Each week, I take some time to reflect on one of the lectionary passages for the upcoming Sunday. This week for the fifth Sunday of Lent, we're going to look at the reading from Psalms: Psalm 51:1-12.
I am not sure that I would say that I love Psalm 51. It is hard to love something that so starkly reminds you of the failings and darkness that live inside. We like to believe we are basically good people; that though we have faults, they are largely excusable. Psalm 51 doesn't allow us that luxury. Its naked confessional nature cuts deeper than Paul's declaration that all of us have sinned.
I do not love Psalm 51, but I need it. When I screw up, it gives voice to how I feel and how I want to be made right with God.
But there has always been something about the passage that has bothered me: "Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight." As beautiful and needed as this psalm is, that third verse has always sounded off-key to me. After all, we are relational people and so our sin often harms those around us as well.
It's largely believed that this psalm is David's confession after being confronted with his adultery/conspiracy/murder indiscretion. It's pretty difficult to look at 2 Samuel 11 and come away thinking that David only sinned against God. He sinned against Bathsheba (who arguably had little choice in the affair since David was king), against Uriah (who, among other things, was murdered), against Joab (who was drawn into a conspiracy to murder), against his offspring (whose lives were literally royally screwed up by all of this), and against his people. David certainly sinned against God, as all sin does, but "you, you alone" rings falsely.
I have dug through a few commentaries searching for a way to bring this verse back in tune. Many have commented that it is the hyperbole of an anguished individual. And I buy that. There is hyperbole all over the Bible. Others have stated that the point is, at the end of the day, the sin ultimately boils down to an affront against God. That is less satisfactory to me. That suggests sin is an either/or type of thing. The great crime is either what is done to the people around you or it is a transgression of what God asks of us.
That is a false dichotomy. The damage is not either/or. It is both/and. Part of the problem with hyper-individualized faith is that it focuses solely on our relationship with God at the expense of how we relate to the rest of the world. Everything else is on the periphery. Sure how we treat others matters, but what really matters is what happens between us and God. It is short walk from that thinking to only being concerned about getting souls into heaven and turning a blind eye to injustices here on earth because "that's just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic."
Scripture is clear that our relationship with God and our relationship with each other is tied together. It all matters. When Jesus gave the Greatest Commandment, he said that we are to love God with our entire being. He then said the second was like the first and we are to love our neighbor as ourselves. The two are linked. When we love God, we better love others. When we love others we better love God. Thus when we sin against God (even privately), we sin against others. When we sin against others, we sin against God.
This is not to say that God should not be the Christian's chief love. We are called to love God above all else. But spiritual tunnel vision is not the perspective to which God calls us. God desires us to see the world around us. God wants us to realize the ways in which harm our world and seek ways in which we can join God in bringing healing to those broken places.
I have used Psalm 51 as a confessional prayer many times. Many people have. The passage has been put to music numerous times. It is something that shapes how we look at sin, forgiveness, and our relationships. I have no problem with hyperbole if that was what the psalmist was doing. But if I am going to continue to use this as a confessional prayer, I want to amend it to fully convey what happens when I fail.
God, against You have I sinned. Against my wife, against my sons, against my parents and siblings, family and friends, random acquaintances, strangers, the poor and vulnerable, those who follow You and those who do not believe, Your good creation, and more than my soul can bear have I sinned and done what is evil in Your sight.
For that is the truth. I have screwed up so many times and it poisons my relationships: with God and with everything I touch. Sometimes the sin specifically hurts certain relationships, but it still generally harms every one of them. Thank God that the rest of Psalm 51 exists and points towards reconciliation. Verses 10 through 12 ask for a fresh start.
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from Your presence,
and do not take Your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of Your salvation,
and sustain in me a willing spirit.
And though I have hurt God and the world, God in mercy will still grant that plea.