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Psalm 51: How to Deal with Your Guilt

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Secular psychologist Eric Fromm wrote (, p. 255 ), “It is, indeed, amazing that in as fundamentally irreligious a culture as ours, the sense of guilt should be so widespread and deep-rooted as it is.”

Guilt is a common problem for a simple reason, namely, sin is a common problem. When we sin against God, we experience guilt. People can try to ignore it or suppress it. But unresolved guilt can result in many physical and mental disorders, such as anxiety, depression, and schizophrenia. Guilt also impairs relationships between people by causing the guilty person either to withdraw or to be overly aggressive and hostile in order to defend his false front. Since guilt affects each of us (because we all sin) and since it has such devastating consequences if it is not resolved properly, it is important to learn how to deal with our guilt.

Psalm 51 has some answers. It was one of three psalms David probably wrote after his sin with Bathsheba (Psalms 32 & 38 are the others). You probably remember the circumstances: David noticed Bathsheba bathing at her home one evening while he was strolling on the terrace of his palace roof. He lusted for her, sent for her, and, knowing full well that she was the wife of Uriah the Hittite, one of David’s loyal military men, he committed adultery with her. She conceived a child by David, and he tried to cover his tracks by having Uriah come home from the battlefield and go in to his wife. When that failed, David arranged for Uriah’s murder on the battlefield. David was now guilty of both adultery and murder.

For about a year, David tried to live a double life. Outwardly, he tried to look the same as always. He tried to put up a good front as the righteous king. But inwardly he was tormented with guilt. He had sinned, but he had not dealt with his sin and guilt properly, and he was in anguish. Then God sent Nathan the prophet to confront David with his sin (2 Sam. 12:1-14). David broke down in repentance. In the aftermath, he wrote Psalm 51.

There are two main themes in the psalm: the seriousness of sin, and the greatness of God’s grace. So we can sum up the message:

To deal with your guilt, you must understand the seriousness of your sin and the greatness of God’s grace.

1. To deal with your guilt, you must understand the seriousness of your sin.

This is the opposite of the approach of much modern psychology. Many psychologists would say that you need to minimize the seriousness of your sin. In fact, they don’t like to use the word sin. Call it your weakness, your tendency, or your faults. Or it’s a disease. They say, “You’re not a sinner. You’re basically a good person who made a mistake. We all make mistakes, so just get over it and learn to love yourself.” But the Bible calls it sin. There are several reasons that ...

A. Sin is serious.

1) Sin is serious because we are all vulnerable to sin.

The title identifies this as “A psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet came to him after David had committed adultery with Bathsheba.” Wait a minute! Isn’t this the David whom God called, “a man after My own heart” (1 Sam. 15:14, Acts 13:22)? How can he be guilty of adultery?

Isn’t this the David who worshiped God and wrote so many beautiful psalms? Isn’t he the man who trusted in the Lord in the face of so many life-threatening situations? How can he be guilty of murder and deception?

As the news of this event spread throughout Jerusalem and all Israel, the shock waves must have registered high on the Richter scale. “What? David, the King, guilty of adultery and murder? Impossible!”

“I don’t believe it! David wouldn’t do a thing like that! You must have heard wrong!”

Nope! He did do it. And there is a solemn lesson for us in the title of this psalm: The greatest of saints is capable of the grossest of sins.

If you don’t believe that, you don’t know human nature. You don’t know your own nature. Apart from God’s grace, you are capable of the most horrendous of crimes or the most vile of sins that you can imagine. I don’t care how long you’ve been a Christian or how many years of perfect Sunday School attendance you’ve chalked up, you are not invulnerable to the grossest of sins. David ranks among the greatest men of God of all time, and yet here we find him guilty of adultery and murder. That’s scary!

“Yes, but,” you say, “it was out of character for David.”

