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Sermons for the Times, 19 - FORGIVENESS

By Charles Kingsley


      Psalm li. 16, 17. Thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering.

      The sacrifice of God is a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise.

      You all heard just now the story of Nathan and David, and you must have all felt how beautiful, and noble, and just it was; how it declares that there is but one everlasting God's law of justice, which is above all men, even the greatest; and that what is right for the poor man is right for the king upon his throne, for God is no respecter of persons.

      And you must have admired, too, the frankness, and fulness, and humbleness of David's repentance, and liked and loved the man still, in spite of his sins, as much almost as you did when you heard of him as a shepherd boy slaying the giant, or a wanderer and an outlaw among the hills and forests of Judaea.

      But did it now seem strange to you that David's repentance, which was so complete when it did come, should have come no sooner? Did he need Nathan to tell him that he had done wrong? He seduced another man's wife, and that man one of his most faithful servants, one of the most brave and loyal generals of his army; and then, over and above his adultery, he had plotted the man's death, and had had him killed and put out of the way in as base, and ungrateful, and treacherous a fashion as I ever heard of. His whole conduct in the matter had been simply villanous. There is no word too bad for it. And do you fancy that he had to wait the greater part of a year before the thought came into his head that that was not the fashion in which a man ought to behave, much more a king?--that God's blessing was not on such doings as those?--and after all not find out for himself that he was wrong, but have to be told of it by Nathan?

      Surely, if he had any common sense, any feeling of right and wrong left in him, he must have known that he had done a bad thing; and his guilty conscience must have tormented him many a time and oft during those months, long before Nathan came to him. Now, that he had the feeling of right and wrong left in him, we cannot doubt; for when Nathan told him the parable of the rich man who spared all his own flocks and herds, and took the poor man's one ewe lamb, his heart told him that that was wrong and unjust, and he cried out, 'The man who has done this thing shall surely die.' And surely that feeling of right and wrong could not have been quite asleep in him all those months, and have been awakened then for the first time.

      But more; if we look at two psalms which he wrote about that time, we shall find that his conscience had not been dead in him, but had been tormenting him bitterly; and that he had been trying to escape from it, and afterwards to repent--only in a wrong way.

      If we look at the Thirty-second Psalm, we shall see there he had begun, by trying to deceive himself, to excuse himself before God. But that had only made him the more miserable. 'When I kept silence, my bones waxed old through my daily complaining. For Thy hand was heavy on me night and day: my moisture was turned to the drought of summer.' Then he had tried sacrifices. He had fancied, I suppose, that he could make God pleased with him again by showing great devoutness, by offering bullocks and goats without number, as sin-offerings and peace-offerings; but that made him no happier. At last he found out that God required no sacrifice but a broken heart. That was what God wanted--a broken and a contrite heart; for David to be utterly ashamed of himself, utterly broken down and silenced, so that he had nothing left to plead--neither past good deeds, nor present devoutness, nor sacrifices: nothing but, 'O God, I deserve all Thou canst lay on me, and more. Have mercy on me--mercy is all I ask.'

      There was nothing for him, you see, but to make a clean breast of it; to face his sin, and all its shame and abomination, and confess it all, and throw himself on God's mercy. And when he did that, there, then, and at once, as Nathan told him, God put away his sin. As David says himself, 'I said, I will confess my sins unto the Lord, and so Thou forgavest the wickedness of my sin.'

      As it is written, 'If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.'

      And now, my friends, what lesson may we learn from this? It is easy to say, We have not sinned as deeply as David, and therefore his story has nothing to do with us. My friends, whether we have sinned as deeply as David or not, his story has to do with you, and me, and every soul in this church, and every soul in the whole world, or it would not be in the Bible. For no prophecy of Scripture is of private interpretation; that is, it does not only point at one man here and another there: but those who wrote it were moved by the Holy Ghost, who lays down the eternal universal laws of holiness, of right and good, which are right and good for you, and me, and all mankind; and therefore David's story has to do with you and me every time we do wrong, and know that we have done wrong.

      Now, my friends, when you have done a wrong thing, you know your conscience torments you with it; you are uneasy, and discontented with yourselves, perhaps cross with those about you; you hardly know why: or rather, though you do know why, you do not like to tell yourself why.

