In the early 1900s, a London newspaper asked the great thinkers of the day to write essays on the subject “What’s Wrong with the World?”
One of the people invited to submit an essay was Christian writer G.K. Chesterton, an author known for his deep insight and sharp wit. In response to the newspaper’s request, instead of a lengthy dissertation tallying the ills of the world and numbering his suggested remedies, Chesterton simply wrote this:
What’s wrong with the world? I am.
Sincerely yours, G.K. Chesterton.
Chesterton’s realization serves up a bitter pill to swallow: Everyone wants to change the world, but no one wants to change themselves. Everyone thinks that he or she knows what the problem is, but no one fesses up to being part of the problem to begin with!
Lots of passionate writers share volumes of long articles – and lots of bellicose speakers deliver hours of rousing speeches – that all point out what others need to do differently, and that all conveniently deny any responsibility for creating the messes that created the problems. Critics, for the most part, want themselves exonerated from wrongdoing and exempted from any and all changes necessary to fix that which is broken.
The same is true of evil – a quite real and profound problem in the world. We see all the lethal nastiness that people commit against one another and wonder, “Where is God?” Or, “Why does God allow it?” Or, “Why doesn’t God just swoop in and stop it?”
The evil to which we’re always referring is always somebody else’s bad behavior. No one ever asks, “Why didn’t God stop me when I lied to my friend, or yelled at my spouse, or ‘borrowed’ that little bit of petty cash from the office?”
Most everyone always has good reasons to justify – or at least excuse – the mistakes we make and the trespasses we commit. The “real” problem, in most everyone’s eyes, is everyone else’s wrongheaded shenanigans. Those are the urgent problems to be solved and the rampant sicknesses to be cured.
Chesterton turns the tables and invites us to start the criticism at home.
Most of us don’t like looking at ourselves in the mirror, because, more often than not – if we’re being totally honest, we don’t like what we see. Taking a good, hard look at ourselves forces us to face the fact that we don’t just do sinful things, but we’re actually broken all the way down to our rotten cores!
Now, if that was the whole story, it would be a depressing, soul-crushing tale.
But fortunately, that’s not the end. We are claimed and loved by a God who full-well knows our sinfulness, a God whose never-ending mercy and compassion intend to free us from the muck and mire of earthly living.
Too often when we reach out to God in search of forgiveness, what we’re really after is rescue from the consequences of our sin, rather than from the sinfulness inside that sets off repeated chain reactions of bad behavior.
And only honest, cut-to-the-bone regret for our sin will move us from excusing our sinful acts to desiring a cure for our sinful nature.
Psalm 51 is written from such a state of utter and complete brokenness and from such a place of frank and honest candor. The psalm lifts up heaven’s procedure for repentance and humanity’s longing for God to fix from the inside out everything that’s busted – in some cases, broken seemingly beyond repair.
Psalm 51 makes abundantly clear that, before God can use anyone to transform the world, the human actors in God’s salvation drama must first experience a transformation of themselves.
As our “Summer in the Psalms” continues, listen, now, to these ancient words that resound with God’s own heart. And with the help of the Holy Spirit, let these ancient words begin changing you and changing me:
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love.
According to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment. Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.
You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart. Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice. Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit. Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.
Deliver me from bloodshed, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance. O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. (Psalm 51:1-17)
During the War of 1812, U.S. Navy Commodore Oliver Perry defeated a British naval squadron in a battle on Lake Erie.
After the victory, Perry sent his commander a brief note: “We have met the enemy, and they are ours.” The 1970s cartoon “Pogo” parodied Perry with the quip “We have met the enemy, and they are us.”
In Psalm 51, the enemy is ourselves. Psalm 51 is a full-throated cry for God to fight the sin and evil that wage seemingly endless war upon our souls and spirits.
That appeal is NOT based on our goodness or entitlement but simply on the ovingkindness, devotion, faithfulness, and commitment of God – a God of mercy who never intends to mete out the very-real punishments we all deserve, a God of grace who’s always willing to dole out good things that we haven’t earned, a God of compassion who, through Christ, now understands the difficulty of our task in fending off the relentless attacks of evil on our days.
It’s not that God approves or condones our faithless moments of falling short, but simply that God rains sympathy on our weakness and brokenness, because Jesus – as the Son of Man – experiences them in human flesh. God thus knows what we’re up against whenever and wherever we’re standing toe to toe with evil.