No, in fact, David says that it was right in character. He says (Ps. 51:5), “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me.” It was no freak event; it was merely an expression of the sinful creature that he had been since conception. The problem wasn’t that David slipped up and acted out of character; the problem was that David acted in accordance with his character, which was inherently sinful. Consider this rather extreme statement:

Every baby starts life as a little savage. He is completely selfish and self-centered. He wants what he wants when he wants it: his bottle, his mother’s attention, his playmate’s toys, his uncle’s watch, or whatever. Deny him these and he seethes with rage and aggressiveness which would be murderous were he not so helpless. He’s dirty, he has no morals, no knowledge, no developed skills. This means that all children, not just certain children but all children, are born delinquent. If permitted to continue in their self-centered world of infancy, given free rein to their impulsive actions to satisfy each want, every child would grow up a criminal, a thief, a killer, a rapist.

That didn’t come from some fundamentalist preacher. Rather, it is from a 1926 report from the Minnesota Crime Commission! I doubt if any government agency would come close to saying anything like that today!

Our problem is that we all have a fallen nature. Even as new creatures in Christ, if we trust in that fallen nature, we’re capable of the grossest of sins. Paul wrote (Rom. 7:18), “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh.” Paul knew that. The question is, “Do you know that?” Sin is a serious matter because we all are vulnerable.

2) Sin is serious because it is offensive.

It never seems so at first glance. It always seems enjoyable at first. If it didn’t, we wouldn’t do it. But it ultimately offends.

Sin offends God. He is the primary one offended. David wrote (Ps. 51:4), “Against You, You only, I have sinned and done what is evil in Your sight ....” No matter how much anyone else had been hurt, David recognizes that the main one he had offended had been God. God alone is perfectly holy, and so sin is a greater offense to Him than to any other. David had broken God’s law. His sin had maligned God’s name (2 Sam. 12:14). Do you recall what Joseph said in Egypt when Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce him? He said to her (Gen. 39:9), “How then could I do this great evil, and sin against God?” If we would only see that our sin is first and foremost a sin against none other than the Holy God of the universe, and Jesus who shed His blood to redeem us, we would see the seriousness of it and thus, perhaps, be more inclined to resist. But also ...

Sin offends others. David’s sin was also against Bathsheba and Uriah. In addition, he sinned against the armies of Israel, who lost a battle so that Uriah would be killed. He sinned against the whole nation, which had been weakened by their leader’s sin. That’s why at the end of the psalm, David prays that the nation will prosper. He had broken down the walls through his sin.

The fact is, you never sin in private. Your sin always affects others. Let me get specific: Some of you men may secretly engage in the sin of mental lust. Viewing pornography is alarmingly common among professing Christians, especially men. You may think, “What does it hurt, anyway? Nobody else knows that I do it, so nobody gets hurt, right?”

Wrong! In the first place, you open up a hole for the enemy to attack your family members. Second, you’re committing mental adultery against your wife, which breaks down trust and communication in your marriage. Third, you’re laying the groundwork for a future colossal spiritual failure. You can’t walk consistently with God while at the same time you’re trying to hide the sin of mental adultery in some back closet of your life. Nothing is hidden from God’s omniscient gaze (Heb. 4:13). Tolerating that sin erodes your moral fiber. It’s only a matter of time until you will self-destruct.

On June 5, 1976, everyone was stunned when the massive Grand Teton Dam in southeastern Idaho collapsed. Under clear skies, without warning the huge earthen structure suddenly gave way, releasing millions of gallons of water into the Snake River basin.

But was it a sudden catastrophe? Beneath the waterline, a hidden fault had been gradually weakening the entire structure. It started small enough—just a little spot, a tiny bit of erosion. But by the time it was detected, it was too late. The workmen on the dam barely had time to run for their lives to escape being swept away. At first, no one saw the little crack, and no one got hurt by it. But everyone saw the big collapse, and it caused much destruction. (Adapted from Luis Palau, Heart After God [Multnomah Press], p. 68.)

Unconfessed sin is like that. At first, nobody knows about it except for the sinner and God. But eventually it goes public, and many are damaged by it. We never sin in private.

Sin offends you. David lost his joy in the Lord. It felt like all of his bones had been crushed (51:8). In Psalm 38, he describes his wounds caused by his sin as growing foul and festering. He was bent over and bowed down and was mourning all day long. His heart was agitated and throbbed. His strength failed and the light of his eyes had gone from him. Sin always takes a toll on the sinner. It’s serious!

B. Because sin is so serious, you must accept full responsibility for your sin, acknowledge it openly to God, and ask Him to cleanse you from it.

