I was really taken this morning by the opening phrase of Psalm 51:
“Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love”
Now this is not a trivial case of “I’ve been less than perfect.” David is coming to God with adultery and murder on his head. But I notice that the first words out of his mouth are not, “Please don’t hit me!” or “I’m really, really sorry and I’ll never do this again!” Rather, he turns to God’s love to rescue his soul from its own self-destruction.
This is like a small child who played with matches and got burned, even though he knew he was never supposed to play with matches. When burned, he realizes the gravity of his own behavior. So he shows Dad his burned fingers, knowing full well that Dad will know how they got burned, but trusting his father’s love to be his best recourse for healing and restoration.
This was not at all how I was taught repentance when I was growing up in church. It was shameful, awful, and something to be avoided at all costs. To repent meant I had to beat myself up, feel as bad as I possibly could about who I was and what I had done, and swear on my life to never do those things again, begging for forgiveness and hoping I was contrite enough to get God to forgive me.
But here — in what has become the quintessential psalm of repentance — David never promises to try harder to be good. He brings his broken soul to God and asks Him to create a new heart to replace the one that got so distorted he didn’t even know how he was involved in his own worst moment. “God, You need to do something in me I cannot do myself!” That’s a far cry from the kinds of resolutions we try to make in the name of repentance.
I like David’s approach. “My God has a good heart. I will go to Him with my sin. For He alone knows how to cleanse me and heal me, so I can be close to Him again.”