January 23, 2024 • Life for Leaders
Scripture — Psalm 51:15-17 (NRSV)
O Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth will declare your praise.
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.
It would be easy for us to assume that what we offer to God when we have sinned is not only our sorrow, but also our intention to do better. We might think, “If I promise that I won’t sin this way again, then God will forgive me.” But Psalm 51 offers quite a different perspective. Notice that the sacrifice acceptable to God is “a broken spirit, a broken and crushed heart.” We don’t come before God with our lives all put together. We don’t come even with our hopeful promises to do better in the future. Rather, we come in our brokenness and pain. We come acknowledging how messed up we are and, therefore, how desperate we are for God’s mercy and grace.
Today’s devotion is part of the series: A Biblical Guide to Inner Work.
At first glance, Psalm 51:16-17 can seem quite odd. Verse 16, in particular, states boldly that God has “no delight in sacrifice” (51:16). But wait, we might object, didn’t God institute the Jewish sacrificial system? How could a faithful Jew, such as the writer of Psalm 51, say that burnt offerings and the like do not please God?
Moreover, if we read a little further in Psalm 51, we find this: “Do good to Zion in your good pleasure; rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, then you will delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings” (51:18-19a). Surely the psalm writer, identified as King David, isn’t contradicting himself and other portions of Scripture so dramatically?
No, he is not. We must remember that Psalm 51 is poetry, not prose. Moreover, the Hebrew language often uses dramatic contrasts where we might say something more nuanced. As the context of verse 16 makes clear, God isn’t completely displeased with literal sacrifices. But when these are offered without a broken spirit, without a broken and contrite heart, then God, who looks upon our hearts, is not pleased.
Suppose, for example, that after committing adultery with Bathsheba and killing her husband, David had simply offered various sacrifices to atone for his sin, but without any remorse. Would God have been pleased? Hardly! What God wanted most of all was for David to own his sin, to feel genuine remorse, to turn away from his sin, and to ask for forgiveness, cleansing, and new creation.
The second part of verse 17 says “A broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” The English word “contrite,” used in many contemporary translations of the Bible, means “feeling or showing sorrow and remorse for improper or objectionable behavior.” Surely sorrow and remorse are part of what is intended in verse 17. But the Hebrew word translated as “contrite” is a form of the verb dakha. If you were to look up dakha in a Hebrew-English lexicon, you would find the option of “contrite,” but you’d also see that the main definition of dakha is “to crush.” The CEB renders the latter portion of verse 17 in this way: “You won’t despise a heart, O God, that is broken and crushed.” It seems to me that often in English when we speak of being contrite, it means we “feel a bit sorry.” But when it comes to sorrow over our sin, the Hebrew of verse 17 calls us to something much deeper and more painful.
But what if I’m not particularly sorry for my sin? I can’t fool God with religious activity or with prayers that do not reflect the true state of my soul. So what should I do? Psalm 51 answers this question by pointing to God as the one who is the source of conviction of sin as well as forgiveness of sin. You may recall that in the Gospel of John, Jesus spoke of sending the Holy Spirit (referred to as the Paraclete, Advocate, or Comforter) to his disciples. When the Spirit comes, according to Jesus, “he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment” (John 16:8).
It would be easy for us to assume that what we offer to God when we have sinned is not only our sorrow, but also our intention to do better. We might think, “If I promise that I won’t sin this way again, then God will forgive me.” But Psalm 51 offers quite a different perspective. Notice that the sacrifice acceptable to God is “a broken spirit, a broken and crushed heart.” We don’t come before God with our lives all put together. We don’t come even with our hopeful promises to do better in the future. Rather, we come in our brokenness and pain. We come acknowledging how messed up we are and, therefore, how desperate we are for God’s mercy and grace. Remember the first verse of Psalm 51, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions” (51:1).
The image of offering God my brokenness helps me, not only when I’m dealing with the sin in my life, but also when I offer other kinds of sacrifices to God. For example, I believe God cares about my daily work. What I do each day – and what you do – can be an offering to God. Yet, I’m all too aware that my sacrifice of work is not unblemished. Yes, I want to please God, but I also want to polish my ego. Yes, I want to serve God’s purposes, but I also want to advance my own agendas. Yes, I try to act as a “good Christian” in all I do, but all too often I fail to be kind to my colleagues. If I believed that my offering of work had to be perfect, I would fall into despair. Yet it seems clear that God is looking not for perfection, but for a “willing spirit.” God will accept the sacrifice of my daily work “warts and all” because God is merciful and gracious. This is good news, indeed.
Can you think of a time in your life (or many times) when you came before God with a broken spirit? What happened?
Are you ever inclined to think that for your offering to God to be acceptable it has to be perfect (or excellent, or flawless)? Why would you think this?
What keeps you from offering to God all that you are, even the broken parts of your life?
If you have been holding back in your relationship with God because you’re aware of your brokenness, trust God enough to offer yourself as you are.
Gracious God, I confess that sometimes I think I can honor you by doing the right things, whether at work, at home, or in church. But Psalm 51 reminds me that, though you care about my behavior, you are looking upon my heart. When I sin, you are not pleased by my good intentions or wishful promises. In the matter of sin, I can’t “get time off for good behavior.” Rather, you invite me to come before you as I am, broken, messed up, and crushed.
Thank you, dear Lord, for your mercy and grace. Thank you for the promise in Hebrews 4 that, because of Christ, I can approach your throne of grace with utter confidence, knowing that I will receive mercy and grace to help me. What a wonder! Amen.
Banner image by Yosi Prihantoro 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: What Can You Offer to God?.
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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.