What Does God Ask of us?

This is the 6th and final post in this blog series meditating on Psalm 51 and the nature of repentance.  The previous post is The Prayer of Manasseh .

So, what repentance looks like is for humans to be what God intended for us from the beginning.  It is not so much remorse and contrition or thinking of one’s self as a worm wallowing in mire.   Rather, it is recognizing God as Lord, and giving thanks for that truth to God.  The change of heart and mind in repentance is making the effort to be the human that God wants us to be.  We are to accept that God is the Lord, which means I am not.  It means accepting my role and place in God’s creation, rather than trying to establish my role as I see fit.  It means being a creature of thanksgiving for blessings received.

There is another prayer of repentance frequently used in Orthodoxy which expresses this same sense that what is asked of us is to stand before God and acknowledge who God and who we are.  That prayer begins:

Have mercy on us, O Lord, have mercy on us;
for laying aside all excuse, we sinners offer to You,
as to our Master, this supplication: have mercy on us.

It is a prayer which makes it clear that we understand God is merciful and for this reason alone we approach God in prayer seeking God’s mercy.  We acknowledge our sins and sinfulness and take full responsibility for them.  We don’t give excuse for our sinfulness – bad genes, bad parents, poverty, the fallen world, suffering, lack of education, poor opportunities, fears, peers, enemies, abuse, mistakes, misfortune.  We lay all that aside and admit we do sin.  And we own our sin because we also know God is love, God is merciful, and we trust God to be God.  The prayer then goes on:

O Lord, have mercy on us, for in You have we put our trust.
Do not be angry with us, nor remember our iniquities,
but look down on us even now, since You are compassionate,
and deliver us from our enemies. For You are our God,
and we are Your people; we are all the work of Your hands,
and we call upon Your Name.

It is much in the spirit of Psalm 51.  We recognize we need God to be God for that is our only hope in God’s creation.  It is a mystical vision which all humans are capable of having.

In this mystical vision of humanity, it turns out we humans are the place where God dwells on earth.  The mystical vision is not looking for heaven out there or trying to figure out how to get to heaven.   We ourselves are to be the “holy of holies” for God to dwell in so that the rest of the cosmos can also have its proper relationship to God.  God created the cosmos to be God’s temple, but created humans to be the place within the temple where God completely interfaces with creation.  God became human so that we humans might become god.   God’s plan is and always was to abide in us.  God is not trying to establish something outside the human to dwell in – a temple, a bible, a shrine.  Those things are merely shadows of God’s intention which is to dwell in us.   We are the ones who create all these religious sites to keep God at a distance.

And this vision of being human is for everyone, not just for monks, mystics or ascetics.  It is for moms and dads and grandparents and children, friends and neighbors.  No need to go to a monastery to find it, nor on a pilgrimage to a holy place, for the Kingdom of heaven is within each of us.  The Lord Jesus said: “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, ‘Lo, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you”  (Luke 17:20-21).

We all are to live up to our God-given potential as beings created by God to be in God’s image and likeness.  We do find this simple vision in the Bible, for example in Deuteronomy 10:12-22, which some consider a summary of Torah –

“And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of the LORD, which I command you this day for your good?”

Repentance means getting back to doing this very thing that God commanded.  It requires humility – recognition that God is the Lord and we are God’s creatures and servants.  Repentance isn’t sorrowing for our failures, but deciding to live up to what God wants for us and from us.  It is the way that Christ describes to us:  “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light”  (Matthew 11:28-30).   We can uncomplicate our lives by following the way of repentance.   It is the notion of “what you see is what you get” – no lies, deception, hiding, excuses, blaming.  It is the freedom of being able to stand in God’s presence knowing who I am and who God is.  The Deuteronomist continues:

“Behold, to the LORD your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it; yet the LORD set his heart in love upon your fathers and chose their descendants after them, you above all peoples, as at this day.”

However vast and grand heaven is, God still sets His heart upon people.  Heaven may be where God’s will is done, yet God still favors human beings and God’s intent is to dwell in humanity.  We are to become God’s heaven and we see this already accomplished in the Theotokos who is more glorious than heaven.  Heaven is where God dwells and God desires to dwell in us.  God created us to be heaven.

Repentance is thus nothing  more than our being human:

“Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn. For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the terrible God, who is not partial and takes no bribe. He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. Love the sojourner therefore; for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. You shall fear the LORD your God; you shall serve him and cleave to him, and by his name you shall swear. He is your praise; he is your God, who has done for you these great and terrible things which your eyes have seen. Your fathers went down to Egypt seventy persons; and now the LORD your God has made you as the stars of heaven for multitude.”