What the desperate prayer of Psalm 51 seeks is not deliverance from external evil but rather rescue from the internal brokenness that lurks in deep darkness:
Transgression – willful rebellion or deliberate defiance of God and God’s will;
Iniquity – how we sometimes sin by distorting facts to further our quest for power and align with our desire for control;
Sin – wandering far off the holy path, failing to hit the heavenly target, and/or forever missing the mark that God has set.
The psalmist starts by fessing up to it all – unlike many of us who, when we do wrong, try to pretend that it didn’t happen or that it doesn’t matter. Even so, sin has a particularly foul way of consuming us.
And that’s the definition of guilt: awareness that we’ve done something that we shouldn’t have and feeling sick about what we in our hearts know to be sadly true.
It sounds strange, but guilt is a gift.
Not because God wants us to feel bad all the time, but because guilt is how we know that we’re treading dangerous ground. Guilt is the soul’s equivalent of pain. And without pain, we’d never realize that the water is too hot, that our hand is too close to the fire, or that we’ve broken a bone or pulled a muscle.
Some people misuse guilt to beat up on themselves or others, but when you feel guilty and recognize guilt for what it is – a gift, you should do what the author of Psalm 51 does and take it to the Lord in prayer. When you go to God with your guilt, you do so knowing full well that God has every right to be offended by your misdeed.
When the psalmist declares, “Against you and you alone have I sinned,” he isn’t saying that no one else has a right to be angry at what he did. What he’s saying is that, because the always-good way of the Lord has been broken, God is entitled to that anger and thus is every bit justified in being involved in the whole sordid affair.
“A guilty sinner from the moment of conception”? That doesn’t mean the psalmist – or any one of us – was created through a sinful act but that his sin is the product of the sinful person he’s always been. He comes from a long line of sinful people – and so do we!
Sometimes, we like to pretend that our actions are single occurrences and one-off exceptions to our normal behavior. And in some cases, maybe that’s true. But more typically, corrupt actions open windows into our souls. And we do, after all, what is in our hearts.
Thus, confessing your sin seeks two ends.
First, confession expresses your desire to be who God created you to be. The psalmist brings his guilt before God and earnestly desires for God to make him new again. Sin is the desire to be who you want to be – apart from who God is, and the psalmist is expressing a desire to be who GOD wants him to be. This process begins with total purification and ends with complete restoration.
More than having his debt cancelled, the psalmist wants to be purified in the innermost part of his being. The longing is not just to be good enough but to be completely clean of all spots and blemishes. True repentance longs not to be excused or accepted despite the impurity, but rather a truly repentant heart longs to be purified.
The truly repentant heart that longs to be purified is seeking God’s cure for a return of joy.
The truly repentant heart trusts that what God has allowed to happen – even in allowing pain to be felt – ultimately will lead to a restoration of joy.
Like a surgeon who must cause pain and sometimes even break bones in order to heal, God only ever allows hurt in order to help. As the psalmist puts it: “Let the bones which you have broken rejoice.”
In the end comes re-creation. “Create in me a clean heart, and renew a right spirit within me, help me start over, and never let me give up.”
The psalmist realizes that he has been scarred by sin and that he is weak in the face of it. He longs for God to do for him what he cannot do himself – totally remake his innermost being, and restore closeness and intimacy with God. It is a restoration of the joy that comes from the power of God that dwells within.
Confession expresses a desire to BE who God wants us to be, and it also expresses a desire to DO what God wants us to do.
So many times, we try to do things for God before we become who God wants us to be. In Gospel terms, we’re too much Martha – doers – and not enough Mary – be’ers. This doesn’t mean that God doesn’t have work for us to do. It means that the first task that the Lord has for us is to seek him and become the people God desires us to be. Then, and only then, will we be useful instruments at God’s ready disposal.
God will do great things through us only after he has done great things in us. God has work for us all to do in the kingdom of heaven. And job one is submitting ourselves humbly to God, so that God can transform us and send us forth to serve.
It surely would be nice if that process of transformation was a straight line – confession, forgiveness, and restoration as a one-and-done deal. But, with evil ever waging its attack, and temptation always lurking around every corner, and poor example a mainstay of our partisan days, the process of transformation is more like a circle – a circle of earthly life, if you will, that reflects our ongoing need of confession, forgiveness and restoration.
What’s wrong with the world, you ask?
Be honest: You and I are.
But, by grace, we belong to a God of resurrection whose giving and forgiving know no ending from a rich and endless store.
Ancient words, ever true.
Amen, and amen.
Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden shared this message on Sunday, June 13, 2021. It is the second in his series “Summer in the Psalms.”