When You Feel Like a Failure

Psalm 51

October 6, 2023 | Brian Bill

Confession didn’t come all that easy for me when I was growing up.  I think it was because I was expected to spill my sins to our priest in a confessional booth.  This was difficult because he and my parents were close friends.  I didn’t think he’d squeal on me but I played it safe anyway.  There was a curtain between us to protect the penitent’s identity but somehow he always called me by name when I got in there.  I still remember my default confession: “Bless me father for I have sinned.  I wasn’t nice to my sisters last week.”  He’d ask if there was anything else and I always assured him that this was the only sin I had going on.  I was then given a bunch of prayers to pray as penance for being a menace to my sisters.

Repentance was also something that I resisted.  One memory stands out.  After messing around in church one Sunday (I was probably irritating my sisters) and receiving several nasty looks from my mom, on our way home I was told that my punishment was to kneel in front of a statue of Mary until I was ready to repent and change my ways.  While my sisters were munching on lunch and no doubt enjoying my pain, I devised a plan.  The Mary statue was located on top of our TV in the living room.  When my family started eating I realized the Packers were playing so decided to catch the score.  I had forgotten that our TV, which was an old black and white model, made quite a bit of noise when the tubes heated up.  My mom came in the room just as Bart Starr was throwing another touchdown against the Bears.  Let’s just say I never saw the replay!

My guess is that confession and repentance don’t come all that easy for you either.  In fact, these two concepts are not very popular in the evangelical church today.  I recently came across a phrase that captures what many Christians ascribe to – moralistic therapeutic deism, which was popularized in a book called Soul Searching.  Here are the main tenets:

  • The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  • God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
  • Good people go to heaven when they die.

In contrast to this anemic contemporary understanding of the holiness of God and the depravity of mankind, stands Psalm 51.  Let’s look at the heading because it sets the context for us: “To the Choirmaster.  A Psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet went to him, after he had gone into Bathsheba.”

Once again we see that this psalm is designed to be sung and is written by King David.  About nine months after David committed adultery with Bathsheba and murdered her husband Uriah, God sent the prophet Nathan to help him see the immensity of his sin so that he would confess and repent.  We won’t take the time to read 2 Samuel 11 but I encourage you to do so in order to learn more about David’s deliberate sin and subsequent cover-up.  David thought he had gotten away with murder (literally) and adultery, but the final verse of this chapter tells us the truth: “But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord.”

With your Bibles open to 2 Samuel 12, I want to go into a first-person monologue for a couple minutes.  I’m going to change from a pastor to a prophet.  Imagine that my name is Nathan…

Months after these sinful events happened, the Lord sent me to King David to confront him about his sin.  I was anxious about doing this.  I had a good relationship with him but no one likes to have his sins exposed.  Plus, he was the king and could quickly dispose of me.  I briefly thought about quoting Numbers 32:23: “Be sure your sin will find you out” but decided instead to tell him a story about two men, one who was rich and the other who was very poor.  

I knew if I brought sheep into the story he would pay attention because David used to be a shepherd.  I told him that the rich man had thousands of sheep but the poor guy had only ewe lamb that had become a family pet.  It sat at the table and ate with the family and even drank out of the master’s mug.  This guy carried the little lamb around like it was his own daughter.

One night a hungry traveler stopped by the house of the rich man but he wouldn’t serve his guest any of his own sheep or cattle.  Instead, he slaughtered the poor man’s pet lamb, fired up the grill and served him lamb chops.

I could tell David was getting angry because of the injustice of it all.  He stood up, beet red in the face and exclaimed, “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die, and he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.”

I let him fume and fret for awhile longer and then I turned to him, looked him right in the eyes, my finger pointing straight at him, took a deep breath and declared, “You are the man!”  I said a number of other things while I had the floor but I’ll let you read that for yourself.  Suffice it to say that David fell apart.  When he regained his composure he uttered these words, “I have sinned against the Lord.”  I assured him that God had put away his sin and that he would not die.  There would be dire consequences but his sins were forgiven.

