Today’s Scripture focus: Psalm 51

I grew up an avid fan of superheroes.  Superman, Batman, Spiderman, Green Lantern, Aquaman, Ironman, the Hulk, Captain America, The Flash, X-Men, The Fantastic Four . . . well, you get the picture.  As you can imagine, I’ve been very interested in all the different movies that have been coming out in the past few years, bringing my childhood heroes to the big screen.  I have a theory about the reasons behind the surge of these franchises and the relaunching of others.  I think that a lot of the guys in my generation have grown up on computers and have become very good with special effects.  They look at the ways their heroes have been portrayed and think, “I could do better than that.”  And so they try.

Now, I will admit that some have been more successful than others.  While I have really enjoyed the way some of the more recent movies have sought to be more true to the original characters than previous movies, I can’t help but think that some of these films are a special effects extravaganza in search of a plot.  In some cases, the Hollywood portrayals have expanded way beyond my own limited imaginings, but this is not usually the case.  Usually, the world that I had come up with in my head was much more interesting.

I had a conversation very similar to this recently with a friend of mine.  We were talking about a certain series of books that is being made into a hollywood movie.  He stated that he was having a hard time getting excited about the movie and was unsure that he would even go see it.  “I think it will be done well,” he said.  “I just don’t think they will be able to outdo the image I have in my head.  It will probably ruin it for me.”  Many have said the same thing about such classics as the Chronicles of Narnia or the Lord of the Rings.  While the movies were well-done, it just could never top the amazing world Tolkien or Lewis evoke in the mind with their wonderful prose.

“What does this have to do with Lent or, more specifically, Psalm 51?” you may be thinking.  Psalm 51 is a prayer of repentance.  Traditionally, it is understood to be the prayer of King David after he has been visited by the prophet Samuel and outed as an adulterer and murderer.  Before we can ever come before God in true confession and repentance, and before we can ever truly experience forgiveness, it is imperative that we think deeply about how we image or picture this God to whom we pray.  As Brennan Manning puts it so well, “It is always true to some extent that we make our images of God.  It is even truer that our image of God makes us.  Eventually we become like the God we image” (The Relentless Tenderness of Jesus, p. 29).  The writer of this Psalm gives us some clear indications of his Imago Dei (image of God) through his prayer.

Have mercy on me.  The first assumption is that God is merciful.  “What has the Lord required of you?” the prophet Micah asks.  “Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).  In the book of James, we read that “Mercy triumphs over judgment!” (James 2:13).  The God we come to in repentance is a God that repeatedly shows mercy – not giving us what we deserve, but giving us second, third, fourth, and fifth chances.  In fact, God seems to specialize in giving us exactly what we don’t deserve: mercy and grace.

According to Your steadfast love.  This term “steadfast love” is greatly misunderstood.  In most modern Western cultures, we think of love as an emotion – as something that you feel.  The psalmist is not appealing to God on account of God’s emotions towards us, however.  Rather, the Hebrew term here (hesed) implies something much deeper than emotional fondness.  Hesed refers to God’s covenant faithfulness to God’s people, God’s loyalty to the covenant God has made.  In essence, he is praying, “Be true to your word, God.  Be true to your commitment to your people.”

Blot out my transgressions.  Before we can truly come to God to ask forgiveness, we must believe that God will actually forgive us.  We must believe that forgiveness is possible.  When we read statements like “as far as the east is from the west, so far has God removed our sin from us” (Psalm 103:12), it is not just good poetry.  This is truth of who God is – a God of forgiveness.  Look how many people in the scripture are incredibly flawed – Moses (murderer), David (adulterer/murderer), Rahab (prostitute), Tamar (incest), Paul (terrorist) – the list could go on and on, but God chooses to use them in spite of this.  God chooses to offer forgiveness over and over again.  Any judgment that God doles out comes only after chance after chance after chance or for forgiveness and repentance.

Ultimately, God is not pictured as some cosmic schoolmaster, sitting up in heaven waiting for you to get out of line so that God can smack your hand with a ruler.  God is not so angry over your screw ups and failures that God is fuming up in heaven, just waiting for a chance to pour out some of that wrath on humanity.  God is not pictured as a resentful father, up in heaven keeping track of all the different times and ways that you’ve messed things up so he can throw it in your face when the time comes.  Instead, the psalmist goes to this merciful, loving, loyal, forgiving God to lay his heart bare and confess that his actions have alienated him in his relationship to God.

This is the God we approach in confession and repentance this Lent.  This is the God to whom we need to be reconciled.

Prayer:  God, I come to you in need of your mercy, love, and forgiveness.  I have run away from you and violated our relationship time and again.  In my sin, I violated relationships with your people – those you have created in your image.  I confess these sins and ask you to forgive me.  I need your reconciliation.  I need your healing.  Amen.

* Note: This blog post is part of a series of reflections for Lent.  The passages are based on a booklet Steven wrote for Ecclesia, the church he pastors in Fairview, NC.