Repentance leads us to giving thanks to God and praising God, because in repentance we recognize God’s lordship in our life and what we are to be.  We realize God’s will.  Repentance leads us to the Liturgy where we give thanksgiving to God for all that God intends for us, does for us, gives to us, and accomplishes with, in and for us.  Repentance leads to our showing mercy to all those around us including the stranger.  Repentance means we:

Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.   (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)

The Prayer of Manasseh

This is the 5th post in this blog series meditating on Psalm 51.  The previous post is David the Image of Repentance.

The 51st Psalm presents us with a particular vision of repentance which I believe is reflected in the Liturgy of the Orthodox Church.  This understanding of repentance does not demand that we think of ourselves as vile, worthless worms wallowing in the mire.   Nor does it envision us as being angels in the flesh.  Rather it views us as being human – created in God’s image and likeness, created to have dominion over creation, created to be united to divinity and share in the divine love and life.  We are created to be the temple in which God dwells on earth.   Yet, we also have free will which means we are not automatons who are programmed to do what God wants.  Rather, we have to choose to do God’s will if we want.  We are conscious beings who can realize our willful disobedience to God as well as our mistakes.

Psalm 51 as a prayer of repentance shows us to acknowledge our sins and errors, to “man up” as it were and own our behavior, admitting to God when we are wrong.  We have the example in Adam and Eve of what not to do when we sin (Genesis 3).   For they failed to admit to their wrong doing and tried to place blame outside of themselves.   King David, on the other hand, shows himself to be every bit the sinner that Adam was, yet he places himself before God, the merciful judge, and trusts himself to whatever God decides.   David does not despair, deny God or his sinfulness, engage in self-pity, think everything is inconsequential, become nihilistic, or spiral out of control.   Instead, David despite his personal failings continues to recognize the Lordship of God.  David sees his own behavior as of limited value and consequence, still occurring within the confines of God’s universe.  So though he is God’s chosen king, he recognizes his choices are not always right and he still has to answer to the Lord.  Repentance consists of understanding this right relationship with God, with creation and the rest of humanity.  Repentance is a course correction, right-sizing, recalculation, re-evaluation, self-examination in which one recognizefs God’s rightful lordship and one’s own servant role even if one is emperor.  In praying Psalm 51, we are recognizing our need for God to be God and to do everything in our life that we need God to do for us to be rightfully human.

There is another prayer of repentance in Orthodoxy that is similar in content and structure to Psalm 51 which can be found in many Orthodox prayer books and in the compline service.   It is a prayer of repentance of the King of Judah Manasseh mentioned in 2 Chronicles 33 which describes an incident in the 7th Century BC.  “During his distress, Manasseh made peace with the Lord his God, truly submitting himself to the God of his ancestors.  He prayed, and God was moved by his request. God listened to Manasseh’s prayer and restored him to his rule in Jerusalem. Then Manasseh knew that the Lord was the true God” (vs 12-13).  As with King David’s sin and Psalm 51, repentance for Manasseh yields a restored and right relationship with God.  The focus is not on Manasseh’s remorse and regret but on his submitting to the Lordship of God.  However, scholars think the prayer itself comes from the 2nd Century BC since it is not found in the ancient Jewish texts.   The prayer begins:

Lord Almighty, God of our ancestors, God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and their righteous children, you made heaven and earth with all their beauty.  You set limits for the sea by speaking your command.  You closed the bottomless pit, and sealed it by your powerful and glorious name.  All things fear you and tremble in your presence, because no one can endure the brightness of your glory.  No one can resist the fury of your threat against sinners. But your promised mercies are beyond measure and imagination, because you are the highest, Lord, kind, patient, and merciful, and you feel sorry over human troubles.  You, Lord, according to your gentle grace, promised forgiveness to those who are sorry for their sins.  In your great mercy, you allowed sinners to turn from their sins and find salvation.

As with many Orthodox liturgical prayers, the opening of Manasseh’s prayer speaks only of God and all that God has done or is doing.  The purpose of this opening is to establish the Lordship of God – it tells us to whom we are praying and why we recognize this God as our Lord.  Then the prayer continues:

Therefore, Lord, God of those who do what is right, you didn’t offer Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who didn’t sin against you, a chance to change their hearts and lives.  But you offer me, the sinner, the chance to change my heart and life, because my sins outnumbered the grains of sand by the sea.  My sins are many, Lord; they are many. I am not worthy to look up, to gaze into heaven because of my many sins.  Now, Lord, I suffer justly. I deserve the troubles I encounter. Already I’m caught in a trap.   I’m held down by iron chains so that I can’t lift up my head because of my sins.  There’s no relief for me, because I made you angry, doing wrong in front of your face, setting up false gods and committing offenses.