Let me step out of the prophet mode and go back to preacher man.  Before we dive into Psalm 51, let me remind you that repentance is a big deal in the Bible.  But first, here’s a succinct definition: “Repentance is a change of mind that results in a change of action.”  I like how Jim Elliff describes it: “Repentance is a change of mind regarding sin and God, an inward turning from sin to God, which is known by its fruit—obedience.  It is hating what you once loved and loving what you once hated, exchanging irresistible sin for an irresistible Christ.”

  • Listen to what John the Baptist said in Matthew 3:2: Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
  • Jesus preached the same message in Matthew 4:17: Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
  • The disciples were commissioned in Mark 6:12: “So they went out and proclaimed that people should repent.”
  • We’ve been told to preach it as well in Luke 24:47: “That repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”
  • Peter in Acts 2:38 proclaimed: Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ…”
  • When the early church saw the gospel changing lives, they responded in Acts 11:18: “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.”

Elements of True Repentance

I see five elements of true repentance in Psalm 51.  BTW, I’m going to read this psalm at the end of the sermon today.

1. Conviction. 

When you face your sin squarely, the first place to start is with conviction.  In David’s misery he asks for mercy.  Likewise, we must face our sins before God will put them behind us.  Look at verse 1: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.”  He knows he cannot rely on his merit but only on the mercy of God.  This is very similar to how the tax collector prayed in Luke 18:13: “God, be merciful to me, a [the] sinner!”  The phrase “have mercy” literally means to “be propitiated towards me.”  This big word simply means to be satisfied.  The only way God would be satisfied with this sinner would be if God chose to be merciful.

God, use whatever you must, and however much you need, to make me clean!

Verse 2: “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin!”  The image here is of soiled and badly stained clothes.  The word “wash” refers to the trampling or beating of clothes and using detergent to get rid of the dirt.  Jeremiah 2:22 helps us see the intensity of David’s plea: “Though you wash yourself with lye and use much soap, the stain of your guilt is before me.”  There’s no detergent around that can remove all his stains.  We can’t clean ourselves up so David asks for God to wash him thoroughly, which means “abundant or many.” God, use whatever you must, and however much you need, to make me clean!

William Carey, the father of modern missions, was once asked what passage he wanted shared at his funeral: “Oh, I feel that such a poor sinful creature is unworthy to have anything said about him; but if a funeral sermon must be preached, let it be from the words, ‘Have mercy upon me, O God, according to your loving kindness; according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions.” In that same spirit of humility he directed in his will to have these words inscribed on his tombstone: “William Carey…a wretched, poor, and helpless worm; on Thy kind arms I fall.”

Verse 3 shows us that David was deeply convicted about his sins: “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.”  The word for “know” refers to intimate knowledge and the phrase “ever before me” shows us that his sins are constantly and continually right in front of him.  He can’t escape his iniquity.  Listen.  There is no getting right until we admit how badly we have done wrong.  Sometimes we need help with this.  It’s like the little girl who was asked the question, “What is your conscience?”  She thought for a bit and then answered: “Grandma.”

2. Confession (4-6). 

After being busted about his sins, David is now ready to confess them in verse 4: “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment.”  This reminds me of what Joseph said to Potiphar’s wife when he chose purity over impurity in Genesis 39:9: “How can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?”

Too many of us put our own spin on sin but we must come clean without conditions.  Those of us who play the Blame Game have a motto: “Don’t blame me, I’m not my fault.”  Victims do not have to accept personal responsibility for wrong behavior or toxic attitudes; they are casualties of what happens to them and should therefore not be saddled with guilt. 

The Blame Game is really the oldest game on the books.  In fact, you can trace it all the way back to Adam and Eve.  When they sinned by disobeying God’s clear standards, Adam claimed victim status by blaming Eve in Genesis 3:12: “The woman…gave me some fruit of the tree and I ate it.” His immediate reaction was to deny personal responsibility.  He was just a victim of Eve’s offer.  In contrast, notice how many times David says, “me” and “my” and “I” in the first four verses.  I count 11 times!

