The Joy of Forgiveness

A Reflection on Psalm 32 by Canon Rob,
26th February 2023, the First Sunday of Lent

I am pretty sure that all of us who read and reflect upon this psalm will know what it is to feel guilty. Guilt can be a very heavy burden and, sadly, many carry it for years and suffer because of it, both mentally and physically. However, this beautiful psalm offers the assurance that forgiveness awaits us and when received brings joy and a blessed relief. As you reflect upon today’s psalm, you may find it helpful to look at the picture above which shows the Prodigal Son returning to his father and being forgiven by him. The eye contact between them and the hug they share says it all. [See Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15.11-32.] Psalm 32 is perfect for the beginning of Lent. There will be other psalms, asking for forgiveness, to be said or sung during this season of repentance, but this one is special not least because the first verse encourages us not to be miserable during these forty days: “Happy the one whose transgressions are forgiven, and whose sin is covered.” As Jane Williams says in the introduction to her book we are invited to consider during Lent, “…we are preparing to meet and to recognise the mercy of God….which means returning home, like the Prodigal Son, to find God waiting, with arms outstretched, to welcome us home to the feast that is laid for us.”  Knowing we are forgiven, Lent helps us prepare for the joy which is to come!

God’s forgiveness is offered freely. However, it is not to be received lightly. It ought to lead to a change in attitude, even behaviour. Psalm 32 reminds us of this. In verse 2 we read, “Happy the one….in whose spirit there is no guile.” Or in the Good News version, “…who is free from all deceit.” Here, deceit means being crafty, or perhaps, “trying to pull the wool over God’s eyes.” Not that we can of course, as God knows us completely. But the author of the psalms knows we might be tempted to try – just as Adam and Eve tried to hide from God in the Garden of Eden after they disobeyed the Lord. [See Genesis 3.]

Verse 3, in the translation in Common Worship, may not be the most helpful: “For I held my tongue; my bones wasted away.” The New Revised Standard Version is better: “While I kept silence, my body wasted away.” The ‘silence’ refers to not confessing, even refusing to admit a sin, and the physical effect is graphically described as you will be able to picture in your mind if you pause to think about the “body wasted away” through guilt. In other words, the life was sucked out of him! However, the remedy quickly follows as the outcome of confession is revealed in verse 6: “you (the Lord) forgave the guilt of my sin.” Making his confession becomes the turning point and most of the rest of the psalm is an encouragement to all who read it and reflect upon it.

Firstly, in verses 7 and 8, the forgiven sinner encourages his readers to follow his example. “Therefore let all the faithful make their prayer to you in time of trouble….” Then, in verses 9 and 10, the Lord is speaking, reassuring those who hear. “I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go……” Clearly the Lord does not abandon sinners! On the contrary, He guides and cares for them. Finally, the last two verses, begin with a warning to those who do not learn the lesson which the writer has learned: “Great tribulations remain for the wicked…” However, those who follow his example find that, “…mercy embraces those who trust in the Lord. ” Gladness and joy are expressed in the last verse. The lesson the author has learned has been difficult-admitting we have sinned is seldom easy-but it has been a life-changing lesson. The same can be true for us and this season of Lent is a time to experience the gladness and joy too!

Have  mercy on your prodigal children, O God, and teach us to acknowledge our sinfulness,
so that, in repentance, we may come to know your forgiveness,
which is the fulfilment of our life in your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
[Prayer at the end of Psalm 32 in ‘Common Worship, Daily Prayer’]

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