In February 1995, I confessed my sins publicly in front of 500 fellow students at the University of Texas at Austin. This took place at a concert of prayer sponsored by a parachurch campus ministry. Standing on the auditorium stage of a large classroom, I confessed the sins of lust, pride, impatience, anger, and others I have now forgotten. While I had previously confessed my sins to a pastor or a group of friends, I had never confessed my sins publicly. (It is rather terrifying.)
Everyone, of course, has a secret. For some it is an addictive behavior. For others it is an abusive or traumatic experience that may only intensify feelings of shame. For still others it is the fear of being rejected, the lust for power, an uncontrollable temper, emotional infidelity, a vicious prejudice, an insatiable jealousy of others, repeated acts of self-indulgence, and so on.
Whatever they may be, with our secrets we hide. We hide from others, and we hide from ourselves. Ultimately, we hide from God, and in our hiding, we choose darkness over light, we embrace death instead of life, and we elect to be lonely rather than to be relationally at home with others.
The psalms understand the human condition. In them we see a mirror of humanity at its best and at its worst. We see our very selves reflected back, “be he a faithful soul or be he a sinner,” as Athanasius once described the experience of looking at the psalms. If we wish to flourish in our God-given calling, then, our secrets must be brought into the light so we are no longer governed by their corrosive and destructive power.
And if we desire to be truly alive, we must abandon all our efforts not just to hide our secrets but also to justify them. This is what the psalms help us to do: to tell our secrets faithfully.
Coming Out from Hiding
To share our secrets with another person naturally requires a great deal of courage. It requires an ability to trust others in ways that few of us feel safe to do. It requires an extraordinary ability to believe that others will not take advantage of our vulnerable disclosure—by judging us unfairly, by rejecting us, or by gossiping about us—and that we will not be undone by our confession. As the psalms see it, telling our secrets to God requires perfect honesty.
In theological terms, to be open and unafraid with God is to counter the devastating effects of our primordial sin. When Adam and Eve sinned, their first impulse was to hide. In making clothes for themselves, they hid their bodies. When they heard the sound of their Maker’s voice, they hid from God. In their telltale lies, they hid from the truth. And in their mutual accusations, they hid from each other. All the ways in which Adam and Eve hid resulted in one thing: their dehumanization.
Like Adam and Eve, when we hide from God, we become alienated from God and thus spend our strength trying to transcend life’s limits. When we hide from others, we cut ourselves off from the gift of community. When we hide from creation, we deny our God-ordained creaturely nature and often seek to exploit rather than to care for his handiwork. And when we hide from ourselves, we become strangers to ourselves through selfish, self-indulgent behavior that ultimately does violence to our nature as humans made in God’s image.
What the psalms offer is help to un-hide: to stand honestly before God without fear, to face one another vulnerably without shame, and to encounter life in the world without any of the secrets that would demean and distort our humanity. The psalms, then, are for those who know that they spend much of their life hiding secrets; they are also for those who know that they cannot hide these secrets from God.
The psalms invite us, thus, to stand in the light, to see ourselves truly, and to receive the reformative work of God through the formative words of the psalmist, so that we might be rehumanized in Christ.
The Lord’s Searching Gaze
Psalm 139 is the paradigmatic psalm of the honest person. There is nothing the psalmist hides from God. “You have looked deep into my heart, Lord, and you know all about me” (v. 1, CEV). It is a cleansing and healing self-disclosure. To be known by God through and through—nothing hidden (v. 15), nothing excused (v. 23)—is beyond the psalmist’s capacity to fully grasp.
It is only in standing open before God in this way, naked like a baby and unashamed as the beloved of God (vv. 13–16), that the psalmist discovers his truest identity. “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (v. 14). In the psalmist’s waking hours and asleep at night, the Lord is there (vv. 2–3). No height, no depth, not the darkest night, not a secret thought, neither heaven nor hell—none of these things can hide the psalmist from the Lord’s searching gaze (vv. 8–12). He cannot escape the Lord’s presence (v. 7).
Nor does he wish to. The psalmist feels as precious as all the Lord’s thoughts toward him (v. 17); he is secure in the Lord’s sovereign care (v. 16). All the days of his life are seen by God. It is for that reason that the psalmist welcomes his (often terrifying) scrutiny. “Investigate my life, O God, find out everything about me; cross-examine and test me, get a clear picture of what I’m about” (v. 23, The Message).
This is the way that leads to wholeness. And we walk it by praying in the manner that the psalms model for us: praying our honest joys and our honest sorrows; praying our honest praise of God and our honest anger at God; praying for honest speech in our words to God. With the psalmist we pray that God will protect our tongues from deceit (Ps. 34:13). We pray that we resist the urge to gossip and flatter (12:3), and that we choose to live with integrity (41:12), rejecting words that both inflate and deflate us before God (Ps. 32).