1) Because sin is so serious, you must accept full responsibility for your sin.

When God confronted Adam with his sin, he blamed Eve, and she blamed the serpent. It is human nature to put the blame elsewhere. In one of my deeper theological books, Linus is playing with a toy airplane in the house and knocks over a lamp. His sanctimonious sister, Lucy, is right there to point the accusing finger: “Ha! Now you’ve done it! You’ve broken a lamp, and you’ve got no one to blame it on but yourself!” Linus ponders the shattered lamp for a moment and then responds, “Maybe I could blame it on society.”

But David accepted full responsibility for his sin (notice “my,” “me,” and “I” in vv. 1-4.) He didn’t blame it on Bathsheba or say, “God, you made me this way.” He called it sin and accepted responsibility for it.

2) Because sin is so serious, you must acknowledge your sin openly to God.

When Adam and Eve sinned, they tried to hide from God, and that has been the human tendency ever since. But God knows about it. He wants you to acknowledge it to Him. We aren’t to be flippant about the way we acknowledge it, but rather to be broken and grieved. God is concerned about your heart attitude, not about your running through some ritual of confession (vv. 16-17).

3) Because sin is so serious, you must ask God to cleanse you from it.

When Adam and Eve sinned, they tried to solve it by sewing together a few fig leaves. It wouldn’t do. God had to provide animal skins, which involved the death of a substitute. We still have the tendency to try to cleanse ourselves from our sins—doing penance, kicking ourselves around for a while, or making ourselves pay.

But only God can cleanse from sin (vv. 1, 2, 7, 9). When He does it, it is thorough, “whiter than snow.” In the Old Testament, cleansing came through animal sacrifices which pointed ahead to Jesus, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29; see also, Heb. 10:1-18).

Thus the first great theme of this psalm is the seriousness of our sin. It is no light matter to be shrugged off as no big deal. It cost God the blood of His sinless Son. But only to see the seriousness of our sin would drive us to despair. So there is a second vital theme in Psalm 51:

2. To deal with your guilt, you must understand the greatness of God’s grace.

God’s grace must be understood against the backdrop of the seriousness of sin. As I just said, to emphasize the seriousness of our sin without God’s grace would drive us to despair. But to emphasize God’s grace without seeing the seriousness of sin can lead to a flippant attitude toward sin where a person says, “I can sin and God will forgive me, so it’s no big deal.” To properly understand God’s grace means at least three things:

A. God’s grace means that He forgives us at His expense.

Forgiveness always costs the person who forgives. If you strike me and injure me and I forgive you, it means that you go free, and I bear the cost. Why would God want to bear the cost by my sin?

1) God’s mercy, love, and compassion are why he wants to bear the cost of my sin (v. 1).

Psalm 51:1: “Be gracious to me, O God, according to Your lovingkindness; according to the greatness of Your compassion blot out my transgressions.” There is no cause on our part—only on God’s part. We can never deserve or earn His mercy—it stems out of His great love and compassion. Someone has said that grace is God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense. It is not conditioned on anything deserving in us. But why does God need to bear the cost of my sin?

2) God’s justice and holiness are why He must bear the cost by my sin (vv. 4b, 6, 7).

If God does not judge sin, He is not just and holy. Thus there must be an atonement, or just satisfaction of my sins. When David says (v. 7), “Purify me with hyssop,” he is referring to a small plant (6-10 inches high) which was broken off at the stem and bound to a stick with a scarlet cord. This made a small brush which was then used to sprinkle the blood of the sacrificial animal either on the doorposts of the house (in the Passover) or upon the worshipers (in the cleansing ritual from leprosy or touching a dead body). Thus it points to the blood of the sacrifice which was necessary to remove sins.

Because of His great love for you and in order to maintain His righteousness and holiness while yet accepting sinners into His presence, God provided, at great personal expense, the Lord Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Understanding God’s grace means that you understand that God’s forgiveness is based upon nothing that you can do but only upon all that God has done at great cost to Himself.

B. God’s grace means that He can restore the fallen sinner.

God is the God of the second chance, and the third and fourth chance, etc., etc. His love is patient, and when you deserve to be condemned and cut off from His presence for what you’ve done, He takes you back and restores you. Notice three areas in which David was restored:

1) There is restoration of fellowship (vv. 10-12).

