Prayer [Part 4]

For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away
    through my groaning all day long.—Psalm 32:3

Every one of us is here today for a reason. We have come to church today because we want something. We want the blessing of God. Isn’t that why we’re here? Something is missing in our lives, and God is the answer. That’s why prayer matters. Prayer is connecting with God. Prayer is reaching out to God. Prayer is opening up to God. Prayer is refocusing on God. Thank you for coming with that openness today. God will bless you.

What are we learning about prayer? The first essential to prayer is a spirit of praise. The old catechism says, “What is the chief end of man? Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” Why do we exist? The astounding answer is, we are not here just to survive; we are here to be living proof of how good God is. So the first item in our daily To Do list is to enjoy God and honor God and praise God. Will you settle it once and for all: “I am here to praise God”? That spirit of praise is growing in us as a church. I am so pleased. Isn’t it great to be involved?

That’s our first step into deeper prayer – a spirit of praise. The second step is a spirit of confession. John Calvin wrote in his Institutes that, to connect with reality, we need to know two things – who God is, and who we are. We are naturally blind to both God and ourselves, though we have a lot of strong opinions about both. The gospel is our only reconnection with reality. The gospel shows us God and ourselves. Who God really is means we praise. Who we really are means we confess. We have a lot to confess – so much, in fact, that it’s tempting not to face it. But a spirit of confession and humility and openness, a heart that owns up – there is no happier way to live. That is the whole point of Psalm 32. It’s surprising, but true. Psalm 32 shows us that facing into what we’ve done and owning up to our sins before God – that is the breakthrough point into release and freedom. Let’s walk through the psalm together with open hearts, and the power of God’s Word will give us a spirit of confession today.

Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven,
    whose sin is covered.
Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity,
    and in whose spirit there is no deceit. —Psalm 32:1-2

The key word is “Blessed.” That word doesn’t mean much to us any more. Perhaps you know that that word means “happy.” There is nothing happier than to be forgiven of all our sins. But I wonder if we can get in touch with this word more meaningfully if we use the English equivalent “comical.” “Comical is the one…” and so forth. What was comical about David when he wrote Psalm 32? That he was a sinner, and his life was getting better. Things were going so well for him, and he knew he didn’t deserve it. He said, “God’s mercy to me is so uncalled for, so over the top – this is comical.” You know the Immanuel Mantra. One, I am a complete idiot. Two, my future is incredibly bright. Three, anyone can get in on this. We are sinners. And we are under the blessing of God. Our lives are getting better. This is comical. Let’s have a sense of the wonder of being treated so well! Outside heaven, the greatest joy we’ll ever know is that he forgives us. In heaven, it will forever be our amazement that he forgave us.

What does God do for us through the finished work of Christ on the cross? Three things, according to verses 1-2. One, he forgives our transgressions. The wording means that God lifts away our acts of rebellion. He unburdens us. He takes it away, so that we don’t have to bear it any more. God makes our rebellion his responsibility. How else is God merciful to us through the cross?

Two, he covers our sins. We have all failed. We don’t measure up. But rather than trot it all out to shame us, God covers it under the blood of Christ. God conceals it. God says, “We’re not talking about that any more. It never happened.” How else is God merciful to us through the cross of Christ?

Three, he does not count our iniquities against us. Theologians call this Imputation. What does Imputation mean? It means that God factors into his opinion of us not the iniquities we have committed but the good things Christ did. We sin. Christ obeyed. And God now accepts us as if we had obeyed, and at the cross he judged Christ as if he had sinned. This surprising exchange – it’s how God thinks. That verb in the first line of verse 2 – “counts” – that word means to think. The Bible is showing us the mind of God, how God thinks about us for the sake of Christ. We think dark thoughts of him. But God says, “That’s not how I think. I think of you as my beloved, in whom I am well pleased.”

If you are in Christ, God does not count against you your most shameful moments. The word translated “iniquity” means something twisted, something perverse. We all have distorted emotions, misshapen beliefs, twisted motives, and every one of us has acted that out. But for the sake of Christ, God cherishes us as if we were morally elegant people. It’s how God thinks. You need to tell your mind more about the mind of God. You need to get out of your thoughts and into the thoughts of God. David did, by faith, by pressing the gospel into his heart. No wonder he used the word “blessed.”

