The NY Times reported something unusual that happened at 112 West 44th Street in Manhattan last year. Two women, Laura Barnett and Sandra Spannan, dressed in white, beckoned people to unburden their souls. Mrs. Barnett would silently flag the attention of someone passing by, and point them to words which had been stenciled on the glass, “Air Your Dirty Laundry. 100% Confidential. Anonymous. Free!”
She would extend a clipboard with a blank sheet of paper and an envelope stamped with the word “secret” to any takers. Hundreds took that clipboard. Executives and street people; couriers and secretaries; shoppers and joggers would pause to write down their sins and secrets, seal it in the envelope, and hand it to Laura Barnett. Meanwhile Mrs. Spannan would quietly paint the portraits of those who stop to divulge their inner secrets.
Once the person is well out of sight, the envelope is opened and the message taped to the glass for all to see. The portraits are posted as well. Those who come by read the confessions of strangers before adding their own. Some of them are silly; some of them are terrible.
“The hermit crab was still alive when I threw it down the trash shoot,” said one. “I want to see SUVS explode. Those people are so selfish,” wrote another. As the day progresses, the once empty glass of the store front is papered like a wall of guilt. “I am dating a married man and getting financial compensation in exchange for the guilt. I’m 25 and he’s a millionaire.” Or another that simply says, “I have AIDS.” (Kathryn Shattuck, "Artists Display Confessions of Passers-By on a 44th Street Storefront," The New York Times (May 6, 2006)
This little storefront experiment revealed many things, but the inescapable fact that surfaced across all generations, income levels, and social standings was that a lot of people are hiding. They are hiding from the police or parents. They are hiding from coaches and teachers. Some are hiding things from bosses, and others are hiding things from spouses. And many people today are hiding from God.
Tell me, am I talking about you? Sitting quietly, all is well on the outside; yet the words I am speaking are opening closets within. Some of us may be hiding something desperately shameful in our past. An abortion. A shady deal. That thing you stole. The adult theater you visited. The impure thoughts that are taking on more strength and are threatening to be played out. No one knows about the scheming, the lying, or the cheating. You cover isn’t blown. You haven’t been caught. But you know it’s there, and my friend, so does God.
There once was a man who blew it big time. He was an ancient king, super-rich and incredibly powerful. He was a smart leader, wise, and as godly as they come. His name is David. In a weak moment, King David of Israel was basically channel surfing on his palace root on a hot spring night. He saw a woman named Bathsheba taking a bath.
Just like pornography draws people in today, David was drawn in. It was Job who wisely said, I have made a covenant with my eyes. How then can I look lustfully upon a young maiden? (Job. 31:1) But David was not thinking about God or purity in that moment. He foolishly lingered and looked.
What he imagined, he demanded. He sent for her and committed adultery with her, even though he know her husband was one of his loyal soldiers, on a military mission on behalf of David’s kingdom. A little while later, David received a message: “I’m pregnant.” Signed “B.” David immediately set to work hiding. He tried to cover his sin by getting her husband, Uriah, to take a leave from battle and come home to his wife. A few days at home between a loving couple and Uriah would conclude that the child was his.
The plot didn’t work. Uriah’s sense of duty was too strong. So in a desperate maneuver David ordered Uriah’s murder, carefully designed to look like a battlefield tragedy. It was the perfect plan. Uriah would receive a hero’s funeral. David would look sympathetic in marrying the grieving widow. No one would question David’s actions. No one pried into his business. He got away with it. “Whew that was a close one!”
Several months later, a prophet named Nathan came to visit David and told him a carefully constructed story of treachery and theft. It’s recorded in 2 Sam. 12:1-4. Listen, I will retell it.
In one of the most stunning moments in Scripture, Nathan then says to David, "You are the man!” After reminding this shepherd-made-king of God’s incredible blessings, Nathan openly states what David had so carefully concealed: “Why then have you despised the command of the LORD by doing what I consider evil? You struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and took his wife as your own wife - you murdered him with the Ammonite's sword. Now therefore, the sword will never leave your house because you despised Me and took the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your own wife.”
"This is what the LORD says, 'I am going to bring disaster on you from your own family: I will take your wives and give them to another [d] before your very eyes, and he will sleep with them publicly. You acted in secret, but I will do this before all Israel and in broad daylight.' "
What happened next doesn’t happen in the chambers of kings and presidents. Plausible deniability, displacement of blame, attacking the critic, or some other tactic is the common method of operation when you’re caught. David did none of that. 2 Sam. 12:13 records that the king, in a moment of brokenness, simply said, "I have sinned against the LORD." To which Nathan responded, “The Lord also has taken away your sin; you will not die. However, because you treated the LORD with such contempt in this matter, the son born to you will die."
Did David deserve to die for what he did? He had sex with another man’s wife, lied, betrayed, and murdered. David himself answers after Nathan’s story: As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die. Heart wrenching consequences would follow, striking not only David and Bathsheba, but innocent people as well who knew nothing of David’s sin.
This slice out of David’s life teaches us something very important: the very best of us fail. Like David, we all have something that we deeply regret, are ashamed of, are embarrassed about, something that has changed us.
Maybe you are wondering in a moment like this: How can I ever recover? How can I erase the guilt? How do I find courage and strength to deal with the consequences? Has God written me off? Well, now I want to take you to the rest of the story. David’s example is here to remind us that we’re all caught red-handed, no matter how well we camouflaged our sin. But he also shows us what happens after he blew it.
