The Guilty Gourd
“Create in me a clean heart O God, renew a right spirit within me.”
Man, I hate this psalm. I really do. When I hear these words, I get flashbacks to times in College when I felt choked by guilt. I had these words written down and taped to my desk as a reminder to harness my desires.
You see, when I was at Hesston College I was dipped into something called “purity culture”. Purity culture is a form of Christianity that teaches young people that their desires for intimacy are sinful. If they are physical with someone, this makes them ‘dirty’. When I was visiting Hesston I sat in on a bible study. In this study the leader passed out these little paper hearts. Then she instructed us to tear off a piece of the heart if we had ‘given our heart or our bodies to someone’.
Like I told you last week, I love love, and I have always worn my heart on my sleeve. So, as I sat looking at what used to be a heart and now was confetti in my lap, the young woman leading the study told us that if we have given away pieces of our heart then what do we have left for God?
I was crushed. I have always had a deep passion and love for God. I wanted to dedicate my life to God, to be a disciple of Jesus. Apparently, this was at odds with the desire within me to love and be close to another person. I thought that there was something wrong with me. I thought that I must have a “lust problem” and this made me even more confused because I also thought that only guys had “lust problems.”
But here’s the thing. There is a difference between desire and lust. Desire for consensual closeness and intimacy with others is a beautiful, God-given gift. Our healthy sexuality is a God given gift. Lust is what happens when desire is twisted, when we treat humans as objects. Lust is when we reduce a human to their body parts and forget that they are a whole, multi-faceted person. I didn’t have a lust problem. I had a deep desire for connection. For connection with God, others, myself, and all of creation. But I didn’t know that this was normal and ok. The purity culture around me was encouraging me to squash my passion.
The sticky note reading a portion of Psalm 51 glared down on me and I felt small and gross before a Holy and pure God. That is why I feel a visceral aversion to this Psalm.
However, I feel a responsibility to, within our Relationships series, talk about an integral part of relationships, our relationship to ourselves. Our relationship with ourselves bleeds out into all aspects of our lives. It colors how we think of God and how we think of, and treat, others. Love your neighbor as yourself, well what if you don’t love yourself? What if you hate yourself? What if you think of yourself as gross and dirty and a sinner?
Historically the church has done a good job of controlling our behavior using guilt and shame as weapons. Guilt and shame are incredibly powerful social tools. They get us ‘in line’ like nothing else.
There is a show that Nick and I watch called “Impractical Jokers” it is a show where four friends go out in the world and essentially dare one another to do ridiculous things. If one of them refuses the challenge then they are the “loser” of the episode. One of the challenges was that the ‘jokers’ had to go around a restaurant holding a gigantic bowl of mashed potatoes. Their ‘dare’ was to see how many scoops of mashed potatoes they could heap onto peoples’ plates, without asking, and without realizing that the jokers don’t actually work there. The guy that won got 10 gigantic scoops of mashed potatoes onto peoples' already full plates.
This is what the church has been doing with guilt and shame for far too long; piling unwanted, sticky guilt all over us. Making us feel heavy and gross. Some of us have been so deep in guilt that we don’t realize that all this time we have been swimming upstream in a river of mashed potatoes.
Oh, you are divorced? Have a generous helping of guilt.
Oh, you had sex before you were married? Here’s a scoop of shame.
You said the Lord’s name in vain? By golly, take the entire bowl.
It might be helpful to define guilt and shame here. Guilt is an emotion that tells us when we have caused harm. It is like a pop-up ad in our brain that tells us we have done wrong. In healthy doses it can move us to action to mend what we have broken.
Shame on the other hand resides deeper in our brain and bodies, it is instinctual, visceral. Shame doesn’t just warn us that we have done something bad, it says that we are bad, wrong, broken. Shame is rage turned inward. Shame is what caused Adam and Eve to hide from God.
I have a friend that lives in Colorado. She has said multiple times that she wishes that she lived here in Indiana so she could go to my church. When I asked her why she doesn’t go to church where she lives,she said that she lives with her boyfriend and so she is afraid that people will judge them and that she won’t be “good enough” for any church.
