Psalm 51 is one of my favorite psalms. It is attributed to King David and expresses a heartfelt lament over his tragic decision to have Uriah killed so that he could be with Bathsheba, Uriah’s wife (2 Sam 11:1-27). While the wickedness of the plot is revolting there is something captivating about the honesty and vulnerability that David displays as he turns to God in anguish over what he has done. This once innocent shepherd boy now looks at himself in the mirror and despises what he sees. He is crippled by his tormenting guilt and his need to call upon God draws us into his emotional plea.
I empathize with the guilt expressed. I have regrets. I know that I am a sinner, that I have weaknesses and failings and that I cannot stand before God without hanging my head. I also know that I am not alone. People tell me their own stories of heartache and betrayal; things they have done and things they should have done or said. David’s guilt is a universal attribute of the human condition. But this psalm is not just a tale of shame; it is a moment of hard grace.
Hard grace is a moment when we become conscious of personal failures to live in the truth of our responsibility to our communities and to God. Thomas Merton writes about the penitential psalms,
“You do not experience them until you know how much you need them. You do not know your need until you experience it. You do not experience your poverty when you tell yourself about it but when God tells you that you are poor.”
That is why such sorrow for one’s sins, while heartbreaking, is grace filled because, as Merton goes on to say,
“When God tells you of a sickness, it is because He means, at the same time, to provide a remedy.”
The psalm speaks boldly of trust, of utter confidence that God will not condemn us as we approach with our heads bowed low. David is not presuming on God’s mercy, his sorrow is sincere, but he knows that there is nothing that he has done that cannot be redeemed by God. He knows because it is the story of God’s love for the people of his kingdom, the people of the covenant. David’s prayer is heal me Lord of my sin and then use me to heal others.
In the Gospel two men stand before God. One is weak and one appears strong. The weak penitent man is saved while the other is not, not because God dislikes self righteous people, but because the man could not see his own brokenness, his own need for healing.
What is your experience of the sacrament of reconciliation?
Have you experienced spritual growth through the gift of hard grace?