But, Adam’s attempt to shift the blame was even more involved than this.  When pressed by God to give an answer as to why he did what he did, Adam said, “The woman you put here with me, she gave me some fruit…”  Unbelievably, Adam even tried to blame God for what he did.  To David’s credit he doesn’t do that as evidenced by what he said to God: “So that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment.”  This is quoted in Romans 3:4.

It didn’t take Eve long to learn how to play the blame game as she followed Adam’s example in verse 13: “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”  

Let me ask you some questions.  Have you been blaming others for your behavior?  Do you secretly believe that you are not responsible for your attitude and your actions?  Have you said things like, “You’d sin too if you were married to my spouse,” or “You’d do what I’ve done if you had been raised in my family?”  Be careful.  

One pastor writes: “This is an unequivocal confession of his extreme and supreme sinfulness.”   He gives no excuses, no explanations and no rationale.  In short, David is saying to God, “I’m wrong and you’re right.”  

too many of us think our sins smell better than other people’s as we look down on those who sin differently than we do

Martin Luther, when commenting on this passage, said that instead of confessing our own sins, we like to confess the sins of others: “I perceive the sins of others and the sins of others are always before me.”  Unfortunately, too many of us think our sins smell better than other people’s as we look down on those who sin differently than we do.

In verse 5, David not only confesses that he sins sometimes, he also owns that that he is a depraved sinner.  Like each of us, his sin nature goes back to his very conception: “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.”  This is the doctrine of original sin.  When Adam sinned, we sinned with him as stated in Romans 5:12: “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.”  Every human being has a bent toward sin.

But this verse is also a pro-life polemic.  Notice that David refers to himself as “me” at the point of conception.  He became a person at conception.  Like many of you, I’ve been wondering how best to respond to the five videos that have surfaced showing the atrocity of abortion and the selling of baby parts.  I’ve prayed and I’ve contacted legislators.  I’ll continue speaking up in sermons and we’ll continue offering hope and healing to those who have had an abortion because God’s grace covers all our guilt.

In verse 6, David uses the word “behold” again as a way to say, “Look here and listen up.”  He realizes that God is all about what’s going on inside us: “Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being, and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart.”  

Before moving on from confession, I want to also say that confession has a corporate element to it.  While we must certainly confess our private and personal sins, God also wants us to confess as a church, a community and a country.  Check out 2 Chronicles 7:14: “If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.”

We don’t have time to dive into this but I recommend that you do some further study by reading three different chapters in the Old Testament.  Interestingly, they’re all the ninth chapter of three different books – Daniel 9, Ezra 9 and Nehemiah 9.  Here’s an example from Daniel 9:3-5: “Then I turned my face to the Lord God, seeking him by prayer and pleas for mercy with fasting and sackcloth and ashes. I prayed to the Lord my God and made confession, saying, ‘O Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, we have sinned and done wrong and acted wickedly and rebelled, turning aside from your commandments and rules.”

Ezra prayed these words in 9:6: “O my God, I am ashamed and blush to lift my face to you, my God, for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has mounted up to the heavens.”  In Nehemiah 9:2-3 we read: “And the Israelites separated themselves from all foreigners and stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their fathers. And they stood up in their place and read from the Book of the Law of the Lord their God for a quarter of the day; for another quarter of it they made confession and worshiped the Lord their God.”

Lead in Prayer of Confession

We must begin with conviction and then move to confession.  Once we do, we’ll experience cleansing.

3. Cleansing (7-12). 

Sin had left a stain on David’s soul and so he now longs for cleansing in verse 7: “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.”  To “purge” means to be purified and freed from sin.  When Beth and I were in Israel three years ago we held some hyssop in our hands.  It’s a shrub-like herb and was used to apply the blood of  the lamb to the doorposts so that the angel of death would “Passover” God’s people (Exodus 12:22).  Hyssop was also used to sprinkle blood on healed lepers and Moses used it to apply blood on the people.  Hyssop was also used to put a vinegar soaked sponge to the lips of Jesus right before He shed his blood on the cross.

