Scripture for Sunday: Psalm 51:1-12
Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin.
3 For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
4 Against you, you alone, have I sinned,
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence
and blameless when you pass judgment.
5 Indeed, I was born guilty,
a sinner when my mother conceived me.
6 You desire truth in the inward being;
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
8 Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
9 Hide your face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.
10 Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me away from your presence,
and do not take your holy spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and sustain in me a willing spirit.
Notes on the Text:
The book of Psalms is often called the prayer book of the Bible. The Psalms have been a true gift of encouragement and faith to many generations. They cover a broad variety of human experiences and help us see how we can bring those experiences honestly before God. The Psalms were written over many centuries, stretching from the days of Solomon’s temple (about 950 BCE) to after the Exile (about 350 BCE). There are five types of psalms: hymns of praise, laments, thanksgiving psalms, royal psalms, and wisdom psalms. The collecting of the Psalms was a gradual process over a long period of time.
Most of the Psalms were written after the exile experience of the people of ancient Israel. They affirm God’s work of redemption even in times of great despair. The coming of the Messiah and the hope of redemption is never lost even when the wicked and the evildoers prosper. This is what helped the people of ancient Israel get through their tough times. They held on to the hope of God’s redemption.
Part of the work of redemption was the call to awareness and repentance (a change of mind and heart). Psalm 51 which is our scripture for this week is about being humble and open before God with all of our shadow stuff. Our shadow stuff is not always evil, it is about the parts of ourselves that we have suppressed or rejected as unacceptable. What brings us to wholeness is acknowledging those part and bringing them out of the shadows into the compassionate Light of Christ.
The power of this Psalm for me is that it seeks God’s help in the process of self-awareness and healing. We truly cannot see our hidden stuff (going through step 4 of making a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves) without the grace and help of God. Yet, this Psalm and other scriptures like it often get misused to produce guilt and shame. It is important to remember that the Psalm is about openness to God and awareness of our need for God’s help. Here are a few lessons about becoming aware of our shadow stuff:
- It is not about guilt: Guilt does not transform us. In fact, most of the time, guilt traps us and makes us feel helpless. The call of Psalm 51 is not a personal call to feel guilty and ashamed of ourselves for our failings. We always have to remember that the Psalms were not individual prayers. They were the prayers of the people of God as they worshipped together. Psalm 51 most likely was used by the people of Israel after their return from the exile. After they were taken over by the Babylonians and had to leave their homes, when they returned in 536 BCE, they were still carrying a lot of the pain of their experience in exile. A lot of hidden fear and resentment had to come to the surface for God to heal the people. They knew that they had a second chance at life, but they first needed to let go of the pain and brokenness they were carrying. They could not come before God to worship and experience renewal until they were able to release whatever resentment, fear or hate that were holding them back. The focal point of this psalm is not the sin of the psalm writer, but the goodness of God. It is not about all the guilt they were carrying. It is about the new opportunities for renewal that God was offering them.
- It is not about Perfection: Rohr writes, “Your shadow self is not your evil self. It is just that part of you that you do not want to see, your unacceptable self by reason of nature, nurture, and choice. the goal is actually not the perfect avoidance of sin, which is not possible anyway (1 John 1:8-9; Romans 5:12), but the struggle itself, and the encounter and wisdom that comes from it. Law and failure create the foil which creates the conflict, which leads to a very different kind of victory than any of us expected. Not perfect moral victory, not moral superiority, but just luminosity of awareness and compassion for the world, which becomes our real moral victory.”
- It is about God’s redeeming Love: Becoming aware of our shadow stuff is about becoming humble enough to seek God’s help continually. The image of hyssop in the Psalm is invoked here to emphasize the importance of God’s commitment to the people of Israel and God’s love for them. Hyssop is a small bushy plant that is mentioned several times in the Bible in association with God’s covenant with the people of Israel. The use of a bunch of hyssop as a brush daubing the lintels of the Hebrew homes with blood from the sacrificed lamb at the first Passover (Exodus 12:22) seems to have established the tradition for most other references. Hyssop is a reminder that the focus is on the covenant. It is not on our actions. The covenant is something that God established with the people out of love. A covenant, in contrast to a contract, is a one-way agreement whereby the covenanter is the only party bound by the promise. Ancient Israel broke many covenants with God but God never broke any covenants with them.
