Do Not Take Your Holy Spirit From Me!
June 19, 2005
“Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me” (Psalms 51:11).
It is sometimes said that no Christian should ever pray this prayer, but I wonder if that is correct. Clearly David feared being cast away by God and losing the Holy Spirit. The big question is not, “What does this verse mean for us?” But rather, “What did it mean for David? What was he thinking and feeling when he prayed this prayer?”
One of the keys comes in the preceding verse when he prays, “Create in me a clean heart, O God.” David was a man with an unclean heart.
This is not David before he met the Lord.
This is David, the man of God, who has an unclean heart.
This is not David the unbeliever.
This is David the man after God’s own heart.
This is the man who said, “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.”
This is the king God personally chose to rule his people.
He is a man of God with an unclean heart.
He knows the Lord, and he has an unclean heart.
He is a leader of God’s people, and he has an unclean heart.
He writes worship music, and he has an unclean heart.
When a man has an unclean heart, he rightly fears being cast out of God’s presence.
When a man has an unclean heart, he rightly fears losing the Holy Spirit.
The heart always tells the truth eventually. When God chose David to be the future king of Israel, he said, “For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart” (I Samuel 16:7). A man may lie to others, and he may even lie to himself, but eventually his heart will tell the truth.
Do you remember a short story by Edgar Allen Poe called “The Telltale Heart”? After committing murder, the main character dismembers the body and buries it under the wooden planks on the floor. He does such a good job that when the police come to investigate, he invites them in and even aids them in their search for clues. But the murderer is unable to escape the haunting guilt of his deed. He begins to hear the heartbeat of his dead victim. A cold sweat pours over him as that heartbeat goes on and on, relentlessly, getting louder and louder. Poe repeats the word for effect. Louder! Louder! Louder! Why can’t the officers hear the sound of the beating heart? It begins to drive him mad. Finally, in desperation to make the sound go away, he admits the crime. The story ends this way: “Villains!” I shrieked, “Dissemble no more! I admit the deed! —Tear up the planks! Here, here! ―It is the beating of his hideous heart!” But the pounding which drove the man mad was not in the grave below but in his own chest.
Guilt is like that. When we have sinned, the heart will not rest until it is clean once again. That is why David prayed, “Create in me a clean heart, O God.” He heard the pounding of his own guilty heart and he could not live with the shame of what he had done.
That is the key to understanding his prayer in verse 11. It’s all about David’s heart.
I. A Broken Heart
We are not left to wonder why David feels so guilty. The superscription to Psalms 51 tells us the story: “A Psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet went to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.”
Oh, so that’s what this is all about.
One day when David was the king, in the spring of the year, at the time when kings went out to war, David sent his armies out to do battle. But he did not go himself. He stayed in Jerusalem. We do not know why he stayed behind. Perhaps he felt confident that his men could win any battle without his presence. Perhaps he had matters of state to attend to. Perhaps he was tired or bored or restless. One evening he went for a walk in the cool of the day. There he saw a beautiful woman named Bathsheba taking a bath. Seeing her aroused a great desire within him. So he sent for her and she came. Now, that was a day not unlike the present day, when powerful men think they can break the rules with impunity. As the king, David could have any unmarried woman he wished to have. He could call for any woman who had no husband and she would come to him. You did not say no to the king. But Bathsheba was married. He knew that because his servant told him she was married to a man named Uriah the Hittite. He should not have called for her and she should not have come. But he did and she did. They slept together, which is a modern way of saying they both committed the sin of adultery. In the Old Testament adulterers were stoned to death, but that was not likely to happen in this case, David being the king and all. If anyone might be expected to get away with adultery, it was David.
