Guilt weighs heavily. Fear that accountability will be required or that forgiveness will be denied creates stress. In Dostoevsky’s classic novel Crime and Punishment, the primary character plans and commits a crime which no one seems to connect to him. His guilt proves to be the only investigator he cannot evade.
Psalm 32 reflects on suffering caused by unresolved guilt. The psalmist remembers his agony before he was forgiven. He begins the Psalm, however, with beatitudes, statements of blessing like those by Jesus that begin the Sermon on the Mound in Matthew chapter 5:
“Blessed is the one whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the one whose sin the LORD does not count against them and in whose spirit is no deceit” (Psalm 32:1-2).
The primary character in this psalm knows who God is. He believes in God. The Psalm is written to believers who are in a covenant relationship with God. But despite his faith, he has not been faithful in his relationship with God. He has sinned; he has violated the covenant. Three terms for that violation are used within the psalm: sin, transgression, iniquity. Their various shades of meaning reveal nothing about the offense(s) committed. The psalmist’s stress tells us that his awareness of his sin had created separation between him and God, and that reality had caused him great pain:
“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” (Psalm 32:3-4).
Weight loss and illness flow from emotional stress when it is not relieved. Guilt causes such stress. Have you ever experienced physical symptoms that traced back to worry or guilt? How do we resolve such a problem? The psalmist, as he continues to pray, remembers:
“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. Therefore let all the faithful pray to you while you may be found; surely the rising of the mighty waters will not reach them” (Psalm 32:5-6).
Confession, admitting to another that you have wronged them, is key to healing broken relationship. Sin is transgression, is iniquity, because in doing it, we harm or seek to harm ourselves or another physically, emotionally, or spiritually. When we try to ignore the harm we have done by refusing to admit it, we compound the injury. Failure to confess damages relationships because it destroys basis for trust. Our guilt stands as a barrier between us and God or whomever we have sinned against. That is why Jesus said during his Sermon on the Mount (a second parallel from this psalm to that passage):
“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23).
Confession is necessary to worship, both in the Sermon on the Mount and in Psalm 32 – “Let all the faithful pray to you while you may be found…” Confession enables us to engage with God and with others with confidence in our own integrity. Confession also opens the door for us to forgive others as they and God forgive us. The action restores our sense of safety in the presence of God. After prayer of confession, the psalmist can say:
“You are my hiding place; you will protect me from trouble and surround me with songs of deliverance” (Psalm 32:7).
Silence morphs into song when we stop hiding from God and ourselves. We, as did the psalmist, can hear more clearly God’s words of love and instruction. We can hear him say,
“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 the bit and bridle or they will not come to you” (Psalm 32:8-9).
God speaks in response to the prayer of penitence and confession: the LORD acknowledges that his follower no longer tries to deceive him. He reminds that he loves, that he will teach if we will listen, that he keeps his eye on us as a loving parent would, that he will rescue us when we permit him and do not resist him. When his people confess in prayer, he forgives. The Psalmist is already part of God’s covenant people when he sins. His prayer of confession restores him to a healthy relationship with God. So the psalm, which began by proclaiming how blessed forgiven people are, ends with joyful singing about God folding his love around those who trust him:
“Many are woes of the wicked, but the LORD’s unfailing love surrounds the one who trusts in him. Rejoice in the LORD and be glad, you righteous; sing, all you who are up right in heart (Psalm 32:20-11).
May we stop trying to deceive God, and be truthful with ourselves, with others, and with God. Let’s not wait too long to speak truth and seek forgiveness. Pray hard, my friends.
- Quotes from the Bible are from the New International Version 2011.