Manasseh’s prayer, more than Psalm 51, accepts the notion that “I” being a sinner am unworthy of my title of being human.  It acknowledges that sin is very powerful in this world, and that “I” have not resisted its power.   This prayer more openly accepts that since God is the Lord, “I” deserve judgment and all that is happening around me is related to or effected by my sin.  Whereas Psalm 51 only speaks of the mercy of God, Manasseh sees God’s anger and accepts it as a just reaction to his behavior.

 Now I bow down before you from deep within my heart, begging for your kindness.  I have sinned, Lord, I have sinned, and I know the laws I’ve broken.
I’m praying, begging you:
Forgive me, Lord, forgive me. Don’t destroy me along with my sins. Don’t keep my bad deeds in your memory forever. Don’t sentence me to the earth’s depths, for you, Lord, are the God of those who turn from their sins.  In me you’ll show how kind you are.  Although I’m not worthy, you’ll save me according to your great mercy.  I will praise you continuously all the days of my life, because all of heaven’s forces praise you, and the glory is yours forever and always. Amen.

The conclusion of Manasseh’s prayer is more in line with Psalm 51, though expressing things more in the negative.  Manasseh tells God what he needs God to do: forgive me, don’t destroy me (but do destroy my sins!), don’t remember my sins forever, don’t condemn me.  Manasseh has hope that God will show kindness and save him.  His response, like David’s, will be to praise God.  Repentance leads to praise not just to self-denigration.  If one repents one spends the remaining time of one’s life giving glory and praise to God.  Repentance leads us to the Liturgy where we give thanks to God and praise God for all the blessings God’s bestows upon us.  This is true repentance – not remorse and regret, but thanksgiving and praise of God.

St. Maximos the Confessor expresses this same truth:

 “Every genuine confession humbles the soul. When it takes the form of thanksgiving, it teaches the soul that it has been delivered by the grace of God. When it takes the form of self-accusation, it teaches the soul that it is guilty of crimes through its own deliberate indolence.  Confession takes two forms. According to the one, we give thanks for blessings received; according to the other, we bring to light and examine what we have done wrong. We use the term confession both for the grateful appreciation of the blessings we have received through divine favor, and for the admission of the evil actions of which we are guilty. Both forms produce humility. For he who thanks God for blessings and he who examines himself for his offences are both humbled. The first judges himself unworthy of what he has been given; the second implores forgiveness for his sins.”  (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 18272-80)

Next:  What does God Ask of Us?

David the Image of Repentance

This is the 4th post in this blog series meditating on Psalm 51.  The previous post is Psalm 51: What Do “I” Do?

The inscription at the beginning of Psalm 51 gives us a solid clue about the context in which Psalm 51 was written.  It reads: “To the choirmaster. A Psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.”

One can read the account of David’s sin with Bathsheba and the aftermath in 2 Samuel 11-12.  King David lusted after Bathsheba, wife of the faithful soldier Uriah.  David commits adultery with Bathsheba resulting in her being pregnant  while her husband is off to war.  Trying to cover up his sin, the King gives orders for a troop withdrawal during a battle that ensures that Uriah is killed in battle.  Then King David feels he can legitimately claim Bathsheba as his wife.  The Prophet Nathan, knowing David’s sin and God’s judgment of David, confronts the King by telling him a parable of injustice.  David is outraged by the evil man in the parable but then realizes the parable is about himself and that he is guilty of grievous sin.   We read in 2 Samuel 12:11-14, Nathan pronouncing judgment on King David:

Thus says the LORD, ‘Behold, I will raise up evil against you out of your own house; and I will take your wives before your eyes, and give them to your neighbor, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this sun. For you did it secretly; but I will do this thing before all Israel, and before the sun.'” David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the LORD.” And Nathan said to David, “The LORD also has put away your sin; you shall not die. Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the LORD, the child that is born to you shall die.”

This is the moment to which the inscription of Psalm 51 refers.  All David says is, “I have sinned against the LORD.”  No remorse is expressed, no promise of reformation or change or improvement, no excuse is offered, no attempt to justify what he did.   David simply acknowledges “God is right, I am wrong.”  David’s reaction to knowing he has sinned is very much reflected in Psalm 51.  David knows both he needs God and that God is right in judging him; whatever  God is now going to do is going to be right, just, the right and needed thing.  David accepts the consequences of his own behavior and of God’s judgment.  David believes that his duty is to own his sin and then turn the whole ‘affair’ over to God for God to deal with.  David recognizes God is legitimately the judge in his case but tells God to take into account that he is now owning his sin and asking God to do away with his guilt.  David is relying on what God said after the Great Flood:

… the LORD said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.”    (Genesis 8:21)

 

David knows the merciful nature of God, but also knows that his own sin is deserving of death.  He asks God instead to be merciful, even though he showed no mercy to Uriah.

