Out of the Depths
Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice: Let thine ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications. (Psalm 130:1-2, King James Version)
Help, God—the bottom has fallen out of my life! Master, hear my cry for help! Listen hard! Open your ears! Listen to my cries for mercy. (Psalm 130:1-2, The Message, Eugene Peterson)
In the depths of depression during a vocational crisis in my youth, in despair at the atrocities our nation and others have committed in war, with deep disappointment during a divorce, with fear as my wife was diagnosed with colon cancer, I have returned again and again to the opening verses of this Psalm 130. I usually think of it in language of the King James Version memorized in my youth: “Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice.” But Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase in The Message gets at the idea almost perfectly: “Help, God—the bottom has fallen out of my life!”
This psalm has spoken to me when all hope seems lost, all efforts seem vain, when my poor human powers seem insufficient, when events seem so formidable and uncontrollable. At such times, I have cried these words.
And yet, I have scarcely paid attention to the remainder of this powerful psalm: “If thou, Lord, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand? But there is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared” (KJV). As often as I have pled with God for rescue using the opening verses of this psalm, scarcely have I uttered the rest in repentance and contrition. Rarely have I acknowledged with these words the depths to which I have sunk in my own sins. Why, I wonder, have I so reconstructed this psalm as one of hopelessness and powerlessness, of desolation and dejection, but not as a psalm about sin? Have I, have we, somehow lost a sense of sinfulness in our society and in our churches?
As I sat down to write this meditation on Psalm 130, I had just returned from a wonderful clergy conference in the mountains of North Carolina. There we shared the problems and joys in our lives as pastors. Several of us had recounted daunting life problems. All of us had experienced God’s grace and challenges in our lives. We prayed together perhaps a dozen times a day. We expressed our joys and our hopes, but rarely did we dwell on our sins.
What is more, we began our prayers with invocations of the divine name that suggested that we believe in a kind and gentle God, a God more benevolent than judgmental: “Gracious God” or “Loving God” or “Merciful God.” Maybe even “Forgiving God.” But in the entire week, I never heard a prayer beginning with “God of power and might” much less “God of judgment and accountability.” Indeed, a comparison of the prayers for each Sunday at the beginning of the old Lutheran Book of Worship and the current Evangelical Lutheran Worship will hint at this same shift to a less judgmental image of God.
But the kinder, gentler image suggested in these salutations is far removed from the prayers of my childhood in the rural South. In those prayers, God was omnipotent and omnipresent and all-seeing and all-judgmental, a God to be feared who held us to account for every sinful act from stealing candy at the five-and-dime to cheating grandmother at Old Maid to lying to the teacher, with hellfire and damnation our just reward. Mostly, I feel that the shift from a God of vengeance to a God of mercy—mercy but with accountability—is good. Granted, the older vision of the God of vengeance did promote plenty of guilt—often needless guilt—but it rarely improved human behavior. (back to top)
What are we to make of Psalm 130 in the face of this more gracious God? Do we still cry out to God from the depths, not only of our hopelessness, but of our sinfulness? Or are our confessions today not only guilt- reduced but guilt-free and the sins we acknowledge, too insignificant and easily forgivable—sin lite, as it were. When I list my sins daily before God and periodically recount them before another, I don’t consider my trespasses all that catastrophic. In fact, I seem to think rather highly of myself. Perhaps you do too. And maybe that’s just plain wrong.
This diminishing of sin in our era has many causes. One cause is our tendency to psychologize and socialize our actions and our character. Most of our sins now have pathologies. Our anti-social behavior may be a result of the culture we were raised in or the general lawlessness of our environment. Theft may be a response to poverty or perhaps we suffer from the mental illness of kleptomania. Our egotism or our self-assertiveness may result from a lack of self-esteem nurtured by our parents. Our tendency to dwell on the wrongs committed against us, our tendency to overdramatize our challenges, our propensity to rage at those closest to us may be attributed to personality disorders. In fact, given our psychology and sociology, none of us lacks excuses for our bad behavior.
