I don’t like to talk about sin, you can read about that here. But I recognize that repentance, remorse, and redemption threads itself through the biblical narrative. I was reading through Psalms 51 of these words,
“…blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.
Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquity.
Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me.
Create in me a pure heart. Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed…
contrite spirit, you God, will not despise,”
and I felt like I was in Middle School youth group again. This vocabulary was the steady diet I fed on as a sheltered girl in a private Christian school. I am horrified if I had somehow internalized the idea that God would have ever hidden God’s face from me, or cast me out of God’s presence because of my sin. If I could go back in time I’d scoop my young face in my hands and tell her the very good news of Jesus Christ is that God has come. God is with you…no matter what.
When I belted the psalmist’s lyrics out in popular Christian choruses, it was done earnestly, but badly out of context. This Psalm is a song of contrition sung by a man who committed adultery with a woman and killed her husband to hide his crime. This is a character who broke both the serious covenant of marriage and of brotherhood. He utilized his power as a man in patriarchy and a King in a monarchy to oppress those subject to him. Filled with the shame of his wrongdoing, his cry of lament is exactly that, a desperate plea for God to not turn away. It was never a prescription of God’s character.
Sometimes my children will ask me if I love them, or if I will leave them. I always assure them, of course not, but I understand their vulnerability and I don’t reprimand them for suggesting I may do otherwise. It’s instinctual and necessary for survival to fear disconnection from your parent. I think it is beautiful the Scriptures give us permission and language to speak this longing.
But me, a pre-teen girl whose greatest wrongdoing is some terse talking back to my mother and tinges of jealousy towards the popular girl in my class? I was learning my capabilities for destruction but I was nowhere near understanding the deep contrition expelled from the lips of King David.
Oftentimes, us post-evangelical Christians are accused of being too soft on sin. For myself, I know I am simply trying to nurse the tender wounds of the twelve year old inside of me who bore the shame of my “iniquities” prematurely. When I sang those songs and spoke those words, without a history of murder and adultery, I attempted to conjure up the darkest “sin” I could find, in order that I may offer a contrite heart. I sadly believed I needed to have great sin to repent of before I could receive God’s great love.
This wasn’t a one time ordeal, I was constantly searching my heart, making an internal housekeeping sweep each morning during my Quiet Time, to ensure I have a clean slate to start my day. I absorbed a habitual pattern of spiritual anxiety.
Not only was this an unfair burden for an adolescent to bear (not to mention sorely mischaracterizing God), I am realizing it prevented me from experiencing an authentic expression of repentance. Because I spent so much of my energy making tiny infractions of character into a big deal, it took my attention away from the very real ways in which I was committing true evil against others.
As I repented each morning of my personal problems, I felt justified in now self-righteously judging those who may have not been as pious as me to repent of their sins. The plank in my eye grew so large it became an obstacle to any genuine encounter of relationships. Correcting this course has not been a smooth path. I am having to carefully discern which guilty feelings are a result of bad religion, and which feelings are a matter of true injustice I have committed towards another.
Slowly, as I am shedding misguided guilt, my eyes are being opened to how my silence contributes to perpetuating injustices against others: against women, children, and other vulnerable people. Without blinding false guilt, I can see more clearly how I am participating in privileged ways which malign others. Like King David, I have exploited the powers at my disposal economically to purchase items produced by corrupt companies and harm the earth we are leaving for our children. I am learning to feel, little by little, a genuine sense of contrition as described in the Psalms. I am crying tears of remorse when news of suffering people arrive in my newsfeed knowing that I have not spoken up against their oppressors, or that my life decisions have caused their pain.
But this time around, I can cry a similar lament undergirded by the promise that God doesn’t and will never turn God’s face away from me—even though I have been steeped in systems that kill, hurt and destroy. If God has hidden God’s face, then it has been masqueraded in the beautiful countenance of those who suffer. God, hiding in plain sight.
I am learning to feel that palpable pain King David must have felt, a remorse that can only find words in poetry.
I am steeling my courage to look into the face of my neighbors in pain and try to absorb some of it, to own my part in it and cry out for forgiveness.
May God have mercy.