In Orthodoxy when we think about repentance, probably the Psalm that comes most to mind is Psalm 51, which is prayed in many of our services, especially those with a penitential theme. When we think about repentance, we think about the things that are required of us – to change, metanoia, compunction, conscience, morality, tears, confessing sins, judging one’s self, contrition, self-reproach, remorse, self-denial, bearing the fruit of repentance, returning to the father, begging mercy, self-blame, self-examination, humbling one’s self, promising never to repeat the sin.
Yet when we read Psalm 51, we see repentance in a different way, for this Psalm, like many Orthodox prayers, is not about us, but about God. Most of Psalm 51 tells God what to do rather than focusing on what I am now going to do to show that I have truly repented. We are indeed telling God what to do – and specifically what we need God to do for us. Theophan Whitfield says in the Jewish Masoretic Text of Psalm 51, “it is possible to find further evidence that the psalmist is not simply pleading for mercy, he is actually arguing for mercy.” (“Hearing Psalm 51: Masoretic Hebrew vs. LXX Greek”, FESTSCHRIFT IN HONOR OF PROFESSOR PAUL NADIM TARAZI, p 43)
As the prayer “Lord, have mercy” is a command to God, not woefully and helplessly begging a reprieve from an abusive tyrant, but rather telling God what to do for us, so too Psalm 51 is our giving direction to God as to the things we need from God. As other Orthodox writers have noted, we spend a lot of time in our prayers and liturgical services telling God to be God: Be Yourself, God! You are love, You are merciful, You are forgiving, You are kind, You are tenderhearted, You are compassionate. So be Yourself and do divine love, mercy, kindness, forgiveness, and compassion for us. In Psalm 51 we acknowledge we need God to be God and we are telling God to be God because we are suffering in this world -the world of the Fall in which we are alienated from God often by circumstances not of our making and/or under God’s judgment for things we actually did and/or because we have forgotten God or disobeyed God whether knowingly or because of ignorance.
When we understand this nature of Psalm 51, we come to understand how it reflects the prayers of the Liturgy and how the Liturgy really is praying this Psalm. The Liturgy is our experience of the Kingdom of God – on earth as it is in heaven. It is our experience of being the lost sheep hearing the voice of the Good Shepherd and following Him. As such, it is the Good Shepherd who does the things necessary to restore us to God’s flock – He is the one who seeks us, forgives us, heals us, cleanses us, teaches us, wipes away our tears, and brings us to our heavenly Father interceding for us that we might be forever in God’s presence.
In Psalm 51, “I” tell God to:
Have mercy on me
blot out my transgressions. Wash me
cleanse me from my sin!
teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop
wash me thoroughly from my iniquity
Fill me with joy and gladness;
let the bones which you have broken rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins
blot out all my iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart
put a new and right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from your presence
take not your holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation
uphold me with a willing spirit.
Deliver me from blood-guiltiness,
open my lips
Do good to Zion in your good pleasure;
rebuild the walls of Jerusalem
The way the Psalm is written I don’t ask God to do these things for me, I tell God to do these things for me.
What is listed above is all the things we tell God to do in this one Psalm which is supposedly about repentance. It is not God who is repenting, but it is God who does all the work of the Good Shepherd to bring the lost sheep safely home, to heal the wounds, and to wipe away our sins. We are commanding God to do all the things necessary for our salvation. The same imperative attitude is found in the Divine Liturgy where in our prayers we repeatedly tell God what to do for us. Just pay attention at any divine liturgy, especially to the priestly prayers and see how many things we tell God to do for us.
Conversely, just think about “me” in this Psalm – Have mercy on me, wash me, cleanse me, teach me, purge me, fill me, create in me, put a new and right spirit within me, cast me not, take not your holy Spirit from me, restore to me, uphold me, deliver me. Quite the laundry list we give to God! And “me” turns out to be the subject upon which God acts. In this Psalm, repentance means submitting oneself to God’s saving actions. Repentance is not so much something I do, but more is my commanding God what to and, therefore, accepting what God does both to and for me to restore me, make me whole and safely bring me back to the flock. In the words of St John the Forerunner, “He must increase, I must decrease” (John 3:30). That is the real nature of repentance – not everything I must do, but realizing how much I need from God to correct me. Psalm 51 is my agreeing to submit myself to everything God does by God’s own nature. God has a lot of work to do to make us into the human beings He wants us to be.
Repentance as is turns out is not so much what I do for myself, but my inviting God into my life, allowing God to be Lord in my life. What does God want to do with me? Remove all obstacles to salvation, restore me to the right relationship with God, and to unite Himself to me, to fulfill what God intends for humanity in the incarnation: God becomes human so that we humans might become god. It is only in this exchange that we become fully human. Psalm 51 really is the pot telling the Potter, “You created us humans in your image and likeness, but I have distorted and misshapen that image, so now resume your artistry and craft me into the beautiful and good creation which you intended every human being to be.”