I came across an interesting passage today — or rather, it’s an extremely popular, well-loved passage, but I saw something that I hadn’t noticed before. It’s from Psalm 32 and it reads as follows:
1 Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered.
2 Blessed is the man whose sin the LORD does not count against him and in whose spirit is no deceit.
3 When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long.
4 For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer.
5 Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD” — and you forgave the guilt of my sin.
6 Therefore let everyone who is godly pray to you while you may be found; surely when the mighty waters rise, they will not reach him.
I like this passage because when we confess our sins — especially in church — we usually allow a sombre mood to descend, perhaps the mood equivalent of those farcical monks on Monty Python’s Holy Grail marching to their dirge and hitting themselves with boards. Of course, shame and regret are appropriate responses, but they’re not appropriate enough. They certainly can’t be the whole story. This Psalm correctly captures the idea that being forgiven is actually a blessing and a great privilege. Joy and praise belong with confession as much as self-reflection and sorrow.
The thing that I hadn’t noticed before was in verse 6. Perhaps I’m making too much of it, but I was struck by the description of the praying person as ‘godly’. It is striking because we would be comfortable using the name ‘godly’ for someone who doesn’t sin. Here it is the person who does sin, but runs to God for restoration. In other words, godliness is not here a statement about someone’s ethical uprightness, but their relational stance. I suppose that’s why the Pharisees always got it in the neck from Jesus: they made every effort to be not in need of forgiveness, but therefore failed ever to approach God for forgiveness, refuge or relationship of any other kind. They would do anything to be within the law, but they were never godly by the standards of this Psalm, because they never put themselves in the appropriate relationship of reliance upon God.
Flipping to Philippians
I was also prompted to think of another verse that is similarly strange, this time from Philippians 3. For this one I’ll have to leave the NIV behind and use a more woodenly literal translation:
12 It is not that I already received or already have been made perfect, but I pursue if also I may apprehend that for which I was apprehended by Christ Jesus.
13 Brothers, I do not consider myself to have apprehended; but one thing, forgetting what is behind, and straining forward to things ahead,
14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly calling of God in Christ Jesus.
15 Therefore, as many as are perfect, let us think this way; but if any are differently minded, this also God will reveal to you.
The surprise in this passage is the identity of those that Paul calls ‘perfect’ in v15. The ‘perfect’ (i.e. those who are acceptable to God) are those who recognise that they have not received or attained perfection. Paul says that we were apprehended for perfection, but this life can hold nothing more than the pursuit, not the attainment of it. Seeing as fulness, completion and perfection can only be ours if we’re given them as a ‘prize’ from above (i.e. at the resurrection), then neither those who think that they have reached the goal nor those who refuse to pursue it are on the path any longer. The latter have obviously drifted off after worthless things, and the former have attained nothing but Pharisaic self-righteousness, the complete antithesis of being apprehended by Christ.
So both these passages seem to me to be saying that the attainment of godliness and perfection has everything to do with clinging to the one who can grace us with those things, and nothing to do with our ethical excellence.