Psalm 38: Whatever Happened to Guilt

Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his book, Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible, tell us:  “If we want to read and to pray the prayers of the Bible and especially the Psalms, therefore, we must not ask first what they have to do with us, but what they have to do with Jesus Christ.  We must ask how we can understand the Psalms as God’s Word, and then we shall be able to pray them. It does not depend, therefore, on whether the Psalms express adequately that which we feel at a given moment in our heart. If we are to pray aright, perhaps it is quite necessary that we pray contrary to our own heart. Not what we want to pray is important, but what God wants us to pray . . . The richness of the Word of God ought to determine our prayer, not the poverty of our heart.” (pp. 14-15) 

I was struck by this when reading Psalm 38. What does this psalm have to do with me, I asked myself. The psalm is about someone afflicted with terrible guilt over a wrong-doing. If written by David, this would be appropriate. He slept with another man’s wife then arranged for her husband to be killed in battle. Certainly this is a sin worthy of this psalm.

But I haven’t murdered anyone or done anything that terrible, have I? I haven’t done anything to warrant the suffering the writer is undergoing: “My wounds grow foul and fester because of my foolishness, I am utterly bowed down and prostrate; all the day I go about mourning. For my loins are filled with burning, and there is no soundness in my flesh. I am utterly spent and crushed; I groan because of the tumult of my heart.” (5-8)

 Psalm 38 is a penitential psalm. The writer is experiencing extreme distress, both physical and spiritual, “there is no health in my bones because of my sin.” (3b) His sin is so grave that it causes him to be physically sick. His friends are indifferent to his pain and his enemies seek to take advantage of his friends’ abandonment by plotting against him. “My friends and companions stand aloof from my plague, and my kinsmen stand afar off. Those who seek my life lay their snares, those who seek my hurt speak of ruin, and meditate treachery all the day long.” (11-12)

In response, he remains silent, standing like a man who is deaf and dumb. “But I am like a deaf man, I do not hear, like a dumb man who does not open his mouth.” (13) Silence is part of his penance. He must stand silent and wait for God, “But for thee, O Lord, do I wait; it is thou, O Lord my God, who wilt answer.” (15) It is all in God’s hands.

The only recourse the writer has is to sincerely confess his sin, “I confess my iniquity, I am sorry for my sin.” (18) The psalm ends with a renewed appeal to God, “Do not forsake me, O Lord! O my God, be not far from me! Make haste to help me, O Lord, my salvation!” (21-22)

The writer is left on his knees before God, waiting for God to respond to his prayers. It is fitting to end the psalm this way. Far too often we expect immediate forgiveness for our sins. We think if we but apologize, everything will be forgiven. It’s not that our God withholds forgiveness. Our God is slow to anger, rich in kindness, as stated repeatedly in the Psalms. God doesn’t withhold forgiveness, but he can’t give us forgiveness until we are truly ready for it.

In the movie, The Mission, a man who had killed another, is given a very heavy load to carry up a mountainside. The man struggles and struggles under the burden. It pulls him back down the hillside. It appears it may be the death of him before he reaches the summit of the mountain. When others ask that the priest relieve him of his burden and say that he has suffered enough, the priest refuses and the man also refuses to let go of the heavy bundle. It is only when they reach the mountaintop that the priest cuts the rope binding the load to the man, setting him free. Then the man is finally able to let go of his guilt and accept forgiveness.

The writer of this psalm does not receive immediate forgiveness. There is no cheap grace for him. He needs time to recognize the depth of his failure, the depth of his sinfulness and only then will he receive the forgiveness he seeks.

To carry a burden of guilt can be hard. It can afflict us physically and spiritually. It can rob our lives of joy. Some suffer from false guilt for things over which they have no control. False guilt is not good. Some psychiatrists and others in efforts to relieve people of false guilt have gone to the extreme of ridding us of all guilt.

But there is a place for guilt. Guilt lets us know we have done something wrong, that our lives are not in accord with God’s will. In this sense it is a gift to us. If we never feel guilty and in need of forgiveness, then how will we experience the gift which is forgiveness?

The first step to forgiveness is to acknowledge our guilt. We may not have sinned in a way that is life threatening to our spirit, or a mortal sin, yet enough small sins that we justify and refuse to acknowledge can lead to a deadening of the spirit. We may say we have nothing in common with the writer of this psalm–that it does not apply to us. Think again.

So if you feel rightly guilty over some wrong you have done, rejoice! God is leading you back to him where you might experience God’s mercy and loving kindness.

Has guilt ever been a gift in your life?
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