To pray in this way is to keep ourselves open to others and to God. In refusing the temptation to hide, we refuse the temptation to use words as a cover-up. We speak plainly, trustingly. When we do this, we find ourselves praying freely to God, in a way that frees us. The Psalter understands, of course, that we do not often succeed at this kind of speech and prayer, and so it repeatedly welcomes the penitent to confess to God, in the hearing of God’s people:
Blessed is the one whose transgressions are forgiven,
whose sins are covered.
Blessed is the one whose sin the Lord does not count against them
and in whose spirit is no deceit. (32:1–2)
The psalmist describes the experience of “keeping silent” about sin as a kind of disintegration. His bones turn to powder (32:3); his energy dissipates, “as in the heat of summer” (v. 4); he risks returning to the dust (22:15). But when he honestly confesses his sin, the Lord forgives him. And instead of “covering up” his sin, God now covers it (32:1, 5), and instead of hiding from God, God now becomes his “hiding place” (v. 7).
Praying Who We Actually Are
If honesty is the capacity to speak truthfully to God, sincerely to others, and without any lie about the world in its real condition, then the psalms invite us to honest prayer about all things, not just the things we suffer or regret. We pray honestly about our bouts of depression (Ps. 88). We pray honestly about our hate (Ps. 137). We pray honestly about our experiences of trust, thanksgiving, and joy (Pss. 23; 46; 27; 91).
We pray honestly about God’s trustworthy character, the wonder of creation (Ps. 104), the beauty of torah (Ps. 119), and the virtue of wisdom (Pss. 37; 49; 112). We pray it all, as Eugene Peterson encourages us:
It is easy to be honest before God with our hallelujahs; it is somewhat more difficult to be honest in our hurts; it is nearly impossible to be honest before God in the dark emotions of our hate. So we commonly suppress our negative emotions (unless, neurotically, we advertise them). Or, when we do express them, we do it far from the presence, or what we think is the presence, of God, ashamed or embarrassed to be seen in these curse-stained bib overalls. But when we pray the psalms, these classic prayers of God’s people, we find that will not do. We must pray who we actually are, not who we think we should be.
When we pray the psalms by the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit, we pray not just who we actually are but also who we can and shall be by grace. As Athanasius sees it, the psalms not only enable us to be wholly ourselves before God, but also to be wholly our true selves. This is only possible, he argues, because Christ himself makes it possible. Before coming among us, Athanasius writes, Christ sketched the likeness of true humanity for us in the psalms. In praying them, then, we experience the healing and reformation of our humanity.
The good news for the follower of Jesus is that the decision to be honest to God does not result in self-absorption or self-hatred. Grace has the last word, not sin, as the German theologian Karl Barth rightly reminds us.
“We are forbidden,” Barth writes, “to take sin more seriously than grace, or even as seriously as grace.” Why? Because God in Christ does not take sin more seriously than grace, even if it remains true that God takes sin with deadly seriousness. We can be honest about the best and worst parts of our human condition, because we know that the grace of God precedes our honest confessions, undergirds our honest thanksgivings, and follows our honest laments.
What happens when we pray the psalms under the light of God’s grace? We become free to pray with abandonment because we have abandoned ourselves to this gracious God. And because Jesus comes to us “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14), we can be confident that we shall be found and filled with grace. We, too, can pray daring prayers because we trust that Jesus himself prays them with us and in us by the power of his Spirit.
Open, Unafraid, and Free
To this day, I regret neglecting to keep the piece of paper on which I had written the 11 sins I had confessed to both friends and strangers at the University of Texas. I also regret the failure of courage I experience repeatedly in my resistance to honest confession. That’s why I return again and again to the psalms. They show me how to be honest to God, they retrain me to be honest with God’s people, and they remind me how deeply good it feels to be this open, unafraid, and free.
“The Psalms make it possible,” writes Bible scholar John Goldingay, “to say things that are otherwise unsayable. In church, they have the capacity to free us to talk about things that we cannot talk about anywhere else.” Hebrew scholar Ellen Davis says something similar when she writes that the psalms “enable us to bring into our conversation with God feelings and thoughts most of us think we need to get rid of before God will be interested in hearing from us.”
If the common saying within recovery ministries is true, that we are only as sick as the secrets we keep, then the secrets we keep rob us of vitality. But when they are brought into the gracious light of God, they no longer hold a destructive power over us, and a space is made for God, who “knows the secrets of the heart,” to rehumanize us (Ps. 44:21).
One of the great benefits of the psalms, Athanasius believed, is that in reading them “you learn about yourself.” You see all your failures and recoveries, all your ups and downs. You see yourself as both saint and sinner.
But the psalms are not only interested in helping us to be open and unafraid before God; they also help us to be open and unafraid with the people of God: vulnerable, porous, freed, fully alive. And in seeing ourselves in this way, honestly, with others, we find ourselves being reformed by the love of God.
Adapted from Open and Unafraid: The Psalms as a Guide to Life, by W. David O. Taylor. Copyright © 2020 by W. David O. Taylor. Used by permission of Thomas Nelson. www.thomasnelson.com
224 pp., 14.39
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