Between the covers of an ordinary Bible one can find many strangely beautiful things, but none stranger than Psalm 51. The beauty lies in the fragile portrait of an anxious mind: “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.… Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.” The strangeness comes from its attribution: “A psalm of David. When the prophet Nathan came to him after David had committed adultery with Bathsheba.”

As with so many things in the Bible, we have grown accustomed to reading about David’s sin, and think nothing of it. But if we can see it in historical perspective, it is extraordinary—perhaps even a sort of evidence for the Bible’s inspiration. For if merely human processes were at work, David’s sin would most likely lie buried forever in the dust of history.

David had seen a woman, taken her, then done away with her husband. Kings did such things. Nobody in the palace or the army said a word in protest, though events of this kind cannot be kept totally secret. Only powerless Nathan had come, confronting David. David could easily have laughed him off, or put him to death. Instead, he said, “I have sinned against the Lord.”

Here, at his worst moment, we find David’s greatest. Though he answered to no man on Earth, he answered to God. David’s horror of his own, internal darkness led to Psalm 51. People love this poem because they have lived it, at one level or another.

But how did we come to know about it? How is it we read this most personal, heartfelt prayer?

It was published.

Eventually it was placed in Israel’s national hymnbook, which we know as the Book of Psalms. Year by year, David’s prayer of repentance was used in public worship. The story of his sin was recorded in the national archives.

In the history of nations, I know of nothing like this. Had George Washington been caught in adultery, would his mea culpa have been set to music for the Fourth of July?

Nor is it typical of churches. Do we find, in our own hymnbooks, the memory of our denominational founders’ disasters?

Yet, in the history of Israel, this incident is almost normal. The Old Testament tells us a great deal more about Israel’s failings than its goodness. Of the hundreds of characters described, nearly all exhibit some startling flaw. Israel’s struggle for independence is told as a story of repeated, petty, whining blunders back toward slavery. Their defeats by Assyria and Babylon are told as well-deserved punishments.

These accounts were not compiled by muckraking journalists. They were compiled by devout Jews, describing their own nation, their own leaders, their own selves. They laid themselves open to 2,000 years of Gentiles saying, “How odd of God to choose the Jews.” It is almost as though they felt, in describing their weaknesses, that they were describing their glory. Such an orientation is not natural.

The New Testament bears the same strange mark. When new religions are begun it is essential not only to glorify the messiah who began them, but to build up the disciples who carried on and institutionalized his work. They must be supernaturally wise, their comprehension of the master’s teachings indisputable. Instead, the Gospels often portray the disciples as dim and quarrelsome. They report Jesus telling Peter, “Get behind me, Satan,” not long before Peter took over leadership. The Acts reveal quarrels and doctrinal disagreements within the inner circle.

This is a major reason why the Gospels’ portrait of an unstained Jesus is credible. If the Bible were like our “Christian biographies,” a steady stream of pious, faithful, insightful leaders, Jesus would seem to be one more example of selective reporting. But since the Jews’ tendency was definitely not toward exaggeration—since even their great founding King David was described seams and all—Jesus and his holiness shine out, unparalleled.

Which leads me to ask: What kind of material do Christians publish about themselves today? Journalists from the secular press sometimes uncover scandals in our midst, and we all know of leaders who have taken bad personal spills; but how do we treat these? We want to keep them quiet. We want to protect the reputation of the church—and our own individual reputations.

I am not suggesting we reverse ourselves and begin to focus on our failings. Some Christians make a fetish out of confessing, as though it gave them a leg up on more private sinners. That is not what you find in the Bible: you find, as in Psalm 51, genuine shame and fear before God, with abhorrence of the sin.

Nor am I particularly commending those who describe their sins like trophies mounted on the wall—snarling and ferocious, but dead as a doornail. The Bible’s reporting is broader than that. It tells of sins that made themselves felt for generations. In David’s case, the terrible rebellion of Absalom rose from David’s tragedy, despite David’s confession.

Instead, we need to stop worrying about public relations, the “image” we want to create about the church and ourselves. We learn from our sins—even from unresolved sins—and should be willing to let others learn from them too. We may lose credibility as a result. But, we are not selling ourselves. We are preaching a gospel of the man who was tempted as we are, in all things, but knew no sin.

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