Welcome back to the podcast. If you’re reading the Navigators Bible Reading Plan with us in 2024, we read Psalm 22 together two weeks ago and then talked about the challenges it poses to understanding the cross of Christ. That was in APJ 2015.
Today we’re back in the Psalms, reading Psalm 31 together and then Psalm 32 tomorrow. Both psalms — Psalm 31 and 32 — carry the same internal dynamic that Sarah, a listener to the podcast, points out and is trying to figure out. Here’s what she wrote: “Pastor John, hello to you, and thank you and Tony both for this podcast.” You’re most welcome, Sarah! “As I read through the Psalms, I get an amazing picture of the emotional life of faith. I am thankful for such a vivid picture of what it means to be a believer and the spectrum of emotions that we feel, and how the psalmist shows us how to process these emotions.
“But then I come to places in the Psalms that are more jarring and foreign to me, namely, about the physical pain and physical release of sin and forgiveness. Obviously we must be careful not to equate all physical suffering with the direct guilt for one specific sin. But perhaps we need to be careful not to write off specific sins in our physical pains. This comes up specifically in Psalm 31:9–10 and Psalm 32:1–5.
“Can you explain these texts and talk about the physical consequences of our guilt, and the physical health and release that can come with forgiveness? I never hear solid Bible teachers, preachers, or theologians — or even Christian health gurus — connect hidden sin, the torment of guilt, and the release of forgiveness to our physical well-being. To what extent can we make this connection? And how have you seen this spiritual-physical link in your own ministry?”
I don’t have any doubt that Sarah is right, that we should take the Psalms seriously when they picture physical ailments as sometimes owing to unconfessed sin. Now, one of the reasons I say sometimes is because in John 9 Jesus’s disciples saw a blind man and asked, “‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him’” (John 9:2–3).
“We should take the Psalms seriously when they picture physical ailments as sometimes owing to unconfessed sin.”
So, I infer from that passage that we must be really careful not to assume that any given sickness or disability is owing to a particular sin — Sarah said that, and I just wanted to underline it — even though we know that all sickness and all disability is owing to the existence of sin in general. God subjected the world to futility, the whole world, all of our bodies and all the world (Romans 8:20). We all live in a fallen and disordered world. And all of us — no exceptions, all of us — suffer and die because of that fallen, disordered, condemned world, even when we have not done a specific sin to bring down on us a specific sickness.
Here’s something she didn’t mention that I think we need to put in as a careful qualification. Nor does the fact that Christ bore all our sins, absorbed all the wrath of God against us, and purchased our perfect, eternal healing forever — no disease, no tears, no crying, no pain — nor does any of that mean that God does not send sickness and hardship into our lives to discipline us as his children and to sanctify us. That’s not wrath. Jesus bore wrath — condemnation, judgment. That’s behind us. We don’t have that anymore. This is a fatherly discipline, a physician-like therapy. Remember Paul’s thorn in the flesh given to keep him from being conceited (2 Corinthians 12:7). And remember the painful discipline of Hebrews 12:3–11.
Now, with all of that in mind, nevertheless, we should not hesitate with Sarah to find true Christian experience in the Psalms that tell us physical miseries are sometimes owing to unconfessed sin. I see this in the Psalms, and I’ve seen it with my own eyes, in my own experience. I’ll mention that at the end, but let me stay with the word for a minute.
Disciplined for Sin
Psalm 31:9–10 — which you referred to, Tony — says,
Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress;
my eye is wasted from grief;
my soul and my body also.
For my life is spent with sorrow,
and my years with sighing;
my strength fails because of my iniquity,
and my bones waste away.
So, he traces his failing strength and his wasting bones back to his iniquity. Now, here’s a little catch in making the point that I want to make. He might be thinking of the totality of his life’s hardships and the general fallenness of his nature, because he says, “My years [are spent] with sighing,” not just a week, not just a day or a month. I’m going to be careful and not base my case on this particular example, though it might be so. It might be that he’s referring to a specific, limited sickness owing to specific sin. And there are clues to that in the context because of the parallel between bones wasting away, which turns up again over in Psalm 32. So, I just want to be careful.
There’s no doubt in my mind that we are dealing with a specific, unconfessed sin and its physical consequences in Psalm 32. So, looking back over his change of heart and his forgiveness, here’s what he says: “Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed” — he’s just super happy at what has happened in his life — “is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit” (Psalm 32:1–2).
And now comes, in the psalm, his memory of that season when he had not confessed his sin. So, he goes on: “For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer” (Psalm 32:3–4).
And then he recalls his confession, his forgiveness, and his healing. He says, “I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,’ and you forgave the iniquity of my sin” (Psalm 32:5).
Clinging to Mercy
We see a similar situation in Psalm 107. Sarah didn’t refer to this one, but it has been as useful to me in pastoral counseling as any other text in this regard — of people who feel like they’ve sinned themselves out of God’s possible blessing. So, Psalm 107:17–21 says,
Some were fools through their sinful ways,
and because of their iniquities suffered affliction;
they loathed any kind of food,
and they drew near to the gates of death.
Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and he delivered them from their distress.
He sent out his word and healed them,
and delivered them from their destruction.
Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love,
for his wondrous works to the children of man!
Here’s one more text that I call “gutsy guilt” — or it’s the text that I have based this term “gutsy guilt” on. A truly godly person has sinned. They are sitting under the disciplinary darkness and misery that God has sent. But this godly person will not let go of the mercy of God — or we would say, today, on this side of the cross, he will not let go of the blood-bought justification that we have in Christ. And I’m thinking of Micah 7:8–9:
Rejoice not over me, O my enemy; when I fall, I shall rise; when I sit in darkness [that’s where he is right now], the Lord will be a light to me. I will bear the indignation of the Lord because I have sinned against him, until he pleads my cause and executes judgment for me [not against me, but for me]. He will bring me out to the light; I shall look upon his vindication.
“Let none of us continue in sin, hiding it from others and refusing to confess it to God and forsake it.”
So, in view of those texts, very practically, I would say let none of us continue in sin, hiding it from others and refusing to confess it to God and forsake it. If we are truly the children of God, and we do that — that is, we fail to confess our sins — we should expect that such a season of falsehood and hypocrisy will bring down God’s disciplinary rod upon us. If he loves us, we should expect that discipline.
Gift of Misery
Now, I had a very good friend whom I caught in grievous sin. I was the one who saw it. And when I urged him — I mean, this was a serious marriage-destroying, ministry-destroying, life-destroying sin — to confess to those he sinned against, he denied it was true. He did this for about six weeks, and I watched his deceit and growing misery and physical deterioration.
And then, one night, he called me quite late and said, “We have to meet.” I called a few others, and we met. And we sat there, and as we sat there, he quoted Psalm 32:3–4: “When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.”
So, the misery — his misery of those six weeks — was a gift. The misery and the physical pain was a gift. It saved his marriage. So, as Hebrews 12:11 says, “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”