There’s one more thing that’s true about forgiven people. It’s in the second line of verse 2: “… in whose spirit there is no deceit.” Forgiven people are honest people. They are not deceitful or shifty. They have a spirit of confession. They are open to God. The grace of God pulls our defenses down, and we get real with him.

If you have received Christ with the empty hands of faith, God accepts you because of Christ. But you should still confess your sins. It would be deceitful not to. It would be dishonest and unreal. The day I married Jani, I entered into a relationship of total acceptance with her. It was for better or for worse. I am not more married when I do well as a husband, and I am not less married when I do poorly. She accepts me. That is settled. Do I then say, “Well, because she totally accepts me, I never have to apologize again. I don’t have to keep the relationship current”? If I offend her and never admit it but pretend everything’s fine, we are still married, but my own heart is deceitful, and I would grieve her. Even so, an honest heart before God wants to stay clear with him, with nothing between, moment by moment.

“… in whose spirit there is no deceit” does not mean God can be fooled. But we can deceive ourselves. Here are five differences between deceit and honesty in our hearts. One, a deceitful heart doesn’t know its sin because it doesn’t want to know. But an honest heart, like an honest business, is willing to open the books and give an account. Two, a deceitful heart feels comfortable with general biblical truths and doesn’t want the Bible applied closely and personally. But an honest heart wants to know the truth and its implications. An honest heart is saying, “Bring it on.” Three, a deceitful heart notices how well a sermon applies to someone else. But an honest heart is too concerned about itself to think of anyone else. Four, a deceitful heart, when it sees that it isn’t growing, blames its inertia on hardship or even God himself. But an honest heart says, “It’s my fault. I need to get in gear.” Five, a deceitful heart delays response. It says, “I’ll get around to it, even soon. But I can’t right now.” An honest heart puts God first. Delayed obedience is a way of saying, “I’m setting the terms. I’m setting the pace. I am Lord.” But an honest heart says, “Lord, whatever you want – right now.” An honest heart says, with the old hymn,

The dearest idol I have known, whate’er that idol be,
Help me to tear it from thy throne and worship only thee.

Our hearts are deceitful. Our only safety is total openness to God. David tells us how he got there, in verses 3-5:

For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away
     through my groaning all day long. —Psalm 32:3

Hopefully, we are confessing our sins quickly, as soon as we become aware of them. We go to God immediately and say, “Lord, I’m sorry. That was wrong in your sight. Forgive me.” But sometimes we keep silent. We turn away. We hold out. We are stubborn. David did that. He sinned, and then he swept it under the rug. He became a devious man. He had been so honest, as we see elsewhere in the Psalms. But then he started covering up. He acted as if nothing was wrong. He told himself, “I’ve moved on.” He smothered the fire of conscience, but it kept flaring up again. Busying himself, entertaining himself – nothing gave him peace. Why? Because it isn’t over when we declare it over; it’s over when God says it’s over. He wants to forgive. But he will not bless a deceitful heart. He will not bless unconfessed sin. And we can’t be satisfied if we forgive ourselves. We’re free only when God forgives.

What then does God do for anxious, guilty people who aren’t owning up? In mercy and love, God applies pressure:

For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;
     my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. —Psalm 32:4

David’s malaise was not just a psychological state. He says to God, “Your hand was heavy upon me.” No psychologist can remove the hand of God. Only God can lift away the hand of God.

But there is a complication. The devil tries to fake the hand of God. The Bible says, “The Holy Spirit will convict the world of sin and righteousness and judgment” (John 16:8). The Bible also calls Satan “the accuser” (Revelation 12:10). How can we tell the difference between the false accusations of Satan and the true conviction of the Holy Spirit? Here are three differences. One, the Holy Spirit identifies a specific sin I have committed, but the accusations of Satan are vague and global and simply demoralizing. The devil says, “You worthless trash.” But God is fair. God says, “That thought just now, that word, that emotion – that was sin.” Two, the Holy Spirit shows us Christ, the Friend of sinners, but the devil wants us spiraling down into obsessive self-hatred and despair. Three, the Holy Spirit gives us a new dread of sin and a new love of obedience. But the devil offers smug relief, so that we eventually fold our arms and say, “Glad that’s over with.”

