Grace Presbyterian Church
February 10, 2016, Ash Wednesday C
Truth In the Inward Being
We don’t like to look at ourselves too closely.
It’s uncomfortable to look inside of our own minds, or especially our own souls. It’s dark in there.
Far easier, in the modern world, to distract attention from the darkness and fallenness of our own person. Easier to point and blame. Look at that person. Look how awful they are. Even better if that other person is famous somehow – a celebrity of some sort; singer, actor, athlete, politician. That way we can all gang up on them safely, without fear of being called, and especially without fear of having to look inside ourselves, examine our motives, see our own darkness.
The author of this psalm must have been in agony.
In most Bibles Psalm 51 carries a heading suggesting it was “A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan had come to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.” While the heading is certainly evocative, and the situation it mentions certainly is in keeping with the content of the psalm, there are two main problems with it. Historically, the heading doesn’t seem to have come with the psalm, originally; it seems instead to have been added at least four hundred years later, well after David was dead. That doesn’t necessarily mean the psalm wasn’t associated with David, but it’s a little troubling.
The bigger, more theological problem with the heading is that it surreptitiously encourages us to think that we don’t need to engage in the self-examination and repentance portrayed in the psalm unless we’ve just committed one big whopper of a misdeed.
And that’s a tremendous problem. We all have “fallenness” in common. Our need to cry out with the psalmist, as in verse 5, that we have been sinners since before we can remember is not dependent on having just been caught in a major infraction. We can and should always be able to acknowledge that, as verse 3 says, “my sin is ever before me.”
God sees this in us. As much as God loves us and longs to draw us ever closer, God never see us without that sinfulness in us, no matter how the psalmist might beg in verse 8. Because God loves us so, God wants us to see in ourselves what separates us from all that God is and wants us to have and to be. Thus, the psalmist cries out to God to be cleansed – no, more than cleansed; to be purged, to be purified, to be “de-sinned” – to have all that horror show of fallenness and separation extracted from us once and for all. But that can never happen until we see it; thus in verse 6 – a wholly remarkable verse – the psalmist hits upon this: “You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.” That’s a curious phrase – “secret heart” – and the word actually used here warrants an explanation. We Americans are likely to see “heart” as a metaphor for the source of love, particularly aided by that other holiday coming up on Sunday. Hebrew thinking, though, understood the heart as the center of will, or of decision-making. The psalmist is asking to be made wise in the inmost and deepest part of himself or herself in order to live rightly, wisely, and truthfully – as in that earlier phrase “truth in the inward being.”
“Truth in the inward being.” God desires us to be truthful – not merely in the sense of distinguishing facts from falsehoods, although that’s always a good thing, but in being true. Living true. The word goes much deeper than even such words as “faithfulness”; living in complete coherence and inseparability with the Source of all our living.
And then, when we have learned truth in the inward being, when we have been purged and “de-sinned” and made clean and had a “new and right spirit” put within us, then we will live in the joy of salvation, we will be the ones who show others how to live – not merely with words but with our lives – and we will sing our praise to God in a way that transcends even the most noble of sacrifices. The “broken” spirit – the one no longer hinged on our pride but on that truth in the inward being – is the sacrifice God loves.
But it starts with that “truth in the inward being.” It starts with self-examination and repentance of our fallenness, and of the way we cling to that fallenness. And sometimes that means we have to stop with the pointing fingers at others without looking into the darker corners of our own souls.
I’m not much for telling people they have to “give up something” for Lent. If we’re not careful it doesn’t necessarily help, and can even become a source of self-righteousness that accomplishes exactly the opposite of what we need in a season of self-examination and repentance. But here’s something I plan to do this year, and maybe some of you might find it helpful too. I’ve got verse 6 written down on a post-it note. It’s going to be on or beside my laptop at all times. I might also post it in my car somewhere (when I have one again), or any other places where I might be tempted to lash out at some other figure caught in public approbation. With any luck I’ll be challenged to engage in the self-examination and repentance I know I need in this season first.
If it works out, I may not have much time or energy to lash out at others. And maybe there will be something more like “truth in the inward being” and “wisdom in my secret heart.”
For the pain and cleansing of repentance, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns "O For a Closer Walk With God" (PH 396); Psalm 51 (PH 196); "Jesus Knows the Inmost Heart" (GtG 427)