As the story unfolds David does fast and weep and pray when he realizes that the illegitimate, yet innocent child produced by his adultery was going to die.  But when he learns that the baby of Uriah’s wife has died, David stops his lamentation. Note in 2 Samuel 12:15 the child is not called David’s baby, but the child of Uriah’s wife, even Bathsheba is not mentioned by name.  The biblical author wants us to be clear about how egregious this sin is.  Neither the baby nor Bathsheba belong to David, yet he greedily acted as if they were his.   Then in 2 Samuel 12:21-23, we read:

Then his servants said to him, “What is this thing that you have done? You fasted and wept for the child while it was alive; but when the child died, you arose and ate food.” He said, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept; for I said, ‘Who knows whether the LORD will be gracious to me, that the child may live?’ But now he is dead; why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.”

We see in the narrative exactly the idea of “repentance” expressed in the Psalm.  We need to allow God to be God, and to ask God to do things according to God’s own nature.  We need to learn what it is to be human – created in God’s image and likeness, created to have dominion over all creatures, but still subject to the Lordship of God.  We need God to do all the things necessary to make us human despite our inclination to sin: show us mercy, cleanse us, teach us, deliver us, fill us with Himself.  That happens only if we agree to it.  David realizes that he has sinned, he can’t now walk that one back or change it.  The deed is done and now the consequences must be accepted as well.  David knows God is right in what God does.  David owns the fact that his own behavior has terrible consequences for some innocent people.   David is not bargaining with God but does put his hope in God.  He hopes God’s mercy will include the child of Uriah’s wife not dying, but he recognizes his own deed has consequences and God is good and right in what God does.

Of course, with our modern sensibilities, we still wonder, why did the baby have to die?  What did the baby do?  The story is not about a judgment on the child.  We could also ask, why did Uriah have to die?  Because David willed it.  David willed Uriah’s death so he could have Bathseba.  But the other price paid is a second innocent victim, the child of Uriah’s wife dies as well.  In every sense of the word, David is guilty of a double homicide in order to get his way.  That is what he recognizes.  Sin is not private but affects others as well.

David realizes he needs God to be God and to act toward himself as only God can do.  The price David paid to experience God’s mercy is two innocent people died.  Why did it take such a heavy price before David realized God’s nature?  Why are we humans the way we are?  Why do we keep putting God to the test?  How many more sins will we commit, how many more innocent people will die before we accept the Lordship of God?  That is why we should be broken-hearted when we think about our own sins, or the brokenness of the world around us.    What all has to happen before we stop sinning and turn to God to receive His mercy freely without any more cost to anyone?  The world pays a heavy price for our self-willfulness.  While there are many more violent examples, we only have to think about our own addiction to consumption and creating waste to see how “I” impact the world.  Someone, somewhere pays the price for my wastefulness.

Psalm 51 shows us that repentance brings us to the mercy of God.  And then we realize where the Liturgy fits in for it shows us a different way to come to the mercy of God.  We don’t need to sin to experience God’s forgiveness and mercy.  We can approach God with thanksgiving for God’s goodness, and totally freely enter into the mercy and love of God in thanksgiving.

King David in repentance promises God three things in verses 51:12-15 – to teach transgressors God’s way, to sing aloud of God’s salvation and to praise God.

Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit. Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.

Deliver me from blood-guiltiness, O God, God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance.

O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall show forth your praise.

A life of repentance, or spending the remaining time of our life in repentance (as we pray at the Liturgy) means being a witness to others about God’s ways and also of singing of God’s salvation and praising God in one’s life.  Here we see the full connection between repentance and thanksgiving, between Psalm 51 and the Divine Liturgy.

In the Liturgy’s prayers we also tell God all the things God is to do for us, just like we do in Psalm 51.  But in the Liturgy the context is thanksgiving, not penance.  We pray that God’s will be done which includes our becoming the people that God created us to be to carry out His will.   In repentance we can experience the mercy of God even though others and us might experience the negative consequence of our sins.  In the Liturgy on the other hand, we all experience the mercy of God while giving thanks for all the blessings that others and we have received.  Thus we even give thanks for the Liturgy as being the best way for the world which God loves and for us to experience the mercy of God.

