Reflections on the Seven Penitential Psalms: Psalm 38

By Graziano Marcheschi, M.A. D.Min

Psalm 38 — Prayer of an Afflicted Sinner

We often use metaphors to describe sin and its effects on us. Metaphors give a shape and sound to sin. They make it visible and tangible and help us recognize and name the insidious impact it has on us. Because the diagnosis had not yet been made, the ancients couldn’t use the most powerful metaphor for sin we have today: cancer. But they surely knew enough of the malignancy we call sin to speak of it as a sickness that robs the body of “health” and “wholesomeness.” They understood that sin gets deep inside us, penetrating even to the bone. They realized that sin spreads, that it’s a silent killer moving often undetected to the farthest reaches of our beings, making itself at home as it consumes its home from the inside out.

Today, we don’t speak so graphically about sin. We tend to psychologize it, even explain it away. We see ourselves more as victims than as sinners; as wounded, misunderstood nice-guys and gals who are doing the best we can. We don’t sin; we just make mistakes.

But that’s not the way the psalmist saw it. He makes no excuses and seeks no place to hide. He knows that sin has taken up residence inside him. The evidence of sin’s effects is all around him: his body is failing; his mind is troubled; his spirit is in turmoil. And in addition to this internal misery, he’s also afflicted from without. “Enemies” set traps and lie in wait, and his friends and neighbors shun him.

All this the psalmist sees as God’s punishment. But the punishment is not arbitrary or random. No, it flows directly from his actions. The situations in which he finds himself were not knotted together by God the way an overlord might fashion a whip to chastise a rebellious servant.  The psalmist knows he’s the one who made the whip, tied the knots, and attached the bone chips that will tear his flesh when he is flogged with the consequences of his own free choices.

But let us not forget the psalms are prayers, not the rantings of hopeless sinners. The psalmist has shut his mouth and raised his arms in surrender because he lacks a remedy for all his ills. He has no excuses and can make no self-defense. And so he turns to the only place he can: the merciful God to whom he can say in confidence, “Do not forsake me… /help me,/ my Lord and my salvation!” That’s the genius of the psalms. The goodness of God shines all the brighter when human frailty is not hidden but openly admitted. It’s when we face the darkness of our sin, that the light of God’s merciful love shines brightest.

Questions for Reflection:

Do you agree that sin is often psychologized? What are the negative effects of such an approach?

In what ways is the quality of God’s mercy watered down if we don’t recognize the full extent of our own sinfulness?

The Lord’s Prayer exhorts us to forgive as we are forgiven. Do you find it easier to ask for mercy or to give it?
Are you comfortable with the very graphic, earthy language of the Psalms? Could you write your own psalm expressing your pain and need to the Lord?

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