1Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
2Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin.
3For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
4Against 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.
5Indeed, I was born guilty,
a sinner when my mother conceived me.
6You desire truth in the inward being;
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
7Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
8Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
9Hide your face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.
10Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
11Do not cast me away from your presence,
and do not take your holy spirit from me.
12Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and sustain in me a willing spirit.
13Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
and sinners will return to you.
14Deliver me from bloodshed, O God,
O God of my salvation,
and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance.
15O Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth will declare your praise.
16For you have no delight in sacrifice;
if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased.
17The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the season of Lent—a season of repentance and conversion as we prepare for the celebration of Christ’s resurrection. During Lent we are particularly attentive to the sin and depravity that separate us from God and one another. And in the church, that attentiveness is often heavily seasoned by feelings of guilt and failure.
To a certain degree, a particular sense of guilt and failure is an appropriate response to an increased awareness of our sin (v. 17). On the other hand, it is not an end in itself. The Christian faith is not about feeling bad for our failures (though preachers often use our bad feelings to “encourage” change); rather, the Christian faith is about disciplining ourselves for a better future—in a word: hope.
Notice the verbs in Psalm 51. The psalmist starts with wash, cleanse, and purge but does not end there. By the time we get to verse 10, the psalmist moves toward future-oriented prayers: create, restore, deliver.
So that “my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance” (v. 14).
If we use the season of Lent merely to focus on our sin and failures, we miss what is most important. Awareness of our wrongdoing is only useful inasmuch as it drives us toward a more faithful future. We look at where we have been, we look at where we are, and we use the knowledge of our past and present to help us orient toward where we are going: a future of greater faithfulness.
As the season of Lent progresses this year, do not hesitate to be honest about where you have been over the past year (or where you are right now), but never forget to look forward, that God may open your lips, that your mouth will declare God’s praise” (v. 15).
Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner.
Open my eyes, that I may see my transgressions and their consequences with clarity, open my heart, that I may know the depth and breadth of your grace, and open my mind, that I may begin to recognize your will for my life.
Through your Holy Spirit, grant me the courage to embrace the priorities of your kingdom even when they seem foreign to me, that you may be glorified in all I say and do. Amen.
Tim TenClay is an RCA pastor serving the Waldensian churches of Palermo (La Noce), Marsala, and Trapani on the Island of Sicily (Italy). He is the husband of RCA missionary JJ TenClay and the father of two daughters. Although pastoring three churches keeps him busy, he is an avid (albeit slow) bike rider and an enthusiastic knitter.