Psalm 51 may be the greatest, most complete expression of confession and repentance in the Bible. The psalm records David’s prayer to God after Nathan came and confronted David about his sleeping with Bathsheba and murdering her husband Uriah.
David had some good reasons to feel awful about himself. He had broken God’s laws, he had forever hurt the wellbeing of at least two families, and he had failed in his kingly responsibilities of leadership. Surprisingly, in Psalm 51, David made a bunch of statements about who God is right alongside his acknowledgement of his own sin. It is incredible to see how many statements about God’s character are included in this Psalm. David’s confession illustrates for us an important principle: True confession declares faith in God; bad confession expresses unbelief in God’s capacity to forgive.
We seem to have within us a drive to punish ourselves when we have wronged. Maybe we think beating up on ourselves long enough will make us right with God. Or maybe we just intuitively know that someone has to pay for sin. The inconceivable gift from Jesus is that he paid once for all for all of the sin of the whole world! When we make ourselves pay what Jesus already paid, we are essentially choosing a doomed self-salvation plan instead of trusting in Jesus’ atoning work on the cross.
Jesus already died to set us free; our repentance accesses that mercy and freedom. Jesus says, “You don’t have to atone for your own sins. I did that already. I was condemned so that you can live.” Confession is a powerful practice in our lives!
In her recent book Rising Strong, author Brene Brown says this, “The difference between shame and guilt lies in the way we talk to ourselves. Shame is a focus on self, while guilt is a focus on behavior. This is not just semantics. There’s a huge difference between I screwed up (guilt) and I am a screwup (shame). The former is acceptance of our imperfect humanity. The latter is basically an indictment of our very existence.”
True confession is agreeing with God that our behavior fell short of God’s glory or perhaps that we failed to do what we knew we ought to have done. It includes acknowledging the pain and destruction we have caused. But, mostly, it recognizes the beautiful, holy character of God, who invites us to be cleansed and renewed and to leave our sin behind. Bad confession is doubting God (e.g., asking him to do what he has already done, begging him to give what he has already given). When Christ died on the cross, he said, “It is finished” – and it was. So when we repent, we align ourselves with what is already true. True confession leaves us Christ-conscious, but bad confession leaves us self-conscious.