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Rev. Peter M. Wallace Headshot

My Dear God, Make It Clean: Confession and Psalm 51

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The September 16 issue of The New Yorker included some intriguing excerpts from a journal written by the young Flannery O'Connor under the title, "My Dear God."

The introduction explains that, while beginning her studies at the famed Iowa Writers' Workshop in January 1946, O'Connor began writing a journal which, over a year and a half, she would fill with a series of entries addressed to God. She had just left her Milledgeville, GA, home, turned 21 that March, and had her first story accepted for publication that month. She yearned for a meaningful future as a writer.

Here is part of the first excerpt:

Dear God, I cannot love Thee the way I want to. You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see and my self is the earth's shadow that keeps me from seeing all the moon. The crescent is very beautiful and perhaps that is all one like I am should or could see; but what I am afraid of, dear God, is that my self shadow will grow so large that it blocks the whole moon, and that I will judge myself by the shadow that is nothing.

I do not know you God because I am in the way. Please help me to push myself aside....

Oh God, please make my mind clear.

Please make it clean....

I wonder if she had Psalm 51 in mind when she wrote that? Psalm 51 is a confession, "a cry for God's mercy and compassion," as one writer put it. Read the first few verses:

1 Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.
3 For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.
4 Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment. . . .

Psalm 51 is attributed to King David of Israel, and it has quite a backstory. God (according to the Apostle Paul in Acts 13:22) considered David to be "a man after my heart, who will carry out all my wishes." That encourages me when I read Old Testament accounts about David's unbelievable lust, selfishness, fear, and occasional sheer stupidity. Because I can identify.

Sure, I want to be a person after God's heart. I want to live in the tidal wave of God's loving will. But I'll be the first to admit I can screw it up pretty well.

The writer of this psalm had one of David's most notorious experiences in mind when he considered God's mercy. It's recorded in 2 Sam. 11-12. While taking an afternoon nap on the roof of his royal palace, the story goes, David saw a beautiful woman bathing in the courtyard of another building across the way. He was a peeping Tom! Immediately, he had to have her. And though he and the woman were married to other people, he did have her. He was the king, after all.

After a thwarted attempt to cover up his impregnating her, David ultimately even conspired to have her husband killed in battle to get him out of the way. It all sounds like a bad soap opera or something you'd read in the tabloids. Obviously, as the writer of 2 Samuel puts it, "the thing that David had done displeased the Lord" (2 Sam. 11:27b).

Nathan, a holy prophet, knew what the king had done. So he went to David and told him a story about a sweet little ewe lamb, the beloved pet of a poor man, which was taken by a ruthless rich man and cooked up for some company. David was incensed by that rich man's actions in that story. And he must have been shocked out of his sandals when Nathan charged, "You are the man!" Busted. In light of all he had done, David was far worse than the rich man of Nathan's little story.

David faced a major turning point here. He could easily have reacted in anger and defensiveness. He could have tried to explain "his side of the story." As king he could have expelled Nathan from the kingdom or imprisoned him forever, even put him to death, in order to protect himself and maintain his reputation.

In other words, David could have gone over to the dark side.

But David immediately responded out of a tender, honest heart. He realized how he had made a mess of things out of his poor choices and his selfish will. So he confessed and begged for God's mercy. He was indeed one after God's heart. And the psalmist attempts to capture the emotion of his heartfelt confession.

We all need to be cleansed from something. Perhaps it's a relationship that's unhealthy, or one we're misusing or even abusing. Maybe it's forcing some figures at work to make our balance sheet look better, or overbilling some customers. Maybe it's cheating on our coursework in school. Whether it's a stupid mistake that we're not willing to own or the result of our total rebellion from God's ways, there's some area of life that we know we have let get out of control, and we're getting to the point not of fixing it but of covering it up.

This is the time to learn from David's humble, honest response--before it's too late. This is the time to turn to God for cleansing.

Of course, though David was forgiven and cleansed by God, he still suffered the ramifications of his choices, including the death of the son that resulted from his affair. This is harsh. It's hard to take in at times. But if we're honest, each of us knows what it's like.

God has high standards. God wants us to be honest and authentic, true to ourselves, to each other, and to God. God hopes for us that we will be positive and giving and loving, not selfish and hurtful and deceptive. That's not always easy, and it certainly isn't as easy as messing up in the first place.

A recent article in the Forward Day by Day devotional guide focused on this Psalm. The author writes:

Examining my life for sin is not an especially enjoyable pursuit, but only when I identify the actions and beliefs that are keeping me apart from God can I begin the difficult interior work of becoming closer to God. I know that God does not hate me, that God will not banish me forever because of anything I've done, and that nothing I do or say or think or question can bring me out beyond God's reach. With this knowledge, I have the confidence to look honestly at my life.

Confession allows us to take responsibility for our actions, which is a necessary step for change and growth. It is not a punishment, it is not torture; it can be painful, but it can also lead to comfort, renewal, and progress.

We need to keep connected to God, and to God's goals for us, day by day. We need to acknowledge too that we don't have to do it all in our own power. God has given us everything we need to live this way. It starts by asking God, just as David did, to:

10 Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me....
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.
13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.

Or, as Flannery O'Connor put it in her journal entry...

Please make it clean....

Please help me to get down under things and find where You are....

I can feel a warmth of love heating me when I think & write this to You.... My intellect is so limited, Lord, that I can only trust in You to preserve me as I should be.

God can renew and refurbish our spirits, our hearts, our drive, our attitudes. God can give us a positive, willing, and steadfast spirit to live and learn from mistakes and to change direction. Yes, God can. But it starts with the humble, honest response of our heart.

Hear what Jesus says in Luke 15:10, and take it to heart: "Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents."