“Ever before me”
Jer 31:31-34, Ps 51:1-12
by Isaac S. Villegas
March 25, 2012
“To the leader: a psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.” That’s the introduction to Psalm 51. There’s a story here, behind the prayer, a familiar story.
David, the king of Israel, is not an evil man. He isn’t like king Saul, his predecessor. That was the bad king. David is the good king. He’s different. Or, at least that’s what everyone thought, probably even David himself.
But that’s not how his life turned out. He became what he was not. He started to live a lie. He commits adultery, which starts him down a path of deceit, of covering up what he had done. One thing leads to another, and he ends up having Bathsheba’s husband killed. He uses his position to cover up his sin, to keep it a secret. With his power he commits murder: an attempt to silence the truth, to deny what he has become. “He has the power to kill without having to admit it even to himself.” David tries to hide from who he is, from who he is becoming. But, as soon as he starts down his path of deceit, he becomes his own prisoner, bound up in a lie, restricted, enslaved, always worried about covering up his trail.
But, as the introduction the Psalm says, “the prophet Nathan came to him”; and with prophet’s word, David is able to pull his life back into focus. He comes to see himself again, without illusions, without deception, without all the lies. “Thou art the man,” Nathan says to him, and David can no longer run from who he has become, he can no longer deny what he has done. He is, in a sense, set free, liberated. Now, after Nathan draws David into the light of truth, David can say, “My sin is ever before me” (Ps. 51:3).
I’ve been teaching a class on spiritual autobiography, on memoir, in prison. We read books like Traveling Mercies by Ann Lamott and The Autobiography of Malcolm X, among others; and for their major assignment they write an essay about an important moment in their lives, or about something that they can’t forget, or an episode that they want to remember. This past week I read their first drafts, from the class that I’m teaching at the federal prison in Butner. I noticed this time, probably because I was thinking about the story of David — I noticed that many of the prisoners write about when they starting to deceive their loved ones, when they started to lie about what they were doing, and how the lie became a way of life, a way of living two different lives. They would lie to themselves about what they could get away with, about being able to separate this part of their lives from that other part of their lives. The lie would work, at first, but soon enough they became a prisoner to keeping the lie alive, because they depended on it, they had to maintain the lie, which came to dominate their lives. One thing leads to another, and what that they thought they had under control soon takes control of everything and their lives begin to crumble under their feet.
I’m not telling you all of this to convince you that the little lies we have, the secrets we keep in the dark, will lead you to prison. That’s not the point I’m trying to make. I’m not trying to use prisoners, to use their lives behind bars to show us where we might end up if we don’t change our ways. Instead, what has struck me about reading autobiography after autobiography is that many of the students talk about how they have been set free, how imprisonment has meant a kind of freedom.
To be honest, I usually don’t like this. I don’t like it because I want freedom to be about bodily life, about life in the flesh, about where we live, about where we are able to go. I get worried when freedom and liberation become spiritualized or psychologized — as if what matters most is our attitude about the conditions we live in instead of the conditions themselves: Forget about the systems of abuse all around you and make the most of it, nurture your spiritual life and you will have all the freedom you need. This kind of talk, this language of psychological or spiritual freedom — it can end up justifying or excusing physical bondage: conditions of abuse are put on the sidelines, outside of the conversion, because those conditions are the real problem, the real issue is your attitude, about how you deal with your situation.
That’s why I worry when I hear people in prison, usually Christians, talk about imprisonment as a kind of freedom. I want freedom to have something to do with our material lives, with our bodies as well. When Jesus talks about setting the prisoners free, I want that freedom to be literal, physical, tangible, not a metaphor.
But, what I’m beginning to see, what I’m learning from these men who take my class, is that being arrested has made their lies public, and that has given them a very real taste of freedom. Their lies have been exposed: being put in prison has forced them to wrestle with what they have become, without any illusions. They are like David, confronted with their secrets, and learning how to live in the freedom that comes when they no longer have to deceive their friends and family: Freedom from having to lie, liberation from being enslaved to a life of deception.
“My sin is ever before me.” That’s what David prays after his sins are made public. It’s a moment of truth, and the freedom that comes from truth, from letting light shine in the darkness. Notice that David does nothing to achieve his freedom from sin, from his lies. He doesn’t offer a confession because he wants to make everything right, because he wants to be honest with his people and God. No, David does nothing to set himself free. Instead, the prophet Nathan confronts him with the truth, surprises him with the truth, and David can no longer hide.
Psalm 51 is not the result of a moment of clarity about his life and the direction he’s heading. It isn’t a prayer that comes after a decision to be good, after a resolution to seek change in his life; this isn’t one of those “never-again” moments, displaying his willpower. Instead, the psalm is a prayer of someone who is learning how to receive the truth, someone who isn’t consumed with secrets anymore, someone who is being brought into the light, who is beginning to know what it feels like to live without deception, someone who has put away the masks, because he realizes that he doesn’t need them…
Because David has come to know the “steadfast love” of God, as it says in the Psalm. That is the key revelation of the story of David. The revelation of God’s steadfast love fuels David’s psalm; David sings in response to this love that refuses to let him go.
After David’s abuse of power comes to light, God doesn’t banish him, God doesn’t get rid of him. God doesn’t disown David, making a public spectacle of him, making an example out of him to show the rest of Israel what happens when someone breaks the commandments of God. That would be the way our modern criminal justice system would do things. But that’s not what God does to David; because God’s love washes away iniquity and cleanses the heart, because God renews spirits with the Holy Spirit, and because God is a God of restoration.
David has come to know the mercy of God, that God cleanses us of sin for no other reason than because God’s love is steadfast, faithful, enduring, patient. The good news is that God has seen through our lies, and still remains with us, working in us the truth about ourselves. And the truth is that God has written on our hearts, as we heard in Jeremiah; the truth is that we have been drawn into an unbreakable covenant with God. “I will be their God, and they shall be my people,” God says to the prophet Jeremiah; “for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more” (Jer 31:33, 34).