So they slept together and she returned to her home. Days passed and it seemed as if the little affair had been nothing more than that. A little affair, a brief fling, a lapse in judgment, a momentary foolishness, a giving in to the flesh. Upon a day Bathsheba sent word to the king that she was pregnant. That’s what you call a complicating factor. This is an example of what the Bible means when it takes about the wages of sin. You cannot sin and get away with it forever. Be sure your sin will find you out. This is true of kings and paupers alike. David now faces a dilemma. He has to find a way to cover up his sin. The easiest way is to somehow trick Uriah into thinking he is the father of the baby. That’s a problem because Uriah is off fighting with the army–where David should have been all along. So David calls for Uriah who leaves his army, comes back to Jerusalem, and then refuses to sleep with his wife while his buddies are on the front lines. That didn’t work so David is now left with only one alternative. If Uriah dies, he can lawfully marry Bathsheba. So he arranges for Uriah to be placed on the front lines while the rest of the Israeli army withdraws during battle, ensuring he will be killed. When that eventually happens, David marries Bathsheba and she gives birth to the son conceived in adultery. All seems to be well until you get to the final verse of II Samuel 11, “But the thing that David had done displeased the LORD” (v. 27).
Eventually Nathan the prophet comes to the king and confronts him with his sin. He informs him that the child just born will die as part of God’s judgment. Despite David’s prayers, the child eventually dies.
Think of what David has done:
He has committed adultery.
He has committed murder.
He caused sorrow and shame to come to his own house.
He caused bloodshed and turmoil to come to the nation.
And the child is dead.
All because of his sin.
That is the background of Psalms 51. It is a portrait of a man with an unclean heart coming back to God.
II. An Honest Heart
How do we know his repentance is real? Because he recorded it for us. Proverbs 28:13 declares, “Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy.” The hardest words you’ll ever say are, “I have sinned.” A while back, I received a letter from a prisoner who had committed a terrible crime. Now behind bars, he felt deep remorse and feared that he had committed the unpardonable sin. I wrote him back and told him that he had definitely not committed the unpardonable sin. How could I be so sure? The one certain mark of the unpardonable sin is that you would never care that you had committed it. It’s not just any sin; it’s a hard-hearted, persistent, deliberate and final rejection of the Lord. Such a person takes the key to heaven and deliberately throws it away. He says, “I’d rather go to hell,” and then laughs about it. Anyone who worries about committing the unpardonable sin shows that they still have a conscience.
It’s hard to admit that you’ve done wrong.
It’s hard to admit that you’ve hurt someone.
It’s hard to bow your knee and say, “O God, forgive me for I have sinned.”
I John 1:9 says, “If we confess our sins …” That’s a big if in there. Until we confess our sins, the last part of the verse doesn’t apply to us.
See how clearly David makes his confession.
He uses three different words to describe his sin in verses 1-2: “my sins … my transgressions …. my iniquity.”
In verse 3, he says, “I know my sin.”
In verse 4, he says, “I have done evil in your eyes.”
In verse 5, he says, “I’ve been a sinner since I was conceived.”
In verse 6, he says, “I know you want the truth in my inner being.”
In verse 7, he says, “Only you can make me clean.”
In verse 8, he says, “Only you can give me joy again.”
In verse 9, he says, “Please wipe away the record of my sin.”
In verse 10, he says, “Create in me a clean heart, O God.”
In verse 12, he says, “Give me back the joy I once had.”
If you want to know what confession looks like, read Psalms 51. Study it. Pray it out loud. Memorize it. Tattoo its truth to your soul.
III. A Hopeful Heart
And that brings us to verse 11. “Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me.” When Charles Spurgeon preached on this verse (A Most Needful Prayer Concerning the Holy Spirit, October 9, 1870), he said that these are fitting words for any Christian who has fallen into sin. It may be gross sin like David’s or it may be a kind of slow, casual backsliding. Small sins are often more dangerous than big sins because big sins startle us into repentance, but just like the frog in the boiling kettle of water, we may gradually become so used to sin that it ceases to bother us at all. Or, when it finally does bother us, we are too far gone to do anything about it. Many small sins may produce a worse effect than one big sin. “White ants will devour a carcass as surely and as speedily as a lion.” Then Spurgeon asks a long series of questions, which I have paraphrased and updated:
Have we taken God’s grace for granted?