Create in me a clean heart, O God,

and put a new and right spirit within me.

Do not cast me away from your presence,

and do not take your holy spirit from me.

Restore to me the joy of your salvation,

and sustain in me a willing spirit.

Then I will teach transgressors your ways,

and sinners will return to you.

(Psalm 51)

Next:  The Prayer of Manasseh

Psalm 51: What Do “I” Do?

24873289413_680bc62134This is the third post in his blog series exploring Psalm 51.  The previous post is Repentance: Telling God What to Do.

If we take Psalm 51 to be the Psalm of repentance, and that David as the author of this Psalm to be a model of repentance, we can then learn from David’s own behavior how he understood repentance.  What does King David the Psalmist promise to do in Psalm 51?   We’ve already seen that much of the Psalm is telling God what to do.  Only in a few verses does David talk about what he is doing as a person who is repenting:

For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned, and done that which is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless in your judgment. Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.

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Theophan Whitfield writes that King David “acknowledges his guilt and presents this acknowledgment as the reason, which justifies his plea for mercy.” (“Hearing Psalm 51: Masoretic Hebrew vs. LXX Greek”, FESTSCHRIFT IN HONOR OF PROFESSOR PAUL NADIM TARAZI, p 45).  We don’t ask God’s mercy as if bargaining – be merciful to me God and I promise to … repent, be better, change my ways, be good, sin no more.  In Psalm 51, THE Psalm of repentance, David seeks God’s forgiveness based purely on his own acknowledgement that he needs God’s mercy because he has sinned against God.   He is saying, I come before you God because you want sinners to stand before you and recognize their sinfulness.  We are to do what Adam and Eve failed to do from the beginning.  We are to learn from their failure and admit our faults and acknowledge that there is no reason for God to forgive us because in fact we are not going to become perfect, sinless beings.  We approach God not because we are sinless but precisely because we are sinners in need of God’s mercy.   So we have to stand before God in humble honesty about own our behavior (including our sins) and realize God is right in whatever or however God decides to deal with us.  We do tell God – “remember you are merciful” and then we admit our sin and say to God, now be God.  David in the Psalm takes the stance that being honest to God is all we can do.  Don’t deny your sin or blame someone else.  Be courageous and humble, acknowledging who you are and what you have done.  The Psalmist in effect is saying to God, I will not behave like Adam and Eve – I will not try to hide from you (or hide my sin from you).  I will not blame anyone else for what I’ve done.  I come forward and boldly stand in your presence because You are good and love humankind.  Show me Your love and mercy which I don’t deserve, but I so greatly need.

King David goes on in the Psalm to say:

Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.

my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance.

my mouth shall show forth your praise.

were I to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

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Note David never promises that he will become sinless or that he will reform his life.  In the great Psalm of repentance, David never repents, nor even mentions repentance.  Literally, neither the word “repent” or “repentance” is found in Psalm 51.  While the Psalm clearly is that of a sinner, caught in sin, approaching God, it shows us a side to repentance that we often forget – we approach God despite our sinfulness because God is the Lord and we proclaim that even as sinners.   God is merciful and forgiving, that is the truth on which we rely.  It is why we do the Divine Liturgy.  As Good Shepherd, God calls us to the Liturgy, not because we are shining, spotless, pure and sinless, but because we each are the Psalmist who has sinned and we need God to be God (merciful, forgiving) so that we can become fully human.

King David in Psalm 51 promises little to God but acknowledges his sinfulness.  I might say “merely” acknowledges, but it appears in the Psalm that acknowledging one’s sinfulness is what required of us.  We don’t have to promise God anything – reform, change, improvement, a new me.  We do have to acknowledge that we sin before God and that God has every right to judge us.  We don’t reject that God is Lord, but accept it and humbly acknowledge that God determines what is good, not us.  Then David says he will praise God for His salvation.  He recognizes that he may not be able to put things right in his own life, or change his ways, but he should feel the brokenness of his life.  That should make him brokenhearted.   The world is a mess because each “I” fails to be human.

Repentance and the Liturgy do not require that we be angels, but rather that we be fully human.  Repentance and the Liturgy do not demand from us that we consider ourselves to be worthless worms wallowing in dung, but rather calls us to be the humans that God created us to be – the creature which is greater than angels or any of the greatest of animals.

