How often do you experience joy?
That may be a hard question to answer, but it’s one we should thoughtfully consider. For many of us, it’s difficult to experience joy because of a level of guilt or even shame in our life. Whether it’s a blatant sin or the act of postponing something that we know we should do, there is often something getting in the way of our ability to rejoice.
For King David in Scripture, it was adultery and murder. Hopefully, this isn’t the case for you, but I believe David’s honest confession and plea for forgiveness recorded in Psalm 51 gives us a blueprint for why even sin can’t stand in the way of us experiencing pure joy in the Christian life.
I believe there are four biblical truths that lead to this kind of joy, and they all hinge on repentance. The only way we can move past the shame and guilt produced by our sin is to recognize that we need forgiveness—and God’s forgiveness isn’t something to be earned or accomplished on our own.
How repentance leads to joy:
1. Repentance involves painful self-discovery
The leading Christians throughout the history of the church all understood that repentance was a daily part of the Christian life. But that life starts when blame-shifting and rationalization ends.
David realized this in Psalm 51:3, “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me.” In this verse, he acknowledges the results of his self-discovery, and he’s very much aware of his sin. When you realize the implications of your sin and repent like David, the reality of what you’ve done is at the forefront of your mind. You’re not fooling yourself any more. You’re not burying it and trying to forget it. You become painfully conscious of it—and that’s a good thing.
C.S. Lewis made an interesting observation about people who haven’t awakened to the reality of what the Bible calls sin in their lives. Lewis put it this way: “No man knows how bad he is, till he’s tried very hard to be good.” Lewis’ point is that people who don’t recognize the seriousness of their sin have too easily given into it all of their lives.
If this describes you, my challenge to you is to try really hard to live the life demanded by a perfect and holy Creator God. What you will discover is that you will fail, and the question then becomes, “What are the consequences of that failure?” The only way to deal with the fact that none of us can measure up to perfection is to recognize our sin and repent.
2. Repentance means seeing your sin as treason
Now, that may sound a little strong, but that’s what David is effectively saying when he writes in Psalm 51:4, “Against you, you only God, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.” That statement has confused a lot of people because David certainly sinned against Bathsheba and Uriah, but he isn’t denying that. David is affirming that his sin against those people runs much deeper—it’s sin against God.
There isn’t a single person reading this blog who can say, “I have not done anything to wrong God.” No, because the extent to which you’ve sinned against other people, you’ve also sinned against God. In fact, our sin against God doesn’t even have to involve the mistreatment of others.
Real repentance begins when you begin to experience sorrow and regret over offending a holy and loving God rather than regretting the pain and the inconvenience that your sin has caused you. This is what leads us to daily repentance, which then leads to joy in the Lord and joy in living our Christian lives.
3. Repentance is not about doing more; it’s about becoming undone
Most of us are a sort of “can do” people. I certainly want to be like that. Our instinctive reaction to our need of repentance is to ask a follow-up question: “Ok, what do I need to do?” Our instinctive reaction is to get religious and seek out a list or formula, but that’s exactly what David says God doesn’t want.
In Psalm 51:16, David writes, “You don’t delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.” We think things go badly for us because we haven’t done enough, prayed enough, or read our Bibles enough, but that’s a ruthless treadmill fueled by our own pride and self-righteousness. We want to believe that we can do something about our own sins, that we can pay them off and establish our own standing before God, but that’s false repentance.
True repentance doesn’t center on what you do; it’s the act of becoming undone. And David implies this in Psalm 51:17: “My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.”
When we come to God with a broken heart and spirit, we arrive knowing that we are totally empty-handed. Spiritual brokenness is spiritual poverty. In fact, it’s what Jesus referred to as being “poor in spirit.” It means that you bring absolutely nothing to the table. Now, I know that’s a little hard to swallow, but it’s true. Which brings us to my fourth point …
4. True repentance involves the acceptance of God’s mercy
That’s how David opens this Psalm of repentance in verse 1, “Have mercy on me, O God.” The only thing that David appeals to is God’s mercy, which flies in the face of what so many people think repentance is. We want to think of it as a bargain—as long as I perform my side of the deal, God will perform his side. But that’s not present in Psalm 51, nor is it found anywhere else in Scripture.
David doesn’t appeal to how well he’s done. He knows he failed. He doesn’t suggest that God somehow “owes him one.” God doesn’t owe him—or us for that matter—anything. The only basis for our coming to God is his mercy alone, his unconditional divine favor.
But how can David appeal with confidence to God’s mercy? The answer is simple: David knows that God is God. He knows that the Lord is a God of unfailing love and great compassion. And that’s a comforting truth, which should remind us that God has bound himself to us, his people. His love never fails.
Where did David see God’s mercy and unfailing love? And where do you and I see it? How will it change our lives today? Preeminently, David saw it in God’s acceptance of the sacrifice of an innocent for the guilty—and you know who that is. It happened when God sent his own Son, Jesus Christ to die on the cross. That’s the true basis of our joy when we come to the Lord and repent. We hang onto the cross where we find deliverance from our shame and guilt. It’s then—and only then—that we finally find our pure joy.
“Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.” – Psalm 51:10
As the leader of the Haven Ministries, Charles Morris is always thinking of ways to lead Christians and non-Christians to Christ—hence the familiar slogan, “Telling the great story … it’s all about Jesus.” A former secular journalist, Charles has worked for United Press International, and as a press secretary for two former U.S. senators. He and his wife, Janet, have authored several books, including Missing Jesus. Charles’ latest book is Fleeing ISIS, Finding Jesus: The Real Story of God At Work.
Most of the thoughts above are taken from broadcasts of Haven Today. Corum Hughes serves as the editor of this blog and coordinator for Haven’s social media content. A graduate of Moody Bible Institute, Corum lives in Boise, ID with his wife Molly.