This breaks my heart.
Creating a culture of behavioral shame and guilt not only keeps people out of church,it puts so much moral pressure on people that they end repressing their desires. Have you ever gone to a pool and held a beach ball under the water? The harder you try and push it under, the farther it shoots up when you let go.
This is how repressed behavior works.
A culture of shame prevents people from admitting they have a problem. It distorts healthy sexuality and has resulted in horrific sexual abuse within churches. Further, in our society the “bad guy” must be punished. So if we feel guilty or shameful and therefore view ourselves as the “bad guy” we can end up punishing ourselves, whether it is justified or not.
In Harry Potter there is a character named Dobby, who is a “house-elf” a little creature that is treated somewhat as a slave to the magical humans. If Dobby disobeys his master then he starts compulsively punishing himself, banging his head on things and hitting himself. In the movie this is portrayed comically, but it is actually pretty sad. It could be a commentary of how we punish ourselves if we think we have done something wrong.
An article I read referred to this as the “Dobby effect”.
However punishing ourselves isn’t any more effective than repressing our emotions and desires. It keeps us spiraling in self deprecating and unhealthy behaviors
that only reinforce our self hatred. So if repressing behavior and punishment don’t curb bad behavior, what does?
I wonder if we can’t even go there until we have undone the harm that the church has caused with our relationship to our moral and sexual selves. The good news is that we can stop that culture of shame within church right here, right now. We can undue a culture of shame, but we have to get back to the basics and re-wire our sense of self.
This requires some imagination and might feel like learning how to ride a bike all over again, but expanding our worldview and cultivating healthier relationships always comes with some growing pains. To begin with, what if our identities weren’t first and foremost sinners? What if we aren’t broken?
What if when we love someone, we don’t tear up our heart, but rather expand our capacity to love? What if our heart grows? A parent doesn’t split their love between their children, their heart expands to make more room to cherish all of their children.
Further, what if God doesn’t require purity as a currency for relationship with us?What if, as a body of believers, we refused to let guilt be our guide, and instead turned to grace? Can we believe that we are loved and good and confront sin without it consuming us?
So, say we refuse to be ruled by doctrines that make us feel terrible about ourselves. Say we agree to begin a journey of re-wiring our understanding of the nature of humanity, purity, and holiness,then what do we do with the parts of the Bible that seem to shout at us, daring us to feel guilt and shame before a Holy God?
What do we do with Psalm 51?
The “superscription” or the bit of the passage before Psalm 51, identifies this psalm as written by David, after he had gone to see Bathsheba. Bathsheba was a married woman,
that is until David had her husband killed and took her for himself.
This psalm has long been thought of as David’s confession of his deep remorse for his sexual sins. However, this might not actually be the case. The “superscriptions” are thought to be added later, when the psalms were being edited and collected into a book. “So, David was probably associated with the psalm at some point after its composition.” In fact, verses 18 and 19 must have been added later, perhaps at least 400 years later because they describe rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem.
Plus, there is no mention of sexual sins in the Psalm. It very well could have been written by David, and it could be about his guilt surrounding Bathseba, but it is good to be careful before we center this Psalm around sexual sins and therefore elevate them as the pinnacle, the biggest and baddest sins.
Keep in mind that David also, “shirks his kingly duties, lies, murders, and exhibits astonishing arrogance.” There were many sins that could have fueled this confession. For today, let’s say David did write this psalm, clearly he desperately sought forgiveness and pardon. The words he uses, describing the ways he desires to be “clean” again, all bring up associations like wiping a dirty dish, scrubbing as one scrubs dirty clothes, and cleaning clothes in a river.
Hyssop was a plant or shrub used in rituals of purification. It was what the Israelites used to spread the blood of the Passover lamb on the doorposts of their houses. David is so steeped in this guilt that he cannot remember a time when he wasn’t in the shadow of sin, he believes that he was drenched in it, even from the moment he was conceived.
He wants a brand-new beginning, a clean, pure, fresh start. David also wants to be close to God. At this time, people thought of God’s presence as transient. God would come and go as God pleased. When God was far off, that’s when bad things would happen. They believed that humans could control whether God was near or far. They were convinced that God was repulsed by the pollution of sin, it was incompatible with the holiness and glory of God.