For it was not to angels that God subjected the world to come, of which we are speaking. It has been testified somewhere, “What is man that you are mindful of him, or the son of man, that you care for him? You made him for a little while lower than the angels, you crowned him with glory and honor, putting everything in subjection under his feet.” Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. … For surely it is not with angels that he is concerned but with the descendants of Abraham.   (Hebrews 2:5-8, 16)

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In calling us to repent, God does not tell us to see ourselves as nothing, rather God tells us to “man up” – be a human being, be what God has created us to be.  Humans are created to be greater than the angels and God is far more concerned with us than with the heavenly host. (As we sing about the Theotokos, the human par excellence – more honorable than the Cherubim, beyond compare more glorious than the Seraphim).

Our phrase, “he or she is only human,” has got it all wrong, for being human is not an admission of weakness nor of failure, but of being created in God’s image and likeness, created to have dominion over all the rest of creation, including the angels.  Even the Sabbath Day (the only thing created by God in the first creation story of Genesis 1-2 that God both blesses and makes holy) is made for us humans (Mark 2:27).  The most blessed thing of creation, the Sabbath, is made for humans not for angels. Christ is lord of this Sabbath which is made for us:

And Jesus said to them, “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath; so the Son of man is lord even of the sabbath.”  (Mark 2:27-28)

In all things God as Lord is serving us, and this is reflected both in the imperative commands given to God in Psalm 51 and throughout the Divine Liturgy.  Repentance in King David’s experience is telling God, we recognize that we need you to be God and Lord, and we are saying we want you to be our God and Lord – so do it!  And we are emboldened by the truth that God is love, and even if God scourges us, it will be with God’s love to help us be perfect human beings.

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Of course, we might then ask, but if change, repentance, new direction, metanoia is not required in the Psalm, what good does it do to acknowledge our sinfulness?  If we are simply going to continue to sin, what good does it do to recognize sin or to admit to being a sinner?   Doesn’t it then end up being like the character in (I think) a John Updike novel who says something to the effect that God made a perfect world – it is God’s duty to forgive sins and my duty to sin.  Is there nothing more to repentance?

The acknowledgement of being a sinner is also acknowledgment of God’s Lordship and right to judge and right to determine what is good and what is wrong. God is the Lord and God is love.   The metanoia part of repentance first requires us to recognize there is a Lord to whom we answer.  When we stop ourselves from all we are doing, saying or thinking to consciously (and conscientiously) stand still before God, we have also the opportunity to stop our self-willfulness.  The first step in repentance is stopping what we are currently doing.  Only when we stop ourselves can we feel the brokenness of our life, and feel the broken heartedness which the Psalmist says is the condition for God to accept us again.  Even if we can’t change ourselves, we can put ourselves  before God and ask God to do all that is according to His nature to save us – from sin, from death and from ourselves.  The habitual sinner, the addict and the lazy can all recognize their own need to stand in God’s presence even when sin is active in their life.     St. John Climacus  (d. 649AD) wrote: “That all should attain to complete detachment is impossible.  But it is not impossible that all should be saved and reconciled to God ” (The Roots of Christian Mysticism, p 304).

Next:  David the Image of Repentance

Repentance: Telling God What to Do

42177591130_2aaca87ebdThis is the second post in his blog series exploring Psalm 51.  The first post is Repentance: Being Washed By God.

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.

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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

39062344981_6d64786e1bThe 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.

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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.”

Next: Psalm 51: What Do “I” Do?

Repentance: Being Washed by God

Have mercy on me, O God,

according to your steadfast love;

according to your abundant mercy

blot out my transgressions.

(Psalm 51:1)

4587289405_a856b3139d_nThe 51st Psalm is used frequently in Orthodox prayers and services as the Psalm of repentance.  King David, the Psalmist and author of Psalm 51, is portrayed at times in Orthodox prayers as the model of a person who repents of their sin.  David is a prophet and saint in the church, but he certainly was not sinless and pure.   He does through his own life choices come to know why he needs God’s mercy and cleansing.  He asks God in his penitential Psalm twice to “blot out” first his transgressions and then his iniquities.  Why “blot out?   What does this imply?  It is an unusual phrase whose meaning is very revealing.  In this blog series, I intend to pursue uncovering some of the depth of Psalm 51. In this first post I will rely mostly on the work of Theophan Whitfield in his insightful article, “Hearing Psalm 51: Masoretic Hebrew vs. LXX Greek“, (in FESTSCHRIFT IN HONOR OF PROFESSOR PAUL NADIM TARAZI),  who mentions two themes we can see in the psalm – the theme of cleansing but also a legal theme.  Whitfield ties the themes together and helps make the Psalm more understandable.

First Whitfield explains the importance of the imagery of “blotting out” which the Psalmist applies to his iniquities.