Has our love for God grown cold?
Are we careless about prayer?
Have we slowly grown lukewarm in our Christian faith?
Do we love the world too much?
Have we been slothful in the Lord’s service?
Do we harbor a root of bitterness?
Do we let resentment linger?
Have we spoken unkindly of other Christians?
Are we careless in our words?
Have we become spiritually cold?
Spurgeon says that if these things are true, then we ought to be praying David’s prayer most fervently: “Cast me not away from your presence, and do not take your Holy Spirit from me!” He goes on to say something that I found very encouraging: Only a true Christian could pray like this. An unbeliever won’t care about being cast away from God’s presence because he was never close to God in the first place. An unsaved person won’t care about losing the Holy Spirit that he never had anyway. The ungodly flee from God’s presence and hide from the Holy Spirit. Only the child of God feels the pain of the Lord’s discipline. Those who have dwelt in the sunlight of his love shiver in the cold darkness of his displeasure. If all you have known is darkness, how can you miss the light you never had? So to pray like this is a sure sign of spiritual light.
What an encouragement this ought to be to all of us. Are there any great sinners in our midst today? Any Christians who have grieved the Lord again and again? Any adulterers? Any murderers? Any slanderers? Any liars? Any lawbreakers? If you feel the pain of your sin, it surely means that you must know the Lord. The guilt that you feel is a severe mercy God gives to his erring children. Your tears are signs of life within. Your pain and your shame and your frustration are signs that you are a true child of God.
After I preached this sermon, I received an email from someone who wondered how I could square this teaching with the doctrine of eternal security. I replied that we must not try to read too much of the New Testament into David’s words. He was not thinking in those categories. David knew enough to realize that he was successful because of the Holy Spirit’s blessing on his life. If that blessing were removed, he could no longer lead his people. Spurgeon (who believed fervently in eternal security) even argued that we ought to pray this prayer precisely because we believe the Holy Spirit will not be taken from us:
“I venture to say it is not right to pray for what God will not give; the promise is not a reason for not praying, but the very best reason in all the world for praying. Because I earnestly believe that no real child of God will ever be cast away from God’s presence, therefore I pray that I may not be. And because I am well persuaded that from no really regenerated soul will God ever utterly take his Spirit, therefore, for that reason above all others, do I pray that he may never take his Spirit from me.
The promise is the reason for the prayer. And to pray like this saves us from spiritual presumption. Remember, David prays from the depths of a heart broken because of his own foolish sin. Better in those moments not to take anything for granted. We might view the prayer this way (from a New Testament perspective): “O Lord, I have sinned greatly and am no longer worthy to be called your son.” (Recall the words of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15:19). “Please do not take your Holy Spirit from me lest I be found not to be among your family. I freely confess my sin, cry out to you for mercy, and pray that I might be found to be a true child of God.” If we feel uncomfortable praying like that, perhaps it means that we have not taken our sin as seriously as we ought.
What was David thinking when he cried out, “Cast me not away from your presence”? Perhaps he was thinking of Adam, who was cast out of the Garden of Eden. Perhaps he thought of Cain, who killed his brother and was sentenced to wander the earth. Perhaps he thought of wayward Samson, who knew the Spirit’s power and then squandered it in anger and unbridled lust. But more than any of those, he must have been thinking of Saul, the man who preceded him on the throne. We are told repeatedly that the Spirit came upon Saul to enable to lead his army to victory. But because of his disobedience, David was chosen as king in his place. I Samuel 16:13 says that once David was anointed, the Spirit of the Lord came upon him. And what of Saul? The very next verse is one of the saddest in the Old Testament: “Now the Spirit of the LORD departed from Saul.” He who had started with so much promise and so much potential is now abandoned by God. And when the Spirit left him, his natural paranoia took over, leaving him filled with anger, resentment and envy. The once-great Saul attempted to kill David again and again.
