November 12, 2023 • Life for Leaders
Scripture — Psalm 51:1-2, 10, 16-17 (NRSV)
Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy,
blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin. . . .
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me. . . .
For you have no delight in sacrifice;
if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased.
The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
The Psalms invite us into prayerful self-reflection. Sometimes they help us to see ourselves as “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14). At other times, however, the Psalms reveal the less-savory parts of ourselves. They summon us to reflect upon our sinfulness. But that’s not the end result. Rather, such honest reflection leads to confession and then to new creation based on God’s steadfast love and mercy.
This devotion is part of the series: A Biblical Guide to Reflection
Sixteenth-century theologian John Calvin called the Psalms “An Anatomy of all the Parts of the Soul.” He explained, “For there is not an emotion of which anyone can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror.” In the Psalms, Calvin believed, we see a reflection of our souls. He added that in this biblical book “the Holy Spirit has here drawn to life all the griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities, in short, all the distracting emotions” that plague our minds (Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Psalms, “Author’s Preface,” trans. James Anderson).
As we saw in last week’s devotions based on Psalm 139, sometimes the Psalms help us to see ourselves as “fearfully and wonderfully made” (139:14). Our self-reflection celebrates the wonder of our createdness. At other times, however, the Psalms reveal the less-savory parts of ourselves. They summon us to reflect upon our sinfulness. But that’s not the end result. Rather, such honest reflection leads to confession and then to new creation.
We see this sort of reflection dramatically portrayed in Psalm 51. It begins with a cry for mercy because the psalm writer has sinned. As he says in verse 3, “For I know my transgressions and my sin is ever before me.” He cannot reflect on his soul without seeing and acknowledging his sin. There is no evidence of rationalization here. The writer isn’t trying to explain away his behavior. As he says in verse 4, “Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight.” This is a blunt confession of sin, nothing less. The psalmist does not hold back in telling God the truth of his failings.
Though Psalm 51 was written during a time when sacrifices were regularly offered in the Jerusalem temple, the Jewish writer recognizes that physical sacrifices alone will not be acceptable to God. Rather, “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (51:17). This conviction enables the writer to admit openly that he has failed and to turn to God for mercy.
Interestingly enough, Psalm 51 does not include an explicit plea for forgiveness, though such a request is surely implied. Instead, the writer asks to be washed, cleansed, and purged (51:2, 7). He wants his sins to be blotted out (51:9). But the psalmist’s main request stretches beyond forgiveness and cleansing. He prays explicitly for three things: First, to be re-created on the inside: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me” (51:10).” Second, to continue in relationship with God: “Do not cast me away from your presence” (51:11). And third, to be renewed in the joy of God’s salvation: “Restore to me the joy of your salvation” (51:12).
Psalm 51 shows us that we don’t need to get mired in rumination when we engage in self-reflection, even when we honestly recognize our faults and failures. Rather, in confession, we come before God, eager to be renewed. We trust that God’s mercy will do in us what we cannot do ourselves; namely, make ourselves new.
As you may recall, self-reflection in Psalm 139 points our hearts to God and calls us to worship. In Psalm 51 self-reflection also directs our hearts to God, this time with a desire to be made new and to be sustained in our relationship with the Lord. In both psalms, self-reflection is not something that happens in a vacuum. Rather, it is something we do in relationship with God and to grow in that relationship.
What makes it difficult for you to confess honestly to God?
What helps you to confess freely, without holding back?
When in your life, have you experienced God’s mercy in a particularly obvious way?
Set aside several minutes to pray using Psalm 51. Read the Psalm as your prayer to the Lord. You might want to stop at certain points and reflect. You might find it helpful to read Psalm 51 more than once.
This prayer is composed of portions of Psalm 51 from The Message.
Generous in love—God, give grace!
Huge in mercy—wipe out my bad record.
Scrub away my guilt,
soak out my sins in your laundry.
I know how bad I’ve been;
my sins are staring me down.
God, make a fresh start in me,
shape a Genesis week from the chaos of my life.
Don’t throw me out with the trash,
or fail to breathe holiness in me.
Bring me back from gray exile,
put a fresh wind in my sails!
Going through the motions doesn’t please you,
a flawless performance is nothing to you.
I learned God-worship
when my pride was shattered.
Heart-shattered lives ready for love
don’t for a moment escape God’s notice. Amen.
Banner image by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash.
Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the High Calling archive, hosted by the unique website of our partners, the Theology of Work Project. Reflection on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: Yearning to Be Created Anew.
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Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders, and the founder of the De Pree Center’s Flourishing in the Third Third of Life Initiative. Previously, Mark was the Executive Director of the De Pree Center, the lead pastor of a church in Southern California, and the Senior Director of Laity Lodge in Texas. He has written eight books, dozens of articles, and over 2,500 devotions that help people discover the difference God makes in their daily life and leadership. With a Ph.D. in New Testament from Harvard, Mark teaches at Fuller Seminary, most recently in his D.Min. cohort on “Faith, Work, Economics, and Vocation.” Mark is married to Linda, a marriage and family counselor, spiritual director, and executive coach. Their two grown children are educators on the high school and college level.