Prayer #8: Sin, Confession, and the Joy of Forgiveness

How joyful is the one
whose transgression is forgiven,
whose sin is covered!
How joyful is a person whom
the Lord does not charge with iniquity
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[a]
as in the summer’s heat.Selah
Then I acknowledged my sin to you
and did not conceal my iniquity.
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,”
and you forgave the guilt of my sin.Selah

Therefore let everyone who is faithful pray to you immediately.[b]
When great floodwaters come,
they will not reach him.
You are my hiding place;
you protect me from trouble.
You surround me with joyful shouts of deliverance.Selah

I will instruct you and show you the way to go;
with my eye on you, I will give counsel.
Do not be like a horse or mule,
without understanding,
that must be controlled with bit and bridle
or else it will not come near you.

Many pains come to the wicked,
but the one who trusts in the Lord
will have faithful love surrounding him.
Be glad in the Lord and rejoice,
you righteous ones;
shout for joy,
all you upright in heart.

Psalm 32:1-11

I want to talk about a kind of prayer that maybe we don’t talk about so much and why it’s important. I want to talk about prayers of confession. And, of course, this means coming to God and confessing our sin to him. Maybe one of the reasons we don’t talk about prayers of confession much is because “sin” is a bad word, sometimes even in church. We don’t think of other people or even ourselves as “sinful.” People are basically good—or at least a lot of people think so.

Another reason is how individualistic we are in our faith. My sin is between me and God. And while that’s true to an extent, it’s also true that our sin affects other people, sometimes in ways we’re not always aware of. Not only that, but there’s also such a thing as corporate sin.

And even for those who are Christians, who have faith in Christ, we still need to experience cleansing and forgiveness. 1 John 1:8 says: If we say, “We have no sin,” we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us. So it’s both important to recognize sin for what it is and to know what to do about it. This is where prayers of confession are important.

We’re looking at Psalm 32. Notice in verses 1—2 how the psalmist starts. How joyful is the one whose transgression is forgiven! And he is joyful because he has experienced the forgiveness of God. This psalm, though it is about confession and forgiveness, is deliberately bracketed by expressions of joy and rejoicing. At the end of the psalm in verse 11 it says: Be glad in the Lord and rejoice, you righteous ones; shout for joy, all you upright in heart. In Psalm 51, David’s most famous psalm of confession (about David’s adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of Uriah in 2 Samuel 11—12), he prays Restore the joy of your salvation to me. The greatest joy we can know is in knowing and loving and having fellowship with God—and this entire psalm is about having that fellowship renewed.

This is such a powerful and important point. Who among us doesn’t want to experience joy? Haven’t you ever had a person in your life forgive you? Isn’t it such an incredible relief? Doesn’t the relationship feel joyful again? We’re invited to have that with the Creator of the universe!

These days the word “sin” is sort of a bad word, one we’re afraid to use because it sounds judgmental and unloving. We don’t want to believe we’re guilty of anything. We don’t want to believe that we (or anyone) is actually bad—in fact, on the whole most people believe that human beings are basically good and that we’re naturally inclined to do what is right. There’s no sense that we deserve God’s condemnation or judgment. But John 3:19 says: People loved darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil.

In Psalm 32:1—2 there are different words for sin used, in order to highlight different aspects of sin. The first (transgression) highlights rebellion, the second (sin) a deliberate offense, and the third (iniquity) highlights going astray, and the fourth (deceit) highlights falsehood or hypocrisy. We need to have a fuller, deeper understanding of sin that isn’t only about specific wrong acts, but a disposition or posture of our hearts that leads to sinful action or inaction. Sin is living in a way that is contrary to God’s purposes for us and which both harm us and those around us.

In verses 3—4 David paints a vivid picture of what it’s like to live with unconfessed sin. He talks about his bones being brittle, about groaning all day long. Look at this description, one that we can all probably identify with: my strength was drained, as in the summer’s heat. There is a deep sense of guilt and suffering that comes with holding onto sin and holding God at arm’s length—with keeping silent. We might do this out of fear. We might do this out of pride. We do not naturally want to face up to our sin, so either we avoid it or we excuse it or make light of it. But there are consequences when we don’t address the sin in our lives. Notice where he says of God that your hand was heavy upon me. David has experienced conviction but has yet to take the step of confession. More than anything, sin creates an obstacle to fellowship and friendship with God. Unconfessed sin blocks the joy of fellowship with God.

In verse 5 we see the route the psalmist took to experience the joy with which he opened the psalm. Then I acknowledged my sin to you and I did not conceal my iniquity. I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord.” And what happens? You forgave the guilt of my sin.

Having grown up Roman Catholic, I grew up having a built-in opportunity for confession. There was something significant about confessing your sins to someone else, even if we don’t think we have to do so before a pastor or priest. My point is that we’ve almost completely individualized confession. Even in our services, we don’t have corporate prayers of confession and the assurance of forgiveness. It makes me wonder if there’s something we’re missing. How many people come to church on Sunday with feelings of guilt and shame that never get addressed? With sin that’s never properly dealt with?

Confession is not about giving God information he doesn’t already have. It’s about facing up to ourselves, being honest, about seeking restoration in our relationship with God. It’s about recognizing that there are ways of living, of making choices, of relating to people around us that do not honor God and represent his will for us. It’s also about realizing that only in living according to God’s purposes for us can we know true joy, the fullness of joy, because this consists in fellowship with him. And look at the impact—the healing power—of forgiveness: Therefore let everyone who is faithful pray to you immediately. When great floodwaters come, they will not reach him . . . You surround me with joyful shouts of deliverance.

In James 5:16 it says: Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. Now, James is talking not only about physical healing, but spiritual healing. Notice that he tells them to confess their sins to one another. There is a healing power to confessing your sins to another person. It’s important to have someone in your life who you can trust with the real you.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “A man who confesses his sins in the presence of a brother knows that he is no longer alone with himself; he experiences the presence of God in the reality of the other person.” 1 John 1:9 is probably the most well-known verse on this: If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. There is no question that the one who sincerely confesses to God, trusting in what Christ has done, will receive forgiveness. We’re called on in Scripture to examine ourselves, to look into our hearts for what might be creating an obstacle between ourselves and God. Make this into a prayer: “Lord, if there is anything in me that displeases you and is keeping me from walking with you faithfully, please give me eyes to see.” While we will never get over our need for confession this side of eternity, what should always be a source of joy is that we have a Savior whose desire and power to forgive can never be exhausted.

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