#11 of a Series on Psalm 50
“Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight; so you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge.” Psalm 50:4 – NIV
Today’s insight from the Prophet regarding his sin strips away the finals shreds of David’s self-protection. Jos focus shifts from himself, and his sin, to Who God is. And in David’s conscience, God presents Himself as David’s Judge. David is able to see that his sin goes way beyond him, to the realms of the very heavens. The sins of people are brought before the eternal Judge of the heavens.
God as Heavenly Judge
Any meditation on this is frightening.
We can go through Christian history and find famous preachers decrying the sins of men and women – such as the famous sermon by 18th century preacher Jonathan Edwards – Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.[i] But he is but one in a long tradition, including the Fathers of the Church, who make clear that God judges sin and sinners – just as Jesus taught and the Church has repeated from the earliest preaching of the Church by the apostles:
“For He has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man He has appointed [Jesus]. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead” Acts 17:41
Among the countless examples from the Orthodox tradition, here is a simple liturgical example – a prayer cited at the 13th Kathisma of the Psalms:
When I remember the day and hour of Thy terrible, threatening, and incorruptible judgment, O Christ, I tremble for I do wrong, my deeds are shameful and evil, for which I alone am to blame.
There’s a trend in pseudo-Christianity today that seems to ignore sin, or say that since Christians are ‘covered under the Blood of Jesus’ or some such thing they will not face judgment. This is simply wrong. We will all face judgment – for our personal offenses against God and need to give an account, just as the parable of the Last Judgment in Matthew 25 describes.[ii] This will be for sins committed – as well as those things which we neglected to do. Much of the Protestant tradition drifted away from this awareness and the motivating fear that accompanies it (including Edwards et.al.) – utilizing a construct of ‘once saved always saved’ which means that once we are saved from our sins by Christ (and acknowledge it) then it doesn’t matter what we do after that.[iii] Officially Protestant denominations may not hold to this, but the widespread, common belief about it influences all – Protestant, Catholic and even Orthodox.
Orthodoxy takes us, constantly, back to David’s insight – “Against you alone have I sinned.” And as a corollary – “there’s nothing I can do about it”. This is important – because while David’s sin affected himself (per the last article), not to mention Bathsheba, and the real victim, Bathsheba’s husband Uriah who lost his wife and then his life, there is much more. David comes squarely up against two realities – first that he knows the true God in his heart, and secondly, that he has deeply offended Him.
All sin offends God and it is the offense against God that is the real issue here. So often today we view life only through the ‘horizontal’ plane of relationships. An offense is committed against someone else and so this is the sum of the ‘sin’. So we have a great focus on miniscule ways which offenses are brought about – like so-called ‘micro-aggressions’ which can get you in big trouble socially, or for seemingly having offensive ideas about life for people with whom we are in disagreement But, often real offenses are overlooked or excuses are made and justice is seemingly rarely served. But all this misses the REAL point that all sin is sin against God – and God’s judgment will require a remedy for this sin.[iv] Sin is worthy of punishment and in acknowledging God being offended David is saying that because his sin is against God, that’s the most important thing. If he can be made right with God, through mercy, somehow the other things can be resolved.
David stands (or lies prostrate more likely) naked before God in his sin. He has no excuse and no defense. In the manner of Confession long-taught in the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, we begin our confession with these words, “I, a sinner, confess to Almighty God…” I am a sinner before God – David’s words become my words. How wonderful it is when we can make the scriptures’ words of praise and joy our words. But can we say to God, in all honesty and humility words such as these, “I, a sinner” or more strikingly, “I am a worm.[v]”
Many people have been taught not to think this way.
It’s deemed ‘destructive’ and fosters a ‘negative self-image’. Maybe it does – but here’s the thing, the only thing that matters is, ‘Is it true?’ The answer is yes. But this is not the only truth – for the conscience does not lie. The truth isn’t what depresses us, it’s our sins themselves that contort our self-image, that beautiful and pure image of God Himself within us! But the distortion caused by sin makes this beauty invisible, especially to ourselves. We feel and look dirty inside. Denying the sin only reinforces this blindness -causing the veil of self-delusion to become an iron curtain. The truth is that I have sinned against the Almighty Lord, and rejected Him and His loving way for me. But the truth is also in David’s heart, and ours if we but look for it, that this same God is the One who is merciful and sent His Son to save us from all of the damage that our sins have done. It’s ironic that Christians who are so seemingly focused on personal sin are among the few who ever get to this point of addressing personal sin at this deepest level – as an offense against God[vi] But this is only because, with a hint of the knowledge of the forgiveness afforded us in Christ Jesus, that we can have the courage to actually look at our sins.
God Gets It Right – Unfortunately
David ratifies that his stance as a sinner before God is correct, continuing, “so you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge.” He acknowledges that His God is the One Who has all power to judge him, and when He does so He is exercising His righteous judgment. He deserves – hell. Here, all excuses, pretenses and hopes that circumstantial evidence will get him off the hook when the trial comes have been dashed. He cannot blame the Judge because He knows the Judge is righteous. He even knows that it is not the desire of the Judge to judge Him harshly but justice must be served.[vii] God is simply ‘right’ about our sins.
Now what are we supposed to do – we have no defense?[viii] Being defenseless is the posture of the Publican in the parable of Jesus. (Lk. 18:9-14) It is the starting point of forgiveness. As long as we have a defense we don’t need grace or mercy of God’s help. We have something to fight off God’s righteousness and judgment.
Pretty silly huh? +
[i] While many in the West preach ‘hell’s fire and brimstone’, Edwards sermon was perhaps a milestone in this thought. The Orthodox approach, following Psalm 50, is different as this article from Holy Cross Monastery in 2012 notes. (https://www.holycross.org/blogs/sermons-homilies/113633862-he-does-not-desire-the-death-of-a-sinner)
[ii] It’s important to realize the metaphorical nature of Christ’s teaching on the Last Judgment. A number of the Fathers point out that the Judgment will happen instantly, in the human heart and mind, when all truth about one’s life will be realized.
[iii] At the moment, I can’t go into all of the arguments regarding the origins of sin, Augustine’s theology in the West about ‘original sin’ and the reactions to it but these are very important, and confusing issues in need of clarification from a sound biblical and theology based in the Church’s Holy Tradition.
[iv] In a 1980 article, Alexander Kalomiros ( https://orthochristian.com/101726.html,) posits that in this time, “I have the suspicion that men today believe in God more than at any other time in human history...” Rather it was as if everyone knew God, but “hates Him.” And hence just ignored Him. I would suspect that we ignore Him much more in our age than four decades ago. But sin drives us to ignore Him, and ignore the Judgment which we must face.
[v] These special words from Psalm 22, mirroring words of Job (25:6) are the words of the One despised and rejected by men because He was deemed, ‘evil’. Yet these are the words of Christ who took human sins upon Himself, and the lowest state of life – the worm crawling on the ground, as the proper place for the sinner, though He was without sin.
[vi] Many religions recognize sins in various forms, but usually the response is external – making some sort of sacrifice to appease th judgment of God. For the Christian, the Judgment is internal – so also is the salvation, once received.
[vii] Exodus 18:32
[viii] As one of the penitential prayers recited frequently by Orthodox Christians begins with ‘Have mercy on us O God, have mercy on us, for we have no defense…’