God’s Got You Covered
Psalm 32 August 11, 2019
The famous British playwright and humorist Noel Coward, once played an interesting prank.
He sent identical notes to twenty famous men in London: “Everybody has found out what you are doing. If I were you, I would get out of town.”
At least in his telling, all twenty men actually left town.
Psychiatrists say that unresolved guilt is more widespread than previously thought and that it causes unhappiness, mental illness, and even suicide.
As they say in 12-Step, “You are only as sick as your secrets”.
Maybe the subject of the confession of sin sounds like a real downer to you, but the psalmist does not experience it that way.
He opens today’s psalm by twice repeating “happy” or “blessed,” and his closing words are a call to sing and rejoice.
Psalm 32:1-2 Happy is the one
whose transgressions are forgiven,
whose sins are covered.
Happy is the one
whose sin the
Lord does not count against them
and in whose spirit is no deceit.
Last week we learned that Psalm 1 introduces the collection (of) 150 psalms with that same opening beatitude –
Psalm 1:1 Happy is the one who, so right away we get that this is a dialogue between these two psalms.
Psalm 1 continues by laying out two starkly contrasting paths through life.
The path of happiness is along God’s path, while the more commonly traveled path where people just do their own thing leads to ruin.
We saw that Psalm 1’s primary purpose is to invite people to venture further into the psalms that give us prayers for every kind of life circumstance and so, over time, they’ll become the soundtrack to our lives.
Psalm 32 reiterates those contrasting paths while reminding us how easily we wander away from the blessed path, but also that God remains actively engaged with us.
When we realize and fess-up that we’ve strayed, God forgives and redirects us.
Psalm 32:5 Then I acknowledged my sin to You
and did not cover up my iniquity.
I said, “I will confess
my transgressions to the Lord.”
And You forgave
the guilt of my sin.
While Psalm 1 is often translated as the righteous person is like a tree planted by streams of water, last week we learned that the literal Hebrew word is transplanted.
That proper translation gives it a different meaning, saying that God’s grace is active, transplanting the willing person from dry and barren soil to the rich and productive river bank.
In today’s psalm, we again see God’s grace, this time freeing the willing person from the deadening weight of sin.
Jesus exemplified this grace in his parable of the prodigal son, Luke 15:11-32.
While the younger son struggles with how to go home, ashamed of what he has done and embarrassed to face his father, the father runs out to greet his wayward son as soon as he’s spotted coming up the road.
Likewise, Psalm 32 celebrates this joy of grace by one who has personally experienced God’s forgiveness.
As uncomfortable as modern culture has become when talking about sin, the psalmist couldn’t be more serious.
For emphasis, the psalmist uses multiple terms for sin.
First, he uses the Hebrew word we translate as “transgression”.
Elsewhere that word is used to describe when one signatory to a treaty rebels and violates their promises.
Another word translated as “sin” gives the sense of an archer whose poor aim misses his target.
He also uses the Hebrew word we translate as “iniquity” and could also be translated as “wickedness”.
Finally, “deceit” translates the Hebrew word which means being treacherous, or not reliable.
Elsewhere this is used to describe a defective weapon that might backfire.
At the same time, the psalmist couldn’t be more expansive when describing forgiveness that restores us to be faithful, happy and blessed.
The phrase sins are covered in verse 1 is not like a secret stash of old diaries or photos covered by a blanket to hide it down in the basement.
Rather, when blood sacrifices were made, the people understood that their sins were covered by the blood of the sacrifice they took to the priest.
Those sacrifices were burned and the sins became like the smoke that wafted up from the altar and disappeared.
Psychologist Roy Baumeister of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland found that the average person spends approximately two hours a day feeling guilty, and for an average of 39 minutes of that time, people feel moderate to severe guilt that can lead to physical and emotional disease.
Of course, guilt can play a constructive part in our life.
Like an electric fence, it can jolt us when we begin to stray from our boundaries.
Like the “check engine” light on your dashboard, it can alert you that something is wrong.
But if unaddressed, it roosts in a corner of our mind where it worries and taunts us – day and night, nagging in the background that something is wrong, out of whack.
Our body reacts by producing stress hormones that in the long term can create a range of physical and mental problems.
Or worse yet, if keeping a family secret (like mom’s alcoholism, uncle’s unwelcomed touching), or a parent’s saying that we’ll never amount to anything, shame can set in so we enter adulthood believing we are flawed.
Guilt says that we did something wrong, but shame says that we are wrong.
If we don’t face our own guilt and shame, it eats at us, and to deal with it we may project it onto others and create toxic relationships and families.
Anger and scapegoating are easier to live with than resolving guilt or shame, which is why hurt people hurt people.
According to neuroscientist David Eagleman at Baylor College of Medicine, secrets can create sparring factions in our brains; one part of our brain wants to spill the beans, while the other wants to stay mum.
