It was traditionally believed that King David wrote Psalm 51, the famous Miserere, after his affair with Bathsheba. Beside this affair, the dalliances of U.S. President Bill Clinton might seem relatively minor.
Having spied a naked Bathsheba bathing on her balcony, David had her sent for and had sex with her. When he learned that she was pregnant, he eventually had her husband, Uriah the Hittite, sent into battle in such a way that he was sure to be killed. Sin piled upon sin piled upon sin.
But the prophet Nathan confronted David with the evil he had done in such a way that he could not avoid seeing its horror. In great sorrow, David repented of his sin and turned back to God.
Scripture scholars now believe Psalm 51 was not written about David's repentance. But it is, however, an agonizing lament of a sinner who sees his sin clearly. He does not try to minimize his guilt, pass the buck or blame his accusers. "My offences, truly I know them; my sin is always before me," he laments.
What is perhaps most interesting about this psalm is the sinner's acknowledgement that his sin was not just a passing occurrence which can easily be forgotten. Rather, his sin has defiled his entire soul and his life will not be put aright until he receives mercy. He needs to be purified, washed, made "whiter than snow." He cannot do it himself; this cleansing can only come from outside himself, from God.
In reflecting on this psalm, moral theologian Germain Grisez writes, "Redemption requires not merely the washing away of a superficial stain, not only a thorough cleansing of ground-in dirt, but even a re-creation of the entire inner self" (Christian Moral Principles, p. 312). The Liturgy of the Hours supports this view by prefacing Psalm 51 with Ephesians 4:23-24: "Your inmost being must be renewed, and you must put on your new self."
The perennial temptation of the sinner is to believe that his sin has no lasting effect on him. It is almost as though the sin was something that happened to him, not something done by him. Sure, it feels dirty, but that feeling will go away with time.
In reality, we determine our very being by our actions. Our freely-chosen deeds, both good and bad, endure. By our choices, we make ourselves good or bad. Further, sin is not a violation of some arbitrarily contrived law; it is a turning away from the goodness to which God calls us. Through even one mortal sin, we put ourselves outside the circle of God's friendship.
Just as our morally good choices draw us closer to God, so do our morally bad choices put us on a spiral further and further away from God's holy presence. The Catechism of the Catholic Church notes that "Sin creates a proclivity to sin. . . . Sin tends to reproduce itself and reinforce itself" (no. 1865).
As in David's adultery and disposing of Uriah, sin creates situations difficult to escape without sinning again. Sin is also habit-forming; one sin fosters a disposition to sin again. Or, minor sins like the pursuit of self-indulgence may nurture a desire which one becomes determined to feed through ever-greater violations of what is good.
Eventually one may choose to commit mortal sin and remain in it. One may resist inner promptings to repent. One may, even knowing his sin, believe that God will overlook it. Or, one may believe that God would never forgive the heinous deeds one has done. One can become so hardened in one's sins that the possibility of repentance appears ever more remote. One is sinning against the Holy Spirit.
But repentance and forgiveness are always possible. God's arms are always open, even to the prodigal son who moved to a different land and lived among the pigs. We can be far, far from God and then suddenly transplanted back into his presence if we but admit our sin, seek his forgiveness and then resolve to steadfastly live in his presence.
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