      The bad thing which you have done, or the bad tempers which you have given way to, or the person whom you have quarrelled with, hang in your mind, and darken all your thoughts: and you try not to remember them: but conscience makes you remember them, and will not let the dark thought fly away; till you can enjoy nothing, because your heart is not clean and clear; there is something in the background which makes you sad whenever you try to be happy. Then a man tries first to deceive himself. He says to himself, 'No, that sin is not what makes me unhappy--not that;' and he tries to find out any and every reason for his uncomfortable feelings, except the very thing which he knows all the while in the bottom of his heart is the real reason. He says, 'Well, perhaps I am unhappy because I have done something wrong: what wrong can I have done?' And so he sets to work to find out every sin except the sin which is the cause of all, because that one he does not like to face: it is too real, and ugly, and humbling to his proud spirit; and perhaps he is afraid of having to give it up. So I have known a man confess himself a sinner, a miserable sinner, freely enough, and then break out into a rage with you, if you dare to speak a word of the one sin which you know that he has actually committed. 'No, sir,' he will say, 'whatever I may be wrong in, I am right there. I have committed sins too many, I know: but you cannot charge me with that, at least;'--and all the more because he knows that everybody round is charging him with it, and that the thing is as notorious as the sun in heaven. But that makes him, in his pride, all the more determined not to confess himself in the wrong on that one point; and he will go and confess to God, and perhaps to man, all manner of secret sins, nay, even invent sins for himself out of things which are no sins, and confess himself humbly in the wrong where perhaps he is all right, just to drug his conscience, and be able to say, 'I have repented,'--repented, that is, of everything but what he and all the world know that he ought to repent of.

      But still his conscience is not easy: he has no peace of mind: he is like David: 'While I held my peace, my bones waxed old through my daily complaining.' God's hand is heavy on him day and night, and his moisture is like the drought in summer: his heart feels hard and dry; he cannot enjoy himself; he is moody; he lies awake and frets at night, and goes listlessly and heavily about his business in the morning; his heart is not right with God, and he knows it; God and he are not at peace, and he knows it.

      Then he tries to repent: but it is a false, useless sort of repentance. He says to Himself, as David did, 'Well, then, I will make my peace with God: I will please Him. I have done one wrong thing. I will do two right ones to make up for it.' If he is a rich man, he perhaps tries David's plan of burnt-offerings and sacrifices. He says, 'I will give away a great deal in charity; I will build a church; I will take a great deal of trouble about societies, and speak at religious meetings, and show God how much I really do care for Him after all, and what great sacrifices I can make for Him.'

      Or, if he is a poor man, he will say, 'Well, then, I will try and be more religious; I will think more about my soul, and come to church as often as I can, and say my prayers regularly, and read good books; and perhaps that will make my peace with God. At all events, God shall see that I am not as bad as I look; not altogether bad; that I do care for Him, and for doing right.'

      But, rich or poor, the man finds out by bitter experience how truly David said, 'Thou requirest no sacrifice, else would I give it Thee. Thou delightest not in burnt-offerings.'

      Not that they are not good and excellent; but that they are not good coming from him, because his heart is still unrepentant, because, instead of confessing his sin and throwing himself on God's mercy, he is trying to win God round to overlook his sin. So almsgiving, and ordinances, and prayer give the poor man no peace. He rises from his knees unrefreshed. He goes out of church with as heavy a heart as he went in, and he finds that for all his praying he does not become a better man, any more than a happier man. There is still that darkness over his soul, like a black cloud spread between him and God.