Sometimes we forget that God desires to fellowship with us. Can you imagine what a privilege it would be if the President or some important person wanted to develop a friendship with you? What an honor! And yet the God of the universe desires our friendship!

But to have fellowship with such a holy God requires holiness in our inner person: “a clean heart” (v. 10). God has to create this—it is not something we can work up on our own. As Paul puts it (Eph. 4:24), we have to “put on the new man, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth.” God has given us His Holy Spirit, who is with us forever and is the seal of our salvation (John 14:16, 17; Rom. 8:9; Eph. 1:13-14). Thus while we may grieve the Spirit (Eph. 4:30) or quench the Spirit (1 Thess. 5:19), since the Day of Pentecost the Spirit cannot be taken from us (as David prays in Ps. 51:11). But to have fellowship with the indwelling Holy Spirit, we must confess our sins.

2) There is restoration of ministry (vv. 13, 18-19).

Jesus told Peter that after his denials, when he had turned, he would strengthen his brothers (Luke 22:32). God’s grace means that He can take your greatest failures and turn them into a positive message of hope for others who have failed. Until we fail, we tend to trust in ourselves. Failure teaches us the weakness of our flesh and causes us to depend more upon the power of the indwelling Spirit. From that restored position of trust, we can relate to and minister to others who have failed and help them to learn to walk in the Spirit.

3) There is restoration of worship (vv. 14-17).

You can’t worship God when you’re guilty. David’s mouth of praise had been closed (v. 15), but now that he has experienced God’s gracious forgiveness, wants to open it again in praise. Verses 16-17 are not indicating that God’s sacrificial system was unimportant or no longer in effect. Rather, what David means is that outward performance without inward reality means nothing to God. Going through the motions of worship with a heart that is not humbled before God is useless. God wants the motions of worship, but He wants you heart to be right in those motions.

Thus God’s grace means that He forgives us at His expense, and that He can restore the fallen sinner. I wish I could stop there. But there is a final point I must make to be true to God’s Word.

C. God’s grace does not mean that He removes the consequence of our sin (cf. 2 Sam. 12:10-12, 14).

Some Christians in our day misunderstand the grace of God at this point. They say, “I’m under grace and so I can sin, God forgives, and that’s the end of the matter. There are no further consequences.

But that’s not true. When you sin, God does forgive, but that is not the end of it. There are consequences to sin, and God’s grace does not remove all of them. (Notice 2 Samuel 12:10-12, 14-18.) Galatians 6:7-8 operates even in the case of believers under grace: “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap....” David had sown bloodshed; he would reap bloodshed in his own family when Absalom murdered his brother Amnon, and then led a rebellion against his father which resulted in Absalom’s own death. David had sown immorality, and he lived to see a harvest of immorality in his own family as his son Amnon raped his half-sister Tamar, and then as Absalom took David’s concubines in view of all the people. Did God forgive David? Yes! Did God restore David to fellowship? Yes! Did God erase the consequences of David’s sin? No! You reap what you sow!


Perhaps this message has shown that you need to do business with God: If you’ve never accepted the forgiveness and pardon that God offers you in Christ, take it now! If you’re a Christian, but you’ve fallen badly, you need to experience His forgiveness and restoration that He’s waiting to give. Confess your sin to God and ask Him to cleanse you from it. Or, maybe you’re a Christian who has been playing around with sin, figuring that God’s grace would cover the consequences. You need to forsake your sin, crucify the deeds of the flesh, and see the seriousness of your sin. To deal with your guilt, you must see the seriousness of your sin and also the greatness of God’s grace.

Application Questions

  1. Sometimes we think that a person who has been a Christian for a long time builds up immunity toward sin. Why is that not true? What should this teach us?
  2. Since God knows every secret thought that we have, why do we try to hide our sin from Him?
  3. How do we resolve the tension between having a broken and contrite heart (Ps. 51:17) and yet not feeling that we need to do penance to pay for our sins?
  4. If God forgives all our sins by His grace, why doesn’t He remove all the consequences?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 1981, All Rights Reserved.

Cedarpines Park Community Church

Related Topics: Christian Life, Failure, Forgiveness, Hamartiology (Sin)

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