CLEAN UP YOUR ACT
based on Psalm 51:1-17
By David Rogne
so often we read about a child born with a rare genetic disease known
as familiar dysautonomia, which prevents a child from feeling pain.
At first reflection, this seems a blessing! Imagine the
possibilities--a football player who doesn't feel the pain of contact;
a boxer who can endure a terrible beating in the ring and not feel the
hurt; a woman who can bear children without the pain of childbirth.
The tragedy is that a child with this disease will never live long
enough to know the glory of winning a high-school football game or the
joy of childbirth. Such a child will receive cuts, burns, and broken
bones--never feeling anything. A cavity will rot the tooth without an
ache. A broken bone will puncture the skin before anyone is aware of
the fracture. An appendix will burst without a sharp pain in the
side. This reminds us that physical pain can serve a good purpose.
It can be God's warning device that something is wrong--like the red
light on the dashboard that alerts us to the fact that the engine is
hot or the battery is low or the oil pressure is dropping.
another kind of pain known to all of us, which we would not call good,
but which can serve a good purpose. It is the pain of guilt. It
serves as a warning that something is wrong and needs to be
corrected. If we give it the right kind of attention, as we would the
warning lights on the dashboard of our car, it can produce good
writer of the Psalm that we read earlier was aware of the pain of
guilt. He said, "I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before
me." The title of this Psalm attributes it to King David and suggests
that he wrote it after Nathan the prophet came to David and charged
him with wife-stealing, adultery, lying, and murder for taking
Bathsheba, killing her husband, and attempting to cover it up.
happen in our lives, too, that make us feel guilty. A word we said
that hurt someone; an action that damaged another; an opportunity to
help someone and we did not take it. Whatever comes to mind, guilt
produces an awareness that there is a gap between what we are and what
we ought to be. Because it is painful, we want to bridge that gap.
The words of the Psalmist may help us to find a way to do it.
first thing we discover from the Psalmist's experience is that for
healing to take place there has to be an acknowledgement of guilt.
Unfortunately, our natural tendency is to avoid responsibility for a
bad situation. Often we try to rationalize our way out of it.
Rationalization is the attempt to provide a good reason in place of
the real reason. Al Capone's defense of his criminal actions during
prohibition was that he was a public benefactor. "I give the people
what they want," he said. As he described it, there was nothing
criminal about his conduct. A woman who defrauded the Department of
Housing and Urban Development of hundreds of thousands of dollars, and
lived very well as a result of it, said she was simply getting the
money out to the people it was intended to help, without having to go
through a lot of red tape. As long as we rationalize our questionable
conduct, we maintain the defenses that keep us from dealing with more
favorite way to avoid responsibility is to blame others. Someone once
said, "It's not whether you win or lose that counts, but how you place
the blame." On accident-report forms, drivers frequently downplay
their responsibility with statements such as: "An invisible car came
out of nowhere, struck my car, and vanished"; "As I reached an
intersection, a hedge sprang up, obscuring my vision, and I did not
see the other car"; "A pedestrian hit me and went under my car."
Sometimes, when we refuse to acknowledge responsibility for a mess we
have made, we not only blame others, we transfer our anger to them. A
fellow who lived in New York City overslept one morning when he was
due to catch a train out of town. Leaping out of bed, he shaved and
dressed, skipped his breakfast, and kissed his wife at the door. He
tried to hail a cab, but all those passing him were marked "Off
duty." His impatience rising, he checked his watch and determined
that if he walked briskly he could walk the ten blocks to Penn Station
and still make his train. Arriving on foot, he breathed a sigh of
relief that his train had not departed. But he also noticed that he
was out of cigarettes. He went to a vending machine, inserted the
necessary coins, and pulled the lever. Nothing happened. He shook
the machine vigorously, but still nothing happened. Reluctantly, he
fed in more change and tried a different brand. Still nothing. As he
shook the machine, he heard the last call and saw that his train was
beginning to pull out of the station.
