Sunday, October 23, 2022

Sermon: “Imperfect Confession”, 2 Samuel 11:14-17, 26-27, 12:1-9/Psalm 51 (October 23, 2022)


2 Timothy[1] tells us that “Every scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for showing mistakes, for correcting, and for training character, so that the person who belongs to God can be equipped to do everything that is good.” The idea is, of course, that all scripture has value, and we shouldn’t throw out any passages just because we don’t like them. But in certain contexts, a Bible story hits a little too close to home and becomes harmful to hear. Many people struggle with today’s reading because it elicits painful memories; hearing about David’s terrible choices retraumatizes them. I want to remind these people that just because a passage is useful for teaching doesn’t mean that we’re always in a position to receive its lesson. If this story is difficult for you to sit with, it’s okay to take care of yourself by stepping away from it. Its lesson will still be there if and when it’s not so painful for you to hear.

That being said, today’s passage is a doozy. This is an example of when scripture teaches by demonstrating what NOT to do. Although David was a great king, beloved by God and the people, I think we can all agree that this was not one of his finest moments (to put it mildly). We can’t ignore the fact that David did some absolutely abhorrent things, including trying to hide his sinful actions from God. Obviously, Scripture wants us to learn (or remember) that the choices David makes here are unacceptable, no matter how righteous he may have otherwise been. But that’s not the only lesson we can take from this story. David’s overall ineptitude here also reveals a truth about repentance: that not all confessions are created equal.

We know that the confession of sin is a critical part of our relationship with the divine. That’s why we begin worship with a prayer of confession every week: we want to come before God in transparency and honesty, clearing the air so that nothing stands between us and our creator. If we can’t keep ourselves from sinning (which we can’t), then at least we’re able to take responsibility for what we’ve done and to seek reconciliation with God. David seems to recognize this truth – he DOES admit that he’s “sinned against the Lord” later in verse 13, and Psalm 51 (which was our prayer of confession this morning) is traditionally understood as a song detailing his repentance for his actions in 2 Samuel 11. But as a confession of his sins, this isn’t good enough. David’s feeble effort at atonement leaves much to be desired.

It may not seem so at first glance: Psalm 51 seems sufficiently comprehensive and appropriately remorseful. The prayer itself isn’t bad; this Psalm is a perfectly good general confession. But that’s exactly the problem: it’s generic. When we use it for our collective confession, we make sure to leave space afterwards for us to lift up our individual sins to God. We make a point of acknowledging our specific thoughts, actions, and omissions that have harmed others and displeased God. But David doesn’t bother – his confession in Psalm 51, while lyrical and emotional, also remains vague and impersonal.

According to psychiatrist Dr. Aaron Lazare, there are four parts to a genuine apology: acknowledging and taking responsibility for the offense, explaining what happened without making excuses, expressing remorse, and offering to make amends.[2] David had done some very specific, VERY bad things, and yet the only aspect of a genuine apology that he offered is the expression of remorse. And even that was inadequate: David makes a big show about how he’s sinned against God, but in saying he’s sinned against “[God] alone,” he deliberately minimizes the ways his sins have harmed Bathsheba, Uriah, Joab, and Bathsheba’s newborn son. In light of his especially heinous actions, this is an inexcusably terrible confession.

We can recognize some of our own confessional shortcomings in David’s halfhearted attempt. None of us finds it easy to be completely honest about the true magnitude of our sin. We all struggle to lay the entirety of our wrongdoing before God. Like David, we might overlook those whom we’ve hurt with our sins and ignore our responsibility to make amends. Or we might be willing to confront the sinful ACTIONS we’ve done, but stubbornly refuse to recognize the problematic motivations or attitudes that accompany them. Or we might easily admit our accidental sins while avoiding those that were conscious choices. Or we might say words that communicate repentance without actually acknowledging our sin to ourselves. Every person struggles with confession differently, but every person struggles. Something is always missing. No matter how hard we try, every one of our confessions is imperfect.

But surprisingly, this imperfection is also an opportunity. To understand how, we have to make a brief detour into the world of grammar. Those who have ever studied a language in depth, especially Latin or Greek, know that in addition to the basic tenses (past, present, future), many languages also employ ASPECT to describe actions. An action with PERFECT aspect is one that is bounded by time, fixed, completed: “I confessed”, “I confess”, “I will confess” (one time). But an action with an IMPERFECT aspect is ongoing, progressive, or habitual: “I was confessing,” “I am confessing,” “I will be confessing”. In the colloquial sense, “imperfect” means “faulty” or “flawed”, but grammatically speaking, it can also mean “in progress” or “incomplete”.

This is a really helpful framework for thinking about the act of confession. There’s no question that our confessions are imperfect in the sense of being flawed; sin is so pervasive in humanity that even our confessions aren’t immune from its influence. It’s easy, then, for us to start believing that our repentance is in vain – accomplishing nothing aside from making ourselves feel a little less guilty. But if we reframe the way we think about confession – as an ongoing, unfinished process rather than simply a faulty and therefore futile effort – then it means that God hasn’t given up on us yet, and neither should we. We still have a chance to do better. Reconciliation is always still possible.

Of course, that doesn’t mean there won’t be consequences for our current confessional shortcomings: because David never owned up to his sin completely, I imagine that Bathsheba never really felt safe with her husband, that Joab lost faith in his commander, and that Nathan couldn’t respect the king the same way ever again. But the good news is that our imperfect confession, our incomplete repentance, doesn’t have to define us. It’s never the end of our story. There’s always another opportunity to learn about our own blind spots and lift up these new revelations as part of our ONGOING confession, an offering of newfound humility to our God. Our sin is indeed always before us – but so is the chance to do better.

Every time you confess, challenge yourself to do better than the last time, to face those sins you’d really rather forget. Remember your Bathsheba, the person whose wellbeing you’ve subjugated to your own desires. Remember your Joab, the person whom you’ve made complicit in your sin. Remember your Uriah, the person you’re too ashamed to acknowledge that you’ve harmed so terribly. Remember your Nathan and listen to the voice that won’t let you ignore your wrongdoing. What have you left out? What truth do you need to face?

God doesn’t require us to live a perfect life. What God DOES require is that we keep trying to reform. And that starts with our repentance, imperfect as it is. Your confession may be flawed, but it’s also unfinished. There’s always more to confess, more to own up to, and more to repent, but that never means that you’re beyond redemption. It just means you’re not done yet. So, let’s learn from David’s most terrible mistakes, as well as our own. Let’s continue living imperfectly, confessing imperfectly, repenting imperfectly, because our perfect God will not give up on us. We mustn’t give up either. In our imperfection, there is always, always hope. Amen.


[1] 2 Timothy 3:16-17

No comments:

Post a Comment