“… mahah, which is translated most frequently in the RSV as the verb ‘to blot out.’  In antiquity, especially where writing was done on leather scrolls, erasures required ink to be washed and wiped away.  Consequently, mahah has strong associations with accounting, with maintaining and adjusting records.  There are several references in Torah to the act of blotting out names and deeds as just punishment for evil deeds.  Most vivid in this respect is the prayer of Moses that God will forgive the Israelites for their idolatrous worship of the golden calf:

‘But now, if thou wilt forgive their sin-and if not, blot me (mahani), I pray thee, out of they book which thou hast written.  But the LORD said to Moses, ‘Whoever has sinned against me, him will I blot out (’emhennu) of my book’ (Exod 33:32-33).

Here, the image involves erasure of names out of the divine Book of Life itself, names of those whom God will remember no more.”  (p 40-41)

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We see the purpose of the metaphor of blotting out when we understand how it was used in the ancient world.  The only way to erase a mistake in a document written on an animal skin was to wash the document or blot out the mistake and then write it again.  Since accounting and inventory requires frequent changes in the records, blotting out is certainly associated with giving account, or judgment.  Thus the metaphor of blotting out works well with the concept of sin.

In the Exodus text referred to by Whitfield, we see the accounting concept being used by Moses but now for a divine accounting with the book of life where God records the names of those God wishes to remember –or not!  The same concept appears in Revelation 3:5 where Christ says:

He who conquers shall be clad thus in white garments, and I will not blot his name out of the book of life; I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels.  

In this we also come to see a baptismal reference – our sins are washed away or blotted out, not just from us but maybe even more importantly from the book that will be opened at the great judgment.

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And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Also another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, by what they had done. (Revelation 20:12)

We want our sins, not our names, blotted out of God’s books.  In the end the written texts, the scriptures which are truly important are the ones God has written about us, not what is recorded in the Bible.  Thus the importance of  baptism in which our sins are washed away from ourselves as well as blotted out from God’s book which God will read on the great day of judgment.  The Word became flesh (John 1:14), but we are to become God’s word in the kingdom!  In this case it is truly God who writes us into His book, who makes us His Word.  Whitfield writes:

“In v. 11, the psalmist begs God to turn away-not from him, but from his sins.  He asks God to ‘blot out’ his iniquities as a substitute for blotting out the psalmist himself.”  (p 48)

God became human so that we might become god.  In the end we want to be noted by God – by being written in God’s book.  We must not simply read or even memorize scripture, we must become the word of God in God’s judgment.  Scripture truly is not a book that a publisher prints but really is that record God keeps of us.

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Getting back to Whitfield, he continues unwrapping the concept of “blotting out”:

“…in the flood narrative in particular. [Gen 6-9]

So the LORD said, ‘I will blot out (’emheh) man whom I have created from the face of the ground, man and east and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them’ (Gen 6:7).

The use is not merely metaphorical.  Here, God is ‘sorry’ that he made man and beast.  He made a mistake, and in the context of bookkeeping (and the context of Scripture!) the appropriate response to a mistake is to wipe away what one has done.

In Psalm 51, however, mahah is used in connection with God’s mercy, not with divine punishment.  The psalmist pleads for mercy through the wiping away of his sins.” (p 41)

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Here we see the full extent of “blotting out” for now we realize that the erasure of our names means we will disappear from the face of the earth. God is sorry in Genesis 6 that He created humans, but for God all the sins of humanity which cause Him grief can be blotted out.  The waters of the flood are going to cleanse them away, just like baptism cleanses our sins today.  The great difference is baptism does not drown us, just our sins.  In Genesis 6-9, God is requiring an accounting and realizes that the humans God created were a mistake and being impermanent beings it is possible to blot them out!  The imagery is powerful, God’s heart is broken by His human creation (Genesis 6:6).  It is this broken heartedness which God can recognize in us as true repentance.  The value of the story of the flood is not in its literalness but in what it reveals about God, us, sin and repentance.  Repentance is God blotting out our sins to cleanse us and make us a new creation.

The blotting out of sin is used to bring to our minds how mistakes or wrongs are corrected in accounting.  It is difficult, but possible, to wash away what is wrong in the written ledgers.  Wrongs can be washed away with some effort and corrected.  It is an image that God calls to mind at the time of the great flood as well as at the great judgment day.   In both cases, we humans end up standing before God to await the sentence being pronounced – what is written in the book of life: our names or our sins?

