It’s been a crazy week. I’ve had my first proper week at work. I’ve started to learn loads, I’ve written blogs for the Collective and for Threads. I’ve caught up with old friends and new friends over lunches, drinks, dinners, parties, church, even tennis. We’ve started to get our house how we want it (the new beanbag/tv room is amazing). And it’s about to happen all over again this coming week.
While I get used to London life, I think I’m going to have to grab a few minutes where I can to stop and reflect. It was on the tube on the way to work one day this week that I managed to find those few minutes. If I’m honest, I haven’t fit in much time for the Bible recently, and praying has been mostly “make it go away…” (when I was on the way to get my travel jabs), “please help…” (almost every time I’ve been asked to do something at work) and often “sorry…” (most mornings). So as I had a seat on the tube for 20 minutes, I thought I’d open my Bible, and as I often do when I feel a bit distant from God and guilty about it, I turned to Psalm 51.
(As an aside, the Old Testament scholar in me would be tempted to start analysing when and for what purpose Psalm 51 was written, it’s form critical category and all that jazz, but a) that would be dull, and b) when I read Psalms for myself, not for an essay, I tend to take their context as the ascription says, so in this case, that it was what David wrote after he’d committed adultery with Bathsheba. Whatever the historical truth of that, my understanding of Scripture is that this is the context passed down us to help us understand the Psalm best, and that historicity is not the only thing that makes something valuable.)
As Psalm 51 is my go to passage when I’ve done something wrong, I feel like I’ve read it millions of times. I don’t know what particularly made it different this time, but something in me could feel what David must have felt in that situation.
He’d massively screwed up and he knew it. He was a powerful man who was discovering just what his power could get him. He’d been caught in a moment, in a heady mix of power and lust and temptation and possibility. He’d seen Bathsheba, he’d wanted Bathsheba, and he didn’t stop until he had Bathsheba. As is so often the case with such a big mistake, the mess only got worse as he tried to cover his tracks, and one thing led to another, and before he knew it a man was dead.
I can imagine the feeling. I might not have killed anyone, but I know that feeling. That absolutely gut wrenching, sick to the pit of your stomach, would do literally anything if you could just take this back, feeling. That complete disbelief that you could sink so low, and yet the awful understanding of your deepest self that knows you’ve always been capable of this. I know the feeling.
When that’s me, my plea to God is usually, “don’t let anyone find this out. Don’t let this get worse. Don’t let me lose absolutely everyone I know and love.” My plea is just to survive it. If I were in David’s position, when Nathan the prophet came and confronted him about what he’d done, I’d be pleading with God to stay alive. I’d be that terrified.
So what David asks for in Psalm 51 is something remarkable. In fact, it’s a whole string of remarkable requests. Psalm 51 is a massive ask from someone who deserves nothing.
He asks for complete forgiveness. Just like that. For the worst thing he’s ever done to be simply forgotten. Blotted out. Washed away. He asks to be made perfectly clean.
More than that, he asks for joy again, joy and gladness. He asks to be in the presence of God, to keep God’s Spirit in him, to be sustained by God. He asks for a pure heart, a new spirit. He asks to become someone who teaches other people, who leads people back to God, to be a worship leader in the city of God.
For a guy who doesn’t have a leg to stand on, this is a big ask. It’s beyond cheeky. It seems presumptuous, arrogant almost. How can someone who must be feeling that awful, sickening regret that I know so well, have the balls to ask all this from God?
As I sat there on the Northern Line the other morning, something important struck me.
We can’t out-ask God’s mercy.
David could make these outrageous requests at such a time, because he knew the extent of God’s grace. He could never ask more than God’s grace was prepared to give. I can never ask too much, however gut-wrenching it feels. I can’t get my head around how unlimited, complete and perfect God’s love for me is, I just can’t. I can’t quantify it, imagine it or explain it. But what David knew, and what I can try to know (by telling myself over and over again) is that I’ll never come to the end of it. And when I need mercy and grace, I can never ask for more than God wants to give.
It’s a massive ask. But God’s mercy is much more massive.