David knows that without the blood of a sacrifice there can be no cleansing of sin.  1 John 1:7 says, “The blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.”  We can go from being dirty to becoming whiter than snow.  In Psalm 51:9, David desires that God would hide or conceal his sins, “and blot out all my iniquities.”  This is the second time he uses “blot,” which means to wipe out or obliterate.

David experiences the results of cleansing in four ways.

  • Rejoicing (v. 8).  When you’re burning up time and energy covering your sin, all your joy will evaporate: “Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have broken rejoice.”
  • Renewing (v. 10).  David knows that he not only needs forgiveness, he needs a brand new heart and spirit: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”
  • Reconnecting (v. 11).  When we live in sin, we can sense distance with God.  David longs to reconnect and experience closeness once again: “Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me.”  BTW, if you’re a born again believer, God will never take His Spirit from you.
  • Restoring (v.12).  David wants to have the joy of his salvation back and he also longs for God to tenderize his spirit so that he will be quick to obey: “Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit.”

4. Consecration. 

David has been convicted and so he confessed.  Now that he has been cleansed, he consecrates himself to live on mission.  He knows that he has been saved in order to serve.  Two examples of this are found in verses 13-15.

  • Witnessing (v. 13).  David is now ready to share what he has learned about forgiveness with sinners: “Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.”  I find it interesting that it’s only after David has been convicted and after he has confessed and been cleansed that he is now ready to teach transgressors.  We can’t really minister to others until we have first experienced the misery that leads to mercy.  But once we have, we won’t be able to stop speaking about His ways.  Jesus knew that Peter was going to fold and fail but he also knew that he was going to repent.  Listen to these words of life found in Luke 22:32: “When you have turned again [repented] strengthen your brothers.”
  • Worshipping (v. 14-15).  Because God has delivered him from his guilt, David declares: “…my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness.  O Lord, open my lips and my mouth will declare your praise.”

Your past sins don’t disqualify you from living on mission because your former failures can be a platform to witness and worship.  We see this in the ministry of Celebrate Recovery as people in recovery are able to point others to redemption in Christ.  If you’ve been set free from anger, you can help people who are angry.  If you’ve experienced freedom from pornography, you can help someone struggling with purity.  If God has healed your marriage after adultery, you can minister to someone in a marriage mess.  

Like David, maybe you’re saying, “God, I’ve got some guilt for what I’ve done but I want to get back in the game.  Because your grace covers my guilt and your mercy cleans my misery I want to help people see that it’s worth it to worship you.  Sin is not worth it.  I’ve been there.  I know.  Don’t go down that path.”

Conviction.  Confession.  Cleansing.  Consecration.

5. Contrition. 

David ends his song with a summary of what it is that God is looking for from us.  He doesn’t want promises or payments.  Verses 16-17 tell us what God delights in: “For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.  The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”

While we should certainly be giving our financial resources to God and offering our best to Him, what God delights is to see His children tender and humble and broken and contrite before Him.  The word “broken” means, “to shatter, smash or burst” and “contrite” refers to someone bowed down with a deep sense of spiritual bankruptcy, to be crushed with a sense of our sinfulness in light of God’s holiness.  Our sins should make us sorrowful.  God wants us to be humble before Him.  Isaiah 66:2 says, “But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.”

Action Steps

1. Repent and change course. 

If we want revival in our country we must first repent in church. If I want things to change I must first change.  If I want righteousness to reign in society, it must first reign in myself.

2. Confess your sins to God. 

If God forgave a murderer and an adulterer and a liar, he can forgive you and me.  Is there a sin you have yet to confess to God?  Have you been in misery but you have not yet cried out for mercy?  If you’re convicted, it’s time to confess so that you can be cleansed.

3. Come to the Cross and be converted.

Right now.  Don’t delay.

Read Psalm 51.  Could you bow your heads now as I read Psalm 51 over you?  Allow God’s Word to convict you so that you confess and find cleansing.  Consecrate yourself to him in service and live daily with a spirit of contrition.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?