This battle multiplies our stress.
But acknowledging an undisclosed truth in some tangible way can help resolve that conflict.
As Dr. Eagleman found, the mere act of writing down a painful secret reduces the level of stress.
Others have found that this exercise can begin healing toxic relationships as well.
In one test, Dr. Eagleman tracked changing levels of stress-related hormones in subjects’ blood and found significant reductions following the simple exercise of writing a list of secrets.
In another study, Holocaust victims who during interviews disclosed long-suppressed memories experienced significant health improvements as measured as far out as 14-months later.
And the more secrets they revealed, the more their health improved.
Part of the power of the #MeToo movement comes from victims breaking their silence about their own anger and shame.
Shame separates us from other people because it requires secrecy to survive.
That is why, for some, #MeToo is more than just exposing the perpetrator; it is revealing to a community that I, too, have lived with this secret shame.
The psalmist wasn’t just theorizing; apparently, he had lived with unresolved guilt, sin or shame.
Psalm 32:3-4 When I kept silent,
my bones wasted away
through my groaning all day long.
For day and night
your hand was heavy on me;
my strength was sapped
as in the heat of summer.
Silence is a rejection of God’s grace.
On the other hand, confession is letting down our defenses and answering the invitation for God’s grace to restore us to the path of righteousness.
Traditionally, the author of this psalm was thought to be King David, writing after his rape of Bathsheba and cover-up murder of her husband in about 1034 BCE.
But modern scholars tend to date this as much later – probably after Ezra and Nehemiah rebuilt Jerusalem in about 455 BCE.
They had returned from the Babylonian exile to find Jerusalem’s temple and walls in ruin, which prophets like Jeremiah had said was the consequence of the nation becoming corrupt and unfaithful to God.
Now the post-exilic clergy worked with fervor to return the nation to faithful practices.
That explains why some of Psalm 32 reads like a lesson, teaching the people about the urgency and the practice of confession.
In the section phrased as God speaking to the repentant person, the words equally address the nation as it recovers from the Babylonian exile.
Psalm 32:8-9 I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go;
I will counsel you with my loving eye on you.
Do not be like the horse or the mule,
which have no understanding
but must be controlled by bit and bridle
or they will not come to you.
Psalm 32 almost pleads that we learn from our personal and national experiences rather than being like horses and mules forcefully led around.
Face your sins willingly so that God doesn’t have to lay his heavy hand on you because sometimes God does resort to severe mercy to get our attention.
Many of us have felt helpless as images of yet another series of mass shootings have filled our TVs and monitors.
Gilroy, Dayton, El Paso are just the most recent newsworthy mass shootings.
Mass shootings are largely an American phenomenon, and we’ve become so accustomed to them that Reuters reports that 78% of Americans expect another mass shooting will take place within the next three months.
I’m not advocating any particular gun policy, but it seems that there is some confession we all have to make about our relationship with guns.
Just doing the same thing – arming more people, having the same, predictable conversations after each mass shooting – isn’t changing anything.
Doing the same thing and expecting different results is the definition of insanity.
There’s no official definition for a mass shooting, but the FBI defines mass murder as four or more people killed in a single incident, so some agencies have adopted the definition of a mass shooting as being four or more people being shot in one incident.
CBS News reports that by that measure, as of August 5 – the 217th day of the year – there had been 255 mass shootings in the United States.
You haven’t heard of most of them because they are so commonplace, especially in inner-cities – where a disproportionate number of people are armed.
There are more guns in America than people – and I own several, both handguns and rifles.
Each of us may have different ideas for gun legislation – but that’s not my point.
My point is that our faith calls us to honest confession of wherever we see that we have strayed from the path of righteousness.
And there is not a more obvious example of being on the wrong path than what is happening now.
But as a people we cannot even have a conversation about this charged topic until we confess that something is wrong.
I suspect that some of that confession is about how guns have become totems for our cultural identities which would explain why 84% of Republicans favor laws like background checks, but having a conversation about such laws is nearly impossible.
So far, our nation is behaving like the dysfunctional family that can’t sit together for a Thanksgiving dinner without erupting into fights because of long-ago arguments and resentments that have never been brought to the light of day.
Psalm 32 is an invitation to do better.
I don’t even know what that would even look like, but if we are God’s people, then we are called to find a way.
In the end, Psalm 32 is unique in that it is a celebration of forgiveness.
After all the denial and the risky, uncomfortable confession of transgressions, sins, iniquities, and deceit, we experience the blessing of God’s grace … of God rushing out to greet us and return us to the path of righteousness.
Psalm 32 concludes,
Psalm 32:11 Rejoice in the Lord and be glad, you righteous;
sing, all you who are upright in heart!