Forgiven and free

Many of you who are reading this have a secret. There’s something you know about yourself or someone else that you can’t tell for fear of the consequences. Maybe it’s something from the distant past, something that has little effect on your daily life now. But maybe it’s an ongoing situation that has to be covered up so that no one — hopefully! — can see.

If that’s the case, it’s probably burdening you. It takes energy to maintain the charade. Psychologists would say that keeping such a secret creates an additional “cognitive load.” You feel the weight of it on your mind. You have to be careful what you say. It affects your ability to be fully present to those around you. It may even be causing enough stress that it’s affecting your physical health.

I don’t need you to tell me what your secret is (heck, I don’t want you to tell me). Certainly, God knows what it is; one can’t keep secrets from the one who knows all, including the depths of the human heart. But the question is: have you talked to God about it?

If not, you might want to hear what the psalmist has to say.

. . .

Psalm 32 is an example of what has sometimes been called a penitential psalm, in which the psalmists confess their sin to God. What these psalms tend to share in common is the assumption that sickness or physical suffering may come from the hand of God as a punishment for disobedience or sin, with the offense itself typically going unnamed.

The psalm is broken into four parts by the insertion of the Hebrew word selah at three different points. Although nobody is certain what this means, most agree that it signifies some kind of pause. I imagine a congregation reciting or singing the words of the psalm together, then pausing to let them sink in, to let the appropriate thoughts and emotions wash over them.

The first part reads like a wisdom psalm. The psalmist gives us a couple of pithy proverbs: “Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Happy are those to whom the LORD imputes no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit” (vss. 1-2, NRSV). “Happy” doesn’t mean a life of nothing but smiles, but a blessed life, life as it should be.

The apostle Paul actually quotes this part of the psalm in his letter to the Romans: “Blessed are those whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the one against whom the Lord will not reckon sin” (Rom 4:7-8). Using Abraham as an example, Paul is making the argument that God doesn’t count someone as righteous because of their good deeds, but because of their faith and trust in God.

Paul does not, however, quote the line “in whose spirit there is no deceit,” probably because it doesn’t suit his purpose. The psalmist isn’t trying to construct a theology of salvation by grace through faith. He’s sharing some hard-won personal wisdom. The “deceit” seems to refer to something he tried to hide from God (see vs. 5). And he suffered the consequences:

While I kept silence, my body wasted away
    through my groaning all day long.
For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;
    my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.
(vss. 3-4)

Some commentators have wondered, “How can you be silent and groaning at the same time?” But I don’t take the word “silence” to mean that he said nothing at all. Rather, he avoided saying what he needed to say to God. Because of this, he suffered bodily and moaned constantly; the word “groaning” can actually refer to the roaring of a lion. The psalmist, in other words, needed more than just a couple of extra-strength Tylenol. His strength — literally, his “juice” — was gone, dried up like a wilted plant.

And he saw all of this as God’s doing.

. . .

Does it make sense to try to keep something from God? No. Do we do it anyway? Yes. Perhaps we don’t take our sin seriously. Perhaps we do take it seriously, and our shame keeps us away. Perhaps it’s our need to show ourselves that we can fix our own problems. Perhaps it’s the belief, down deep in our bones, that we can’t come to God until we have our act together — despite the fact that we say we believe in grace.

The psalmist says, Here’s some wise advice: don’t do it. Not if you want to know what it means to be happy the way that God meant us to be happy.