A homily on Psalm 32 by Sue Omanson, one of our worship leaders and group leaders at City of Light.
What does the word “confession” stir up in your thoughts, memories and feelings? Is it something that you prefer to avoid? Does the idea of confessing a wrong to someone bring feelings of shame, fear, or sadness? Psalm 32 speaks of just the opposite: that admitting our wrongs to the Lord brings the joy of His forgiveness and the benefits of a close relationship with Him.
The psalm begins by declaring the blessings of forgiveness.
Verses 1 and 2 say, “Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.”
Note that the person is blessed in spite of having done something wrong, in spite of disobeying God in some way. God’s forgiveness is stronger than the person’s sin. The psalm begins by foreshadowing the reality of forgiveness made possible through Jesus’ work on the cross for us through his death and resurrection. The blessing of forgiveness is for all of us who have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Living in God’s forgiveness is possible because of Jesus, who came that we might have abundant life and fullness of joy.
Yet the author, David, recalls a time when he did not experience this blessedness. Why?
In verses 3 and 4 he explains:
“For when I kept silent, my bones 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.”
Even a man like David, a man after God’s own heart, appears to be withdrawing from God, keeping silent about his sin. And as a result, he felt a heavy weight on him, and that his strength was sapped.
Secular research in psychology has shown that there are physical effects of hiding a deep, personal and potentially damaging secret.
A 2012 study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology showed that guarding significant personal secrets influences perception of the difficulty of tasks and willingness to help someone else.
Participants were told to think about and then hide from the researchers either a big secret, such as infidelity, or a small secret, such as telling a white lie. They were then asked to estimate the slope of a hill, the distance to be traveled or the weight of books to be lifted. Those with the big secrets perceived hills to be steeper, distances longer and books to be heavier to move. The researchers concluded that, ”the more burdensome their secrets were, the more participants perceived everyday behaviors as if they were carrying a physical burden” (Slepian, M. L., Masicampo, E. J., Toosi, N. R., & Ambady, N. (2012). The physical burdens of secrecy. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 141, 619–624).
For the psalmist, relief from this burden, pain and wasting away is surprisingly simple, as told in verse 5:
“I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,’ and you forgave the iniquity of my sin.”
The three words used here for wrongdoing:—sin, transgression and iniquity—describe different aspects of sin, all of which are forgiven by the Lord. According to the New Bible Commentary, sin refers to an outward act (or failure to act), transgression means rebellious disobedience and iniquity is inward corruption. All three are a reality in our lives and are intertwined. The psalmist confessed, or admitted to God, and agreed with God that he had committed a sinful act, had maintained a rebellious attitude, and also acknowledged that sin had corrupted his inner life.
Confession brings freedom, a lifting of the heavy burden, a renewal of joy to the sinner. The psalmist encourages the reader, and all those who walk with God, to run to God in prayer. Verse 6 says: “Therefore let everyone who is godly offer prayer to you at a time when you may be found.” Don’t wait! God is trustworthy to hear and forgive. Though sometimes, because of fear or other reasons, we persist in our silence rather than speaking to God, and we experience the burden and weakness that hiding our guilt can produce. Like Adam and Eve did in Genesis chapter 3 after they had disobeyed God, we try to cover up our sin and hide from God. Psalm 32 gently reminds us that God wants to restore and reconcile us to walk in close fellowship with him – and that confessing our sins to Him is good not only for our souls but for our bodies as well. Like the father of the prodigal son, God waits with open arms for his sons and daughters to return to him.
In Genesis 3, even though Adam and Eve attempted to hide from the Lord, He went looking for them and then confronted them with their sin and explained the consequences. The world had changed; they must leave the garden. The Lord handmade warm clothing for them out of animal skins, implying that a sacrifice had been made, an animal’s life had been taken. The covering that God made for Adam and Eve cost an animal’s life; the covering of righteousness and forgiveness that God would give us through Jesus cost him his life. But this covering, the white robes of the saints, the gift of Christ’s righteousness, is our protection and salvation for eternal life with him. We go from hiding from God to being hidden in God.
The benefits of living in God’s forgiveness are spelled out in verses 7, 8 and 10:
The psalmist says to God, “You are a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with shouts of deliverance. “ And God says to the psalmist, “I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you. Be not like a horse or a mule, without understanding, which must be curbed with bit and bridle, or it will not stay near you.”
When we agree with God that His ways are right, and humbly confess a wrong action or attitude when we become aware of it, we open our hearts to the Holy Spirit, who counsels us as a friend, as one who understands. This is what God wants for us – a close communion, inviting us into his wisdom, to share His mission, as He created us. This verse reveals God’s heart of wanting us to be near him willingly, even when we often are stubborn like an animal, who wants to go its own way. If necessary, the Lord will guide us back to him by laying a heavy hand upon us or by letting us experience the consequences of sin that jar us like a bit or bridle.
But he desires instead that we willingly come to him in prayer, so that he can speak to us as a friend —gently, with his eye upon us. When we are listening to God, living in his forgiveness, we are under his protection. He is our hiding place from trouble. Verse 10 sums up the blessed life of the forgiven this way: “steadfast love surrounds the one who trusts in the Lord.”
This is such good news that the psalm ends with an exuberant call to worship:
“Be glad in the Lord, and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart!
How, then, can we become more willing and able to confess our sins to God? To live a confessional lifestyle? To be quick to run to God and to trust in his care and forgiveness?
First, take time at the end of a day and ask for the Spirit’s help in discerning your sin. As the apostle John says in the book of First John, “if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” The words of Psalm 139:23-24 give us a model prayer: “search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!”
Second, ask for the Spirit’s help as you read through the prayer of confession in the Sunday liturgy from the Book of Common Prayer. Read through the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20 or the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5. Using scripture as a mirror, let it remind you of the Lord’s standards. Let scripture help you name your wrong actions or attitudes as God names them.
In addition to confessing your sin to God, consider confessing to a fellow Christian – a pastor, trusted friend, or a prayer minister. Prayer ministers are available during communion every week at church. As James encourages in chapter 5 of his letter, “confess your sins to one another and pray for one another that you may be healed.” Being able to share this burden openly with another believer can be freeing, and draws you closer not only to God but to each other in the church. For example, I remember being able to share with my prayer partner a struggle I was having with a sinful attitude. Only after I had shared it with her was I able to see more clearly what it was and how self-centered I was. Afterwards she said to me that that was a turning point in our relationship; the Lord grew our friendship through this confession and he healed me of that attitude.
Take time to thank the Lord for his forgiveness, for Jesus’ love for you, and his faithfulness in completing his work to redeem us all. Listen to his guidance as he leads you and counsels you. Rejoice in his goodness and ask for his help in telling others how good he has been to you.
Praise be to God—the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit—who frees us from our flimsy, life-stealing cover-up and brings us under his life-giving covering of righteousness, forgiveness, protection, counsel and love.