up on the cigarettes, he grabbed his briefcase, which opened up,
spilling his papers on the floor. Recovering them as quickly as
possible, he ran down the ramp to his train, arriving just as it
pulled away. He grudgingly turned and walked back to the waiting
room. Inside, a little old lady, whom he had never seen before, was
bending over, tying the laces of her tennis shoes. Unable to contain
the frustration he had brought on himself, he gave her a swift kick in
the derriere, screamed, "You're always tying your damn shoestrings!"
and stalked out of the station in a huff.
operate on the false premise that others are responsible for the mess
we have made, we come up with false solutions that hurt our
relationships and compound our guilt. How much healthier it is to
look our actions in the face and take responsibility for them. That
is what the Psalmist did when he acknowledged, "I know my
transgressions, and my sin is ever before me." Seeing ourselves as we
are is difficult. Maybe it happens only when the pain becomes so
great that we can't just blame others any longer. The hardest step is
to say: "It isn't the world, it isn't everyone else. 'It's me, it's
me, oh Lord, standing in the need of prayer.'"
October, 1945, in the shattered city of Stuttgart, some leaders of the
German Evangelical Church stood face to face for the first time since
the Second World War began, with representatives of churches from the
Allied countries: Holland, France, America, and Britain. It was a
tense and difficult moment, badly needing a gesture of some kind.
Many of the German leaders had themselves been in prison under the
Nazi regime. Then Martin Niemoller handed round a document they had
prepared, which became known as the Stuttgart Declaration. In it they
said: "We acknowledge ourselves to be bound together with our German
people, not only in a solidarity of suffering, but also in a
solidarity of guilt--we accuse ourselves . . . ." From that
acknowledgement of guilt, the German church was able to rebuild its
life following that unhappy time in their history. It opened the way
for growth and reconciliation.
second thing we learn from this Psalm is that acknowledgement to
ourselves of our responsibility or guilt needs to issue in
confession. Unfortunately, even when we confess, we may find ways to
short-circuit its healing quality. Sometimes we confess only those
things which are easy to confess. A priest had the responsibility for
hearing the confessions of nuns at a convent. When someone mentioned
that that must be an easy assignment, he commented that it was rather
like being stoned to death with popcorn. Another Catholic priest,
Msgr. O'Duffy, who has probably heard his share of general
confessions, suggests that, "It's no use confessing that you stole a
rope if you forget to mention that there was a horse tied to the other
end of it." Too often we are willing to confess that, of course, we,
like everyone else, are sinners, but we are loath, even before God, to
become very specific.
are other people, who do confess their guilt, but they don't know when
to stop, and it becomes a lifelong enterprise instead of a pathway to
liberation. In his novel The Fall, Albert Camus tells the story of a
man who, in a tragic moment of self-concern, failed to respond to a
drowning woman, with the result that the woman died. So filled with
remorse and guilt is the protagonist of this story, that he spends the
rest of his life as a penitent, seeking the company of others to whom
he can unburden his guilt. The person accepted responsibility, but
was not prepared to be released from the guilt. Such behavior is
often based on the notion that words are an adequate substitute for
action. As long as the person can keep talking about the situation,
he may avoid having to change.
still others, confession is prompted not so much by penitence as by a
desire for notoriety. There are those who speak quite openly of their
addictions, phobias, obsessions, diversions, and even occasional
felonies on television talk shows. What they say has the form of
confession, but, in fact, it becomes a celebration of their particular
lifestyle. They are liberated and they want people to know it. It is
not, in my judgment, a confession that leads to amendment of life.
is, however, a kind of confession which is good for the soul. The
Psalmist cries out to God, "Against you, you alone, have I sinned . .
. ." It is here that the second step in the healing of guilt becomes
possible, through sincere confession. We confess to ourselves, to
God, to other people when necessary, our responsibility for something
that we have done and of which we are not proud. And we start the
long process of reconciling with those we have hurt by saying, "I'm
sorry." We are not telling God anything that God does not already
know when we confess to God, but somehow, the process bridges the gap
that we feel exists between ourselves and God, between where we are
and where we ought to be.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," he
tells the story of a man who willfully kills an albatross that is
following his ship. The bird had brought good luck to the sailors,
but with its death the sailors begin to meet misfortune and death.
