Page last updated



a sermon based on Psalm 51:1-17
By David Rogne

Every 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.

There is 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 results.

The 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.

Things 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.

The 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 basic issues.

Our 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.

Giving 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.

When we 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.'"

In 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.

The 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.

There 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.

For 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.

There 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.

In 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.

The 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.

Norman 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.

Two 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.

Not long 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.

The 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.

One who 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:

"Amazing grace, how sweet the sound

                                     That saved a wretch like me!

                                     I once was lost, but now am found;

                                     Was blind, but now I see."