If you look at the heading of Psalm 51, you’ll see that it was written after Nathan confronted David with his sin. Like the people in Manhattan, David writes out his private confession down. But unlike those confessions offered to the people of New York, David offers his to God. And get this: His confessional prayer marks out five steps toward spiritual recovery that we can take today. These steps will put you in the spiritual position for God to do His work in your life again. Walk with David the sinner and you will find that God is closer than you think when you’ve blown it big time.
I. Take responsibility for your sin - v. 1-5
Notice that David doesn’t fall into the self-justifying trap of shifting the blame. He doesn’t say, “The devil made me do it,” or “I was just have a bad day.” He point to Bathsheba for bathing on her rooftop or his general for obeying an order he knew was a bad one. He faces the music: it is my iniquity, my sin, my transgressions. David said, “I have twisted and perverted something good into something evil; I have taken aim at a false target; I have trespassed where I am not allowed.”
Down in v. 5 he adds, “Indeed, I was guilty [when I] was born; I was sinful when my mother conceived me.” David believed in that he, like every human being, is born with a bent to sin. This isn’t just an external issue of bad behavior; it’s an internal issue of a nature that pushes for autonomy from God and craves sin. David believed he was bad to the bone.
But he still doesn’t blame his choices on his mother, his heritage, or anyone else. He owns his own choices. He doesn’t try to cut a deal with God or negotiate with his consequences. He comes clean without conditions. In fact, he closes v. 4 by acknowledging to God, You are right when You pass sentence; You are blameless when You judge. This is the first step toward breaking free of the past and renewing your walk with God. You can forget moving forward until this happens.
II. Come clean - v. 1-4
Don’t rationalize, minimize, excuse, or spin what you’ve done. Get real. David lived in denial for a while before he reached this point. Once he realized he hadn’t fooled God, he stopped playing games. These words we just read are desperate, gut-wrenching, offered by a man who seriously misses what he once knew with God.
What happens if you don’t do that - if you just stuff it down, lock it away, and pretend it never happened? Let David will tell you from personal experience. In Ps. 32:2-4, he writes, How happy is the man the LORD does not charge with sin, and in whose spirit is no deceit! When I kept silent, my bones became brittle from my groaning all day long. For day and night Your hand was heavy on me; my strength was drained as in the summer's heat.
David said, “I was a desert. I was all torn up. I was depressed, ached as though dying inside. The weight of my secret was killing me.” Steve Arterburn, a Christian psychologist and pastor, writes that there are really only three reason why you wouldn’t do this first step: a) You’re afraid of losing your reputation; b) You’re afraid of losing your favorite sin; or c) You’re afraid that it might cost you financially, emotionally, or relationally. I don’t know which excuse will keep you in your seat later when we call for honest confession, but if you’re counting the cost of staying silent properly, you’ll follow David’s example.
III: Ask for and receive God’s forgiveness - vv. 1-4, 6-9
Tucked into the first expressions of David’s confession we read, Be gracious to me, O God… blot out my rebellion…Wash away my guilt and cleanse me from my sin. When David cries out for mercy, he is appealing to God’s willingness. When he asks to be for sins to be erased and that he be washed and cleansed, he cries out for God’s work in him to be done. He wants what only God can accomplish - to be totally forgiven.
This is amplified in v. 6-9, where David says, “Surely You desire integrity in the inner self, and You teach me wisdom deep within. Purify me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones You have crushed rejoice. Turn Your face away [a] from my sins and blot out all my guilt.
Hyssop was a little herb that the Jews would dip in blood for use in ritual cleansing. Sin cannot be forgiven without the shedding of blood. Right here, centuries before the cross, we find a veiled reference to Christ crucified. “God an innocent must shed blood for You to forgive me. I don’t understand all that means, but make me clean, whiter than new snow. That brings us to…
IV. Request a fresh work of God’s grace - vv. 10-12
Now clean, David wants to sense again what has not been there for a long time: the presence of God in his life. In v. 10-12, he prays, “God, create a clean heart for me and renew a steadfast [b] spirit within me. Do not banish me from Your presence or take Your Holy Spirit from me. Restore the joy of Your salvation to me, and give me a willing spirit.”
This is a prayer for gladness and freedom to be experienced. When you’re burning up time and energy covering sin, all joy is gone. God seems to be a million miles away. Your prayers don’t work. The Bible seems boring. Church feels dull. But once renewed, David pleads for God to flood him with joy and restore that eager obedience that once marked his motives.
Don’t be worried about v. 11. In the OT, the Holy Spirit did not permanently indwell believers. He came upon them for specific works that fit God’s purposes. David knew what happened to King Saul because of his sin and so wanted to be of use to God again. Pray w/ David, “Father, I want to fellowship with You again. Change me, renew me, transform me, make me willing again.” Spiritual recovery requires you to come clean, to take responsibility for your sin, to ask and receive God’s forgiveness, and pray for His presence and power to once more flow through your life. That brings us to the last step:
V. Resolve to use past failure for future ministry - vv. 13-15
Look at v. 13-15: “Then I will teach the rebellious Your ways, and sinners will ]return to You. Save me from the guilt of bloodshed, God, the God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing of Your righteousness. Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.” This was David saying, “God I want to get back in the game. I want this to be useful for Your purposes so that I can say to someone thinking like I was thinking, ‘Man, it’s not worth it. I’ve been there and have the scars to prove it. There is a better way.”