and in a sapping of his strength. David is telling is that unforgiven sin is a source of stress and pain and in the terms of our day, ‘poor mental health.’

2       the solution

David describes the solution to his pain in verse 5:

5 Then I acknowledged my sin to you

    and did not cover up my iniquity.

I said, ‘I will confess

    my transgressions to the Lord.’

And you forgave

    the guilt of my sin.

Sin in all its forms of missing the mark, rebellion and perversion brings the prospect of judgment and the need for deliverance. David describes the need for a place of safety away from ‘rising waters’ and a hiding place of deliverance. Perhaps David had in mind the great flood of judgment brought by God on this world. There is a judgment day coming and it is not a welcome prospect for any of us in our natural state. We must all give an account. But we are not without hope! God’s character is certainly one of absolute moral righteousness, but he is also a God of love, mercy and kindness. He has provided a mechanism to satisfy his righteousness and love – a mechanism that brought God to man, Jesus to the cross and brings the offer of true forgiveness and reconciliation. The solution to sin does not come from counselling or other therapies, but simply from confession and forgiveness. Interestingly Professor Andrew Sims describes the benefits of forgiveness on mental health:

Although often neglected (forgiveness), it is hugely important. Guilt and forgiveness are two themes that constantly recur in psychiatry. I can think of so many accounts of relationships going wrong and one of the parties having enormous feelings of guilt, which has ruined their life. Guilt results in someone becoming less of a person. (reference: Psychiatry’s best kept secret: faith and mental health).

David experienced God’s forgiveness, he did not cover up his sin, he did not hide from God, but rather confessed it and discovered a hiding place, deliverance, and peace of mind.

3       The path ahead

Forgiveness is one thing, but it is just the start of a renewed relationship with God. How should that relationship work? Richard Dawkins speaks of “the divine spy camera in the sky” that reads our every thought and keeps people on the straight and narrow. He both accepts that this is a good thing in as much as it keeps people from doing ‘really bad things,’ but also he sees it as a terrible idea that people falsely believe in such a terrible God who watches our every move adding daily to our list of misdemeanours to be dealt with on judgment day.

I remember my first job in the pharmaceutical industry. What most people don’t realise is that the pharmaceutical industry is heavily regulated and almost everything that is done in its laboratories is heavily scrutinised and controlled. We were preparing some radiolabelled drug – a process which involves a multiplicity of steps and we were told that the quality assurance department would be attending to check on our processes. That was bad enough, but it turned out that it was the head of QA himself. The head of QA was a top-class Scottish referee and once famously sent off the legendary Billy McNeil who was manager of Celtic at the time. In a testy Old firm match in 1991 he sent off the captain, one Graeme Souness (who went on to captain Liverpool and Scotland)! You can imagine our nervousness as the QA head observed our every move, clip board in hand. (Just for the record, I met the QA head a few years ago and I can say that he’s a thoroughly nice man – off the football field!). This is the picture we have of God – a divine spy camera in the sky! But is this fair?

Here’s what David says (and he’s quoting God’s words):

I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go;
    I will counsel you with my loving eye on you.
Do not be like the horse or the mule,
    which have no understanding
but must be controlled by bit and bridle
    or they will not come to you.
10 Many are the woes of the wicked,
    but the Lord’s unfailing love
    surrounds the one who trusts in him.

Note that for David, having sinned, having confessed, having been forgiven, he now has God’s instruction for right living under God’s loving eye! David is not like a horse to be tamed and lead by a bit, he’s is under God’s unfailing love! What a remarkable thought that God says that he counsels us ‘with my loving eye on you.’

How should we respond? I think David captures it nicely:

11 Rejoice in the Lord and be glad, you righteous;
    sing, all you who are upright in heart!

This is the joy of the forgiven and the joy of those walking in God’s ways indeed!