Renewed With A Steadfast Spirit
Have you noticed that the level of all debate today, public and private, seems to be stuck in the mire of accusation and blame? The current political, social and economic ‘debate’ at the private, the national level and the international levels, seems to share a common tone of acrimony, often bordering on hatred. This is clearly seen even in the realm of social media. These ‘arguments’ rarely seems to rise above the level of ad hominem attacks that range from the sarcastic to the vicious. There seems to be an abundance of finger pointing, but an almost total absence of self-reflection. Hence, there is, it seems, little or no room for compromise, and certainly none for forgiveness. This lack of self-reflection creates a ‘black and white’ worldview, eliminating all the other ‘color’ possibilities in between. And this is dangerous to all of us. For this kind of worldview is blind to two very important insights. The first is that no human being or human institution can be ‘perfectly’ right, or wrong. The second is that no human being or human institution is free from error. None of us are sinless. Human institutions are not sinless either. Just as in Jesus’ time (probably since the dawn of mankind) we are quick to see the splinter in the other’s eye, but seem to be completely unaware of the plank in our own. This has huge emotional, physical, and social consequences in our personal lives and in the life of the society and the culture. For the truth is that we are inextricably connected to one another as human beings at the social, political and economic level, and as children of God on the spiritual level. The English poet John Donne wrote understood this clearly when he wrote:
ʺNo man is and island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.ʺ (from: Meditation 17)
In Psalm 51, one of the seven penitential psalms, King David has come to see the connection between his own sins and the social disorders of the kingdom. He begins his healing process, and that of the nation, where we all need to begin, within his own heart and soul, within his own conscience. He wrote this psalm after the prophet Nathan had confronted him with his guilt in the matter of his relationship with Bathsheba and his ordering of the death of her husband, Uriah, on the battlefield. David has been forced to look inward at his sins and his own motivations. He is forced to look, too, at the terrible consequences of those actions to his well-being and that of his kingdom. The sorrow he expresses here is overwhelming and complete. So is his faith in the ministering mercy of God. In this psalm he has come to the Lord chastised and humbled. He has recognized that, for all of his power, he is nothing before the righteous anger of God. He is aware, finally, that the world is not all about him. Rather it is about how he treats others, how he conducts himself towards others in the world. This changes him completely. He has finally gotten the priorities straight. He has come to realize that the good he so desires can only come from his right relationship with God first, and then all things will fall into their proper place.
He wrote this psalm from the depths of his contrite and repentant heart. He was overwhelmed with his guilt, but his faith was strong enough to believe that God’s mercy is greater than even his worst sins. So he prays to God now as a humbled man, not as a king.
ʺHave mercy on me, God, in accord with your merciful love;
In your abundant compassion blot out my transgressions.
Thoroughly wash away my guilt;
And from my sin cleanse me.
For I know my transgressions;
My sin is always before me.
Against you, you alone have I sinned;
I have done what is evil in your eyes
So that you are just in your word,
And without reproach in your judgment.
Behold, you desire true sincerity;
And secretly you teach me wisdom.
Cleanse me with hyssop, that I may be pure;
Wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
You will let me hear gladness and joy;
The bones you have crushed will rejoice.
Turn away your face from my sins;
Blot out all my iniquities.
A clean heart create for me, O God;
Renew within me a steadfast spirit.
Do not drive me from before your face,
Nor take from me your holy spirit.
Restore to me the gladness of our salvation;
Uphold me with a willing spirit.
I will teach the wicked you ways,
That sinners may return to you…
My sacrifice, O God, is a contrite spirit;
A contrite, humbled heart, O God,
You will not scorn.
This psalm is a beautiful testament to David’s realization that he had to be healed first, before he could bring healing to the kingdom. Only when he was healed, when he had learned humility, could he rule the nation with justice and mercy. Only then would he be able to ‘teach the wicked’ by his example and bring them back to God. This is also true for each and every one of us as individuals. It would logically follow that the same is true for groups, political parties, and nations. We must quite casting stones at the guilt of others, whether real or presumed, until we have looked into the depths of our own consciences and asked ourselves whether our own choices and actions have any connection to the actions of others. This kind of self-awareness and interior questioning is as important at the global level as it is at the individual level. If we continue to address our mutual problems through an attitude of unreflective pride, seeing guilt only in others and not ourselves, those problems between us will continue to descend into an ever deeper, babbling hell of accusation and blame, which ultimately has the horrifying potential to result in the sin of violence. The philosophical and theological truth is that we are all sinners. If we can start with that awareness, we will have a better chance of solving the very difficult problems before us individually and corporately. We can legitimately ask ourselves: ʺWhat would our personal lives be like and, for that matter, what would the world be like, if we learned to address all problems out of this humble and contrite awareness?ʺ The evidence is clear that addressing them from our current habits of arrogant, prideful judgmentalism is not working.
Lord, we pray with David: Turn away your face from our sins, blot out our iniquities. Create clean hearts in us, O God; renew within us a steadfast spirit. Give us the graces we need to live out of contrite and humble hearts. Help us to address the problems between us at the personal, the national, and the international level with deeper understanding, compassion and forgiveness. Help us to recognize our own sins first, so that we may turn away from the constant din of accusation and blame. Give your people the courage to live in accord with your will, relying on your mercy. We ask this prayer in Jesus’ name. Amen