David knew what it was like to lose the blessing of God and to have the Holy Spirit taken away. He saw it happen before his eyes. And so he says, “Lord, don’t let that happen to me!” This is the heart of his prayer: “Lord, without your Holy Spirit to strengthen me, I have no power. Without your Holy Spirit to guide me, I cannot find my way. Without your Holy Spirit to give wisdom, I cannot lead these people.” It is a prayer that he would not lose the Spirit’s blessing upon his life.
We need the Holy Spirit or we cannot pray. We need the Holy Spirit or we cannot understand. We need the Holy Spirit who brings us every divine blessing. The Holy Spirit gives us access to the Father through Christ. Let us no longer take the Spirit for granted. If the Holy Spirit were removed from us, we might as well be lost. We cannot sing or pray or worship or serve or come near to God without him. We are told to pray in the Holy Spirit. If he were gone, then our words are mere babbling. He is our Teacher, our Guide, our Helper, and our Comforter. He brings God near to us. We cannot live without him. Spurgeon goes on at great length and in very convincing fashion that Christians have every right to pray this prayer.
Two Important Applications
There are two important applications I would press upon your heart this morning. First, if you are aware of some backsliding in your life, then now is the time to come back to the Lord. Begin by praying this prayer. Cry out to God and do not stop crying until God hears and answers you. You need not live with a guilty conscience forever. Seek the Lord. Kneel before him and confess your sins. He will abundantly pardon. There are times when a Christian must seem to pray like a sinner. Spurgeon says it very well:
“The lower down we get the better. I frequently find that I cannot pray as a minister; I find that I cannot sometimes pray as an assured Christian, but I bless God I can pray as a sinner. I begin again with, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner,” and by degrees rise up again to faith, and onward to assurance.”
If you have been sinning, do not be ashamed to pray like a sinner. That’s not a bad place to start.
Second, this is a word from the Lord to the whole church. God may take his presence from a church because of sin in the congregation. The Lord, himself, may come and remove the lampstand as he did in the book of Revelation. Let me share one final thought from Spurgeon that speaks to us today:
“In your own time you yourselves have seen churches flourishing, multiplying, walking in peace and love, but for some reason not known to us, but perceived by the watcher who jealously surveys the churches of God, a root of bitterness has sprung up, divisions have devoured them, heresy has poisoned them, and the place that once gloried in them scarcely knows them now. Existing they may be, but little more; dwindling in numbers, barren of grace, they are rather an encumbrance than power for good. Recollect, then, beloved, that the power of any church for good lies in the presence of God, and that sin in the church may grieve the Lord, so that he may no more frequent her courts, or go forth with her armies. It is a dire calamity for a church when the Lord refuses any longer to bless her work, or reveal himself in her ordinances; then is she driven of the wind hither and thither like a ship derelict and castaway. The Lord may, because of sin, take away his Holy Spirit from a church. The spirit of love may depart, the spirit of prayer may cease, the spirit of zeal and earnestness may remove, and the spirit which converts the souls of men may display his power elsewhere, but not in the once-favored congregation. Let me impress upon you that all this may readily happen if we grieve the Holy Spirit as some churches have done.”
I believe this is a good word for us in our 90th anniversary year. It matters not what they say about us in the newspapers, for good or for ill. The plaudits of the world matter not at all compared to the blessing of the Holy Spirit.
Let everyone who hears these words take them to heart. Let every Christian search his own heart. The best way not to lose the Holy Spirit in our midst is to watch and pray that it might not happen. Take nothing for granted. And do not live on past blessings or dwell too long on yesterday’s victories. Seek the Lord while he may be found. When the Holy Spirit departs, the church becomes a museum full of spiritual mummies. May we never come to that! Let the whole church lift up the prayer, “Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me.” Amen.