Whitfield says this standing before the judge is referred to in the Psalm in another way when the Psalmist says his sin is ever before him:

“The description of sin sitting ‘in front of me’ and ‘in front of you’ indicates that the psalmist is face to face with God, which is the traditional image of standing under judgment in a court of law.”  (p 45)

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The imagery of Psalm 51 calls to mind judgment but also the possibility of mercy.  God can wash away our sin while leaving our names in the book of life.  We are to become scripture, God’s written word, if we are to live with God forever.  Scripture thus is not a book exterior to us in which we learn about God, but rather is what we are to become to be with God in the Kingdom.  Christ is the Logos of God and we are the logoi of God written in God’s book of life.

Next:  Repentance: Telling God What to Do

There is Hope: We Can Change


For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and return not thither but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and prosper in the thing for which I sent it.”  (Isaiah 55:10-11)

“Let no one, therefore, who is living in vice despair of himself, know that, as agriculture changes the properties of plants, so the diligence of the soul in the pursuit of virtue can triumph over all sorts of infirmities.”  (St. Basil, The Fathers of the Church, p. 78)

Repentance: So God Can Enter My Heart

“’My victory is Your victory,’ David says to the Lord, ‘and my defeat, which is my sin, is likewise a loss for Your glory, for it interrupts the advance of Your glory in the hearts of men.’  It follows, then, that when we don’t repent, when we have no awareness of our sin, when we are without tears, when we are content to lie in the muck of our sins, we implicate God Himself in our fall. Have we sinned? Do we remain in our sin? If so, then He cries out: ‘They cast me out, the beloved, as a corpse to be despised.’

When I reject the way of repentance, I reject God. When I choose to remain in sin, I expel God from my heart. But as soon as I turn from my sin, God enters my heart. And when He does, I discover my place in the Church, which is His body and His bride.” 

(Archimandrite Aimilianos, Psalms and the Life of Faith, p. 221)

The Joy of Repentance

 

Fr. Alexander Schmemann describes this as the sorrow that pervades the Lenten services that lead up to Pascha. He calls it “bright sadness.” Is not Lent itself a joyous gift from God? The Church Fathers refer to it not as a season of misery but of joy, a “springtime of the soul.”

It is a time to weed out the passions that trip us up on life. It is a time to focus on Christ and to find in Him our greatest joy. It is a time to ask God to heal us of all those things we hate about ourselves, all those things that mess up our lives and destroy us. Let us rejoice every time we discover a new imperfection because through repentance and godly sorrow that imperfection (sin) can lead to forgiveness, joy and newness of life. Bishop Kallistos Ware observes that the purpose of repentance “is to see, not what I have failed to be, but what by the grace of God, I can yet become.”

Lent was not given to us by the Church to make our lives miserable. It is a God-given opportunity to remove from our lives all those passions that enslave us to set us free to experience “the glorious liberty of the children of God.” It is this “joy-creating sorrow” or “bright sadness” that leads to repentance which, in turn, leads to salvation and explodes with joy at Pascha.

(Anthony M. Conairis,Holy Joy: The Heartbeat of Faith, p. 36-37)

 

Confess Your Sins to Enlist God’s Mercy

Do you see the physician’s prodigality which excels the loving concern of all human fathers? It is not something burdensome and demanding that he requires of us, is it? No, simply heartfelt contrition, a lull in our wild ideas, confession of sins, earnest recourse to him; then he not merely rewards us with the curing of our wounds and renders us cleansed of our sins, but also puts to rights the person who beforehand had been weighed down with countless burdens of sin. O the greatness of love! O the extent of his goodness!

When the sinner confesses his sins and begs forgiveness and gives evidence of carefulness in the future, God immediately declares him law-abiding. For clear proof of this, listen to the prophet’s words: “Take the initiative in declaring your transgressions so that you may be declared upright”(Isaiah 43:26, LXX).  He did not simply say, “Declare your transgressions,” but added, “Take the initiative,” that is to say, don’t wait for someone to accuse you, nor let the prosecutor anticipate you – beat him to the punch by having the first say, so as to deprive the prosecutor of a voice.

Do you see the judge’s lovingkindness? In the case of human courts, whenever anyone admitted to doing this and anticipated proof of the charges by confessing his crimes, he would perhaps be in a position to escape torture and the torments accompanying it, and even if the case came before a lenient judge he would indubitably receive a sentence of death.

In the case of the loving God, on the contrary, the physician of our souls, we meet with ineffable goodness and a liberality exceeding all description. What I mean is this: if we steal a march on our adversary – I mean the devil – who on that dread day will take his stand against us, and already in this present life before our entry into the court we confess our crimes, take the initiative in speaking, and turn accusers against ourselves, we will encourage the Lord not only to reward us with freedom from our sins but also to reckon us among the number of the upright.   (St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on Genesis 18-45, pp. 43-44)