Let me be honest: From my earliest memories as a child, I have been prone to an explosive temper. I have never completely understood why these episodes of rage could so completely consume me. They seemed to come upon me from outside and suddenly possess me. In an earlier age, they might have been regarded as acts prompted by an evil angel, even the devil, and exorcism might have been the cure.
In our age, such rages are often regarded as a symptom of borderline personality disorder—and, no, that has never been the official diagnosis assigned to me by a therapist. Yet, I have sought therapy repeatedly to somehow bring my temper under control, and over the years, I have made progress. So, are my rages a sin? Are they my fault? Or are they pathological and beyond my control? Do I confess them or merely explain them to God and my fellow human beings?
Or, in fact, are my tantrums also sinful in that they spring from my own pride, my own ego, my own tendency to put myself first and God and others second? If that is the case—if my anger springs from pride in placing self first and from my envy of the fortunes of others—does this indicate my sins are not simply individual acts, but part of the human condition? Augustine and Luther and others might have recognized them as original sin, as we follow in the ways of Adam and Eve and rebel against God and each other. (back to top)
Forgiveness and conversion
When I found myself in the depths of despondency during my divorce, my pastor counseled me first to seek therapy, because divorce makes most people crazy. But she also advised me to ready my Advent confession and to think of sin not just as a set of individual acts but as a condition of the human soul—the soul we hear crying in the words of Psalm 130, the soul that begs for forgiveness and conversion.
One great cause of our lack of accountability for sin, I am convinced, springs from our individualism, our tendency to see sins as individual acts, acts that are somehow justifiable or at least excusable. But we rarely judge ourselves accountable for the sins of our nation or our culture or our society or our economic system. After all, when did we kill anybody in an act of war? When did we drive an Asian factory worker to suicide so that we could enjoy a relatively cheap cellphone or tablet? When did we promote the ruin of creation because of our use of fossil fuel? When did we ever discriminate against a person because of the color of her skin or nation of origin or accent?
No, we rarely judge ourselves guilty of systemic sin, for those seem beyond our control and our accountability. We can’t reasonably change such things as individuals, now can we? Thus we share no guilt.
And yet Psalm 130 ends: “Let Israel hope in the Lord: for with the Lord there is mercy, and with him is plenteous redemption. And he shall redeem Israel from all his [its] iniquities” (KJV), or in Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase: “O Israel, wait and watch for God—with God’s arrival comes love, with God’s arrival comes generous redemption. No doubt about it—he’ll redeem Israel, buy back Israel from captivity to sin.”
In the Bible, sin is never just an individual affair; it’s a consequence of the sin of nations and cultures and people. And we, friends, all participate in that sin. And when we recognize its pervasiveness and enormity, we cannot help but cry out to God from the depths of our confusion and despair, and, yes, our guilt.
In my church, instead of confessing our sins within an individualistic frame—our sins of thought, word, and deed, things done and left undone—we use an alternative prayer: “God of all mercy, we confess that we have sinned against you, opposing your will in our lives . . . We repent of the evil that enslaves us, the evil we have done, and the evil done on our behalf . . . ” (Enriching our Worship, Church Publishing).
“The evil done on our behalf.” That sense of evil can be overwhelming; it can be debilitating; it can lead to a hopeless inability to act. Or it can lead us to take the steps that we can: organizing our communities, lobbying our elected officials, changing our personal habits so that we consume less, upgrading our technology less often, buying our food from local sources, cooking instead of eating out so often, supporting social services to help those in need, opposing racism and sexism and heterosexism and classism at every turn, feeding the poor and helping the weak.
Most of all, this orientation toward systemic, social sin should prompt us to heed the prophets’ call to work for justice in our world, to seek God’s grace to turn away from the material idols that dominate our lives, and to walk more humbly and in the ways of Jesus. Then we can respond more fully to the words of this great psalm: “If thou, Lord, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand? But there is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared [respected]. I wait for the Lord, my soul doth wait, and in his word do I hope. My soul waiteth for the Lord more than they that watch for the morning: I say, more than they that watch for the morning.”
Let us wait and watch and pray for mercy and grace, and let us act as we respond from the depths of our soul.
The Rev. Robert O. Wyatt is rector of St. Helena’s Episcopal Church Burr Ridge, Ill. (back to top)
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