They hang the dead albatross around the neck of the mariner to remind
him of his foul deed, and of his responsibility for all the evil
things that followed from his foolish act. When he sees the error of
his ways and confesses his action, the bird drops from his neck and he
and his friends are saved. Coleridge's own albatross was opium, from
which he eventually found salvation. Many people today wear around
their necks the albatross of guilt, which ruins their lives.
Confession could help to break its hold.
third thing we learn from the experience of the Psalmist is the
importance of changing our conduct. The Psalmist is grateful for
forgiveness and indicates that, from now on, he is going to sing God's
praise, witness to God's deliverance, and teach other people to
discover God's grace. What he was discovering is the necessity of
doing something that gets us out of the rut of our destructive
behavior. We make restitution if we can, and change our conduct, but
it is not to purchase our forgiveness. Rather, it is out of response
to the gracious love of God who accepts us as his children and helps
us to bridge the gap between what we are and what we may yet become.
Vincent Peale tells of a man who went to a doctor with every symptom
of serious illness. The physician examined him thoroughly and sent
him away with the report that he was organically sound.
weeks later the man was back again, complaining of the same symptoms.
After a second examination, the doctor could still find no physical
cause for the illness. "Is it possible that you have something on
your conscience?" asked the doctor. "Have you done anything wrong
which is making you feel guilty?" "I won't stand for being insulted,"
the patient responded angrily. "I came here for medical advice, not a
sermon." And with that he stalked out.
afterward the patient returned in a much different spirit. "Doctor,"
he said, "you put your finger on the truth. I have done something
very wrong. I've been managing my brother's share of our father's
estate. I started keeping for myself part of the income that was due
my brother and arranging the records so that it couldn't be detected.
But my conscience knew, and the disease has infected my whole body."
"How much can you pay back to your brother right now?" the doctor
asked. When the patient indicated how much, the doctor said, "Write
the check." They then immediately composed a letter to the brother,
confessing the theft and promising to make regular payments until all
would be paid up. They enclosed the check, sealed the envelope, and
walked together to the mail chute in the building. As the man dropped
the letter into the chute, he exclaimed that he could feel the burden
being lifted from his life.
final lesson we learn from the Psalmist is that the lifting of the
burden of guilt is ultimately the result of grace. Though he felt
alienated from God by his guilt, he still believed that God was
prepared to offer mercy and that God's love was steadfast. The word
the Psalmist uses for God's steadfast love is the Hebrew word "hesed,"
which comes from the word for "womb." This suggests that God's
steadfast love is equated with a maternal instinct, mother-love, a
love that may be deeply hurt, but that does not turn its back on its
child. Because we feel guilty, we may feel that God has turned his
back on us and that we have to do something to earn back God's love.
But the sense of alienation comes from our side. Our guilt has
created the gap. The gap is bridged by acknowledgement of our
responsibility, confession of what we have done, a willingness to
change our conduct, and reliance on God's steadfast love.
understood this gracious aspect of God's forgiveness, perhaps better
than most, was John Newton. At the age of eleven he ran away from
school and went to sea. His early years were an endless cycle of
drunkenness, debauched living, and trouble. He entered the slave
trade and eventually became captain of a slave ship. In the grip of a
storm, which he felt would take his life, he accepted the forgiveness
proclaimed by Jesus Christ, and his life turned around. He never
ceased to wonder at the amazing grace of God which turned him from the
slave trade to preaching. For his own epitaph he wrote, "John Newton,
clerk, once an infidel and libertine, a servant of slavers in Africa,
was, by the rich mercy of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, preserved,
restored, pardoned, and appointed to preach the Faith he had long
labored to destroy." But his greatest testimony is preserved for us
in the words of his great hymn, with which we will close our service:
grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am
Was blind, but now I see."