Step Four of the 12 Steps is: “Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” This step is challenging because it asks that we bring forth that which is often hidden from us. This is not about making a list of our mistakes or character flaws so that we could just get rid of them. It is about something much deeper. It is about examining our assumptions and programs for happiness that are often hidden from us. In his book Breathing Under Water, Richard Rohr writes, “Moral scrutiny is not to discover how good or bad I am and regain some moral high ground, but it is to begin some honest ‘shadow boxing’ which is at the heart of all spiritual awakening.” This is not so much about guilt as much as it is about awareness. It is about learning to embrace all of ourselves (good and bad). A good example of what that might mean is how our biases and prejudices work. Most people are not aware of their biases until they really examine them. If in childhood, all of the examples of political leaders were men or all of the examples of nurses were women, then you grow up unaware of that as an assumption and whenever you hear the word nurse or political leader you assign it a gender.
Pay attention to when your buttons are pushed (when you overact to a person or a situation) as your clues to your shadow self.
All of us have unconscious assumptions and motivations. The problem comes when we go about life unaware of them. As Rohr puts it: “Evil succeeds only by disguising itself as good, necessary, or helpful. No one consciously does evil. The very fact that anyone can do stupid, cruel, or destructive things shows that they are at that moment unconscious and unaware.”
Searching our own minds and hearts so that we may become aware of our motivations and actions is a necessary step on the spiritual journey. Some might think that this is a fad or modern psychobabble, but it is amazing that this wisdom is found in the scriptures. Jesus spent a lot of time teaching about the importance of truly seeing and not being blind. Psalm 51 reminds us that not only individuals needed to examine their lives but also nations needed to bring out their shadow stuff before God.
With God’s grace, we are able to take this step without getting stuck in guilt and shame. With God’s grace, we are able to have a good lamp that sheds light on our shadow stuff to allow God to bring us the inner freedom we so long for.
Psalm 51 by Nan Merrill:
You have placed your truth in the inner being;
therefore, teach me the wisdom of the heart.
Forgive all that binds me in fear,
that I might radiate love;
cleanse me that your light
might shine in me.
Fill me with gladness;
help me to transform weakness into strength.
Look not on my past mistakes
but on the aspirations of my heart.
Create in me a clean heart, O Gracious One,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
Enfold me in the arms of love,
and fill me with your Holy Spirit.
Restore in me the joy of your saving grace,
and encourage me with a new spirit.
Practice: Shadow Work by Richard Rohr
There are many ways to do shadow work—the work of seeing and integrating your hidden and denied self. For example, your subconscious appears in images and stories as you sleep; paying attention to your dreams can give you insight into shadow. One of the easiest ways to discover your shadow is to observe your negative reactions to others and what pushes your buttons. Most often, what annoys you in someone else is a trait in yourself that you haven’t acknowledged.
Byron Katie has a simple process to help you own your judgments and turn your focus to the plank in your own eye. The following is adapted from Katie’s Judge-Your-Neighbor Worksheet and Four Questions.
Recall a stressful situation that is still fresh in your mind. Return to that time and place in your imagination.
Name your frustration, fear, or disappointment, and the object of this feeling in a simple statement. For example: I am angry with John because he never listens to me.
Now ask yourself four questions with an open heart, waiting for your truest answer to arise:
- Is it true? (Yes or no. If no, move to 3.)
- Can you absolutely know that it’s true?
- How do you react, and what happens when you believe this thought?
- Who would you be without the thought?
Turn the thought around in three ways: putting yourself in the other’s place, putting the other person in your place, and stating the exact opposite.
- I am angry with myself because I never listen to me.
- John is angry with me because I never listen to him.
- John does listen to me.
Find ways in which each “turnaround” is true in this situation.
This practice brings your nebulous shadow into focus, giving you something tangible to embrace. Do this necessary work all your life and you’ll discover more and more freedom and greater capacity to love self and others.
Gateway to Silence:
Help me see as You see.
This exercise is adapted from The Work of Byron Katie, thework.com/en/do-work.
For Further Study:
Richard Rohr, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life
Richard Rohr, Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality
Richard Rohr, What Do You Mean . . . Falling Upward?