      My friends, if any of you find yourselves in this sad case, the only remedy which I can give you, the only remedy which I ever found do me any good, or give me back my peace of mind, is David's remedy; the one which he found out at last, and which he spoke of in these blessed Psalms. Confess your sin to God. Bring it all out. Make a clean breast of it--whatever it may cost you, make a clean breast of it. Only be but honest with God, and all will come right at once. Say, not with your lips only, but from the very bottom of your heart, say, 'Oh, good God, Heavenly Father, I have nothing to say; I am wrong, and yet I do not know how wrong I am; but Thou knowest. Thou seest all my sin a thousand times more clearly than I do; and if I look black and foul to myself, oh God, how much more black and how foul must I look to Thee! I know not. All I know is, that I am utterly wrong, and Thou utterly right. I am shapen in sin, conceived in iniquity. My heart it is that is wrong. Not merely this or that wrong which I have done; but my heart, my temper, which will have its own way, which cares for itself, and not for Thee. I have nothing to plead; nothing to throw into the other scale. For if I have ever done right, it was Thou didst right in me, and not me myself, and only my sins are my own doing; so the good in me is all Thine, and the bad in me all my own, and in me dwells no good thing. And as for excusing myself by saying that I love Thee, I had better tell the truth, since Thou knowest it already--I do not love Thee. Oh God, I love myself, my pitiful, miserable self, well enough, and too well: but as for loving Thee--how many of my good deeds have been done for love of Thee? I have done right from fear of hell, from hope of heaven; or to win Thy blessings: but how often have I done right really and purely for Thy sake? I am ashamed to think! My only comfort, my only hope, is, that whether I love Thee or not, Thou lovest me, and hast sent Thy Son to seek and save me. Help me now. Save me now out of my sin, and darkness, and self-conceit. Show Thy love to me by setting this wrong heart of mine right. Give me a clean heart, oh God, and renew a right spirit within me. If I be wrong myself, how can I make myself right? No; Thou must do it. Thou must purge me, or I shall never be clean; Thou must make me to understand wisdom in the secret depth of my heart, or I shall never see my way. Thou must, for I cannot; and base and bad as I am, I can believe that Thou wilt condescend to help me and teach me, because I know Thy love in Jesus Christ my Lord. And then Thou wilt be pleased with my sacrifices and oblations, because they come from a right heart--a truly humble, honest, penitent heart, which is not trying to deceive God, or plaster over its own baseness and weakness, but confesses all, and yet trusts in God's boundless love. Then my alms will rise as a sweet savour before Thee, oh God; then sacraments will strengthen me, ordinances will teach me, good books will speak to my soul, and my prayers will be answered by peace of mind, and a clear conscience, and the sweet and strengthening sense that I am in my Heavenly Father's house, about my Heavenly Father's business, and that His smile is over me, and His blessing on me, as long as I remain loyal to Him and to His laws.' Feel thus, my friends, and speak to God thus, and see if the dark stupefying cloud does not pass away from your heart--see if there and then does not come sunshine and strength, and the sweet assurance that you are indeed forgiven.

      But how about this old sin, which caused the man all this trouble? He began by trying to forget it. I think, if he be a true penitent, he will not wish to forget it any more. He will not torment himself about it, for he knows that God has forgiven him. But the more he feels God has forgiven him, the less likely he will be to forgive himself. The more sure he feels of God's love and mercy, the more utterly ashamed of himself he will be. And what is more, it is not wise to forget our own sins, when God has not forgotten them. For God does not forget our sins, though He forgives them; and a very bad thing it would be for us if He did, my friends. For the wages of sin is death: and even if God does not slay us for our sins, He is certain to punish us for them in some way, lest we should forget that sin is sin, and fancy that God's mercy is only careless indulgence. So God did to David. He then told him that though he was forgiven he would still be punished, 'The Lord has put away thy sin; nevertheless, the child that shall be born unto thee shall surely die.' Punishment and forgiveness went together. Ay, if we will look at it rightly, David's being punished was the very sign that God had forgiven him. Oh, believe that, my friends; face it; thank God for it. I at least do, when I look back upon my past life, and see that for every wrong I have ever done, I have been punished: not punished a tenth part as much as I deserve; but still punished, more or less, and made to smart for my own folly, and to learn, by hard unmistakable experience, that it will not pay me, or any man, to break the least of God's laws; and I thank God for it. I tell you to thank God also, whensoever you are punished for your sins. It is a sign that God cares for you, that God loves you, that God is training and educating you, that God is your Father, and He is dealing with you as with His sons. For what son is there whom His Father does not chastise? It is a bitter lesson, no doubt; but we have deserved it: then let us bear it like men. No doubt it is bitter: but there is a blessing in it. No chastisement at first seems pleasant, says the Apostle, but rather grievous: yet afterwards it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who are exercised thereby. Be exercised by it, then. Let God teach you in His own way, even if it seem a harsh and painful way. We have had earthly fathers, says the Apostle, who corrected us, and we gave them reverence. Shall we not much rather be in subjection to God, the Father of Spirits, and live? For suffering and punishment is the way to Eternal Life--to that true Eternal Life which is knowing God and God's love, and becoming like God. As the Apostle says, God chastens us only for our profit, that we may be partakers of His holiness. And as king Hezekiah says of affliction, 'Lord, by these things,' by sorrow and chastisement, 'men live; and in all these things is the life of the spirit.'

      May God give to you, and me, and all mankind, as often as we do wrong, honest and good hearts to confess our sins thoroughly, and take our punishment meekly, and trust in God's boundless mercy, in order that if we humble ourselves under His rod, and learn His lessons faithfully in this life, we may not need a worse punishment in the life to come, but be accepted in the last great Day for the sake of Jesus Christ, our blessed Lord and Saviour.

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