When David says, “Your hand was heavy on me” in real conviction, we all know what he’s talking about. It can be so hard to confess a sin. Our pride fights madly against it. So it’s not hard to see why God applies this pressure to our consciences. God wants an honest relationship with us. How could it be otherwise? He is an honest person. The Bible says, God is light and in him is no darkness at all (1 John 1:5). We may be willing to settle for fakey shallowness. But God wants reality with us. In fact, he didn’t even wait for us to get real. He faced our sins for us at the cross. That’s how blunt and realistic God is. So it simply isn’t possible to walk with this God in hypocrisy, with sins lying unconfessed while we smile and pretend. Essential to prayer is a spirit of confession. David finally broke:

I acknowledged my sin to you,
     and I did not cover my iniquity;
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,”
     and you forgave the iniquity of my sin. —Psalm 32:5

God was more ready to forgive David than David was to confess to God. As long as David held out, he was miserable. But when he finally came clean, God quickly forgave. God didn’t say, “You’ve been avoiding me for a year. So you spend a year in the penalty box, and then we’ll talk.” No. God forgave him! The Bible says, “If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins” (1 John 1:9).

In the world today God is creating a community of eager confession. We experience it in church. When we’re living a lie, we feel alone. But when we break, we find many others sharing the same experience of liberation:

Therefore let everyone who is godly
     offer prayer to you at a time when you may be found;
   surely in the rush of great waters,
     they shall not reach him.
You are a hiding place for me;
     you preserve me from trouble;
   you surround me with shouts of deliverance. —Psalm 32:6-7

There is a time when God can be especially found. The time comes, and the time goes, and we must never let it slip away. It comes when God is confronting us with our sins. And that is the best time when God can be found. Let’s take full advantage of the moment. God is opening a door to us, in great mercy. The “rush of great waters” in verse 6 is a flood of judgment. That flood will come. But Christ is a hiding place for fugitives. If you’re in trouble today, you’ve come to the right place to find God. This church is a community of confession. You are surrounded with shouts of deliverance. It’s what you’ve been hearing all through this service. And our deliverance can be yours. Here is what God is offering you and what God wants from you:

I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go;
I will counsel you with my eye upon you.
Be not like a horse or a mule, without understanding,
which must be curbed with bit and bridle,
or it will not stay near you. —Psalm 32:8-9

You might wonder, “Yes, I want to be forgiven. But I want more. I want to change. I don’t want to go back, and I will be tempted.” Good. God knows your need. And he is offering you great tenderness and personal attention. He wants to teach you a new way to live. All he’s asking for is an open heart. You don’t need to be good at it. You only need to be willing. A mule cannot be counseled. You cannot reason with a stubborn mule. It needs a 2×4 upside its head before it will move. And even then it will drag its feet and complain and say “Don’t rush me” and “Why does this matter so much?”, when all God wants is to love that mule. But a mule-like person refuses to be corrected and guided. A mule will not stay near God. A Christian can be mule-like. A whole church can be. But God is saying, “I want you near me because you want to be near me. Will you have me? Will you let me help you? Or are you going to do this your own way?”

Many are the sorrows of the wicked,
     but steadfast love surrounds the one who trusts in the Lord.
Be glad in the Lord, and rejoice, O righteous,
     and shout for joy, all you upright in heart! —Psalm 32:10-11

There is nothing like forgiveness to get us rejoicing. When God says, “That sin that makes you so sad – as far as I’m concerned, it’s gone forever” – when God speaks that word of release into our hearts through the gospel, what a joy! What a joy to be here in church, with so many people who are forgiven, who are lamb-like and not mule-like. Steadfast love is surrounding us. This environment of confession and forgiveness is so different from the world. In the world, a criminal might be pardoned. But he gets out of jail and returns to a society where people wonder about him and talk about him and keep their distance. No one wants to be his friend. No one helps him. He is surrounded not with steadfast love but with negative scrutiny. But the sinner who comes to Christ finds all he needs – a happiness only God can give, here in a community only God can create, and God gives it with all his mighty heart.

Right now, God can be found. Is there anything that’s gotten between you and God? Will you face it and confess it today? He promises to forgive you quickly and help you change.