We’ve all been there.
We’ve all had the experience of seeing the foulness of our sin with unusual clarity, of coming before God’s holiness full of the shame our sin deserves. And, of course, the only appropriate response on our part in such cases is broken repentance. Yet many have been the times where we joined that brokenness and repentance with a heartsick desperation over the circumstances our sin has caused in our lives. We feel besieged by those circumstances and badly want to seek God’s help with them, but are afraid to ask. We tell ourselves that our circumstances are of our own doing and that it would be hypocritical to ask for forgiveness for the sin AND help undoing its carnage in our lives.
So is it? Is it possible to be at the same time repentant and also to boldly ask for relief from sin’s consequences? Or does God’s grace for our sin stop only at the point of forgiveness? Are we on our own after that?
“O Lord, rebuke me not in your anger, nor discipline me in your wrath!” – Ps. 38:1 (ESV)
Psalm 38 opens with those jarring words. Caught in the web of his sin, the psalmist cries out, “Lord, do not discipline me!” The words become even more jarring and, yes, blunt as the psalmist continues to pour out his heart. It becomes clear as the verses continue that the psalmist accepts full blame for his sin and its circumstances (My wounds stink and fester because of my foolishness [v.5]); that he is repentant and asking for forgiveness (I confess my iniquity; I am sorry for my sin [v. 18]); but that he is plainly asking for God to spare Him the earthly consequences of his sin (Make haste to help me, O Lord, my salvation! [v. 22]).
So what is clear is that not only did the psalmist believe it was possible to be repentant of a sin and (AT THE SAME TIME!) to ask for mercy in dealing with that same sin’s consequences, he was counting on God hearing his cry. There is a part of me that feels like I shouldn’t be writing about this; that feels like we need to keep Psalm 38 under wraps lest people find out about it and start trying to take advantage of God. But I’ll confess something else.
There is a bigger part of me that’s glad Psalm 38 is there.
Grace has always had a scandalous reputation. Grace’s detractors have always worried that its message would lead people to believe that grace was a license to sin. And to be sure, some misguided folks do use it as just such a license. But the bible is uniformly uncompromising on this truth: Grace is the sacred ground chosen by a Holy God on which to meet AND to continue to meet with His people. So God no more intends for me to deal with sin’s consequences on my own than He expects for me to merit forgiveness on my own. It is not, therefore, hypocritical to ask for forgiveness for a sin and for help in dealing with its consequences.
I have prayed similar prayers in my life and God benevolently forgave me of my sin and rescued me its consequences. But there have also been times when God benevolently forgave my sin preserved me through its consequences. Permission to pray such a prayer doesn’t mean that God is obligated to respond favorably to our request. It just means that, even when we sin, we remain God’s children. We know that we are His children because we are sickened when we realize the presence of sin in our lives and immediately repentant; something we couldn’t be if we weren’t God’s children.
And because we are His children, we can cry out for His mercy even when our situation is entirely our fault. There may be times when we receive the relief we are looking for. There may be times when that relief is withheld so that the difficulties our sin brings us become a tutor that teaches us the importance of living a holy life. But by all means, as His child, don’t be afraid to ask.
Just trust that He answers you with what accomplishes His very best for your life.