Avoiding sin was a way to keep God close and enjoy the blessings of God’s presence. This was also why they would make sacrifices; they believed the aroma of the burnt offerings and the dedication of costly items (like incense and grains) would cancel out their sin and preserve their close connection to God.
However, at the same time, we see this psalm challenge the sacrificial system. The author says that God doesn’t want a burnt offering. Instead the author offers up their broken spirit as a sacrifice. Surely God won’t despise a heart that is broken and crushed. BUT once the temple is rebuilt then God will want bulls sacrificed on the altar again.
If you are confused by this, you are not alone. What does God really want? If you add in our knowledge of what Jesus accomplished on the cross, and that no further sacrifices are needed, then how are we to make ourselves right before God? And do we believe today that we can control God’s presence if we are good enough? A lot has changed since David (or the author) wrote these words poured from a broken heart. What hasn’t changed is that we still do bad things and sin. And we still come before God, begging for forgiveness.
In the light of Jesus, the embodiment of God’s love for us, how does he change our relationship with ourselves and how we treat others? My ultimate question for the church and purity culture is, “How effective is guilt and shame really?”
Do guilt and shame draw us closer to God, ourselves, and others? Does it help us love our neighbor as ourselves? In the Christian world, we can find ourselves dizzy with a flurry of contradictions. From the pulpit, Christian articles or books, or simply the dominant Christian culture all proclaim different messages:
“You are broken and you need saving,” but…
“you are loved by the God who created you,” but…
“you are sinful and must repent,” but…
“God’s grace covers all,” but...
“you don’t earn your salvation though good works,”but…
“discipleship and loving your neighbor is crucial to the Christian life,”
Oh don’t forget that
“Humans are inherently good,” but also “humans are inherently bad.”
It can make one want to tear their hair out.
To tease out some semblance of clarity from these mixed messages, I want to offer a different metaphor for the conversation on sin, purity, and grace. What if there was more to David’s desire to be clean than a dogmatic rejection of all the things we consider “unclean”?
What if we approached sin the way we take a shower?
Hear me out.
When we are dirty, sweaty, and stinky after working out, or just from existing, then we take a shower. Afterwards we feel refreshed and ready for rich lotion and cozy pajamas. There is an increasingly popular beauty trend of exfoliation, meaning you take a sugar scrub or a loofah, or anything with texture,and rub your skin with it. There are even natural loofahs made from a species of gourd. This removes the dead skin that is just chilling on us, revealing the younger, fresher skin underneath. We are left baby smooth.
So how do we apply this to sin and our response to it? Well, sin, like grime, dirt, sweat, and stinkiness, must be addressed otherwise it just builds on itself and becomes a real problem. You will stink so badly people won’t want to sit next to you. You can’t ignore it.
This is when repression takes over.
However how we deal with it is crucial. If, we get in the “shower” and try to “purify” ourselves by aggressively scrubbing and scrubbing, we will just end up rubbing ourselves raw. This goes past sloughing off dead skin and starts to painfully harm the healthy skin,
making us more sensitive.
Then, on top of being guilty, we will be in pain and more likely to lash out again. If we lecture ourselves endlessly about how dumb or mean we are, if we wallow in our sinfulness, then we will only make the situation worse, creating more harm. This wallowing doesn’t move us to action, all our energy is spent up judging and punishing ourselves. This is self-punishment, the “Dobby effect” taking over. But, we need to remember that our options aren’t just to ignore or repress our own dirt or to punish ourselves by scrubbing too hard..
There is a third way.
What if, instead of rubbing ourselves raw, we take a loving stock of our situation. Instead of ignoring our pain or berating ourselves for having dirty feet, we take a mental note:
“Ah, I need to spend more time on my feet in the shower.”
We could even notice where we are looking good and thank God that we have bodies. Then in the shower, we exfoliate our skin, making sure we get in-between our toes, and simply slough off what no longer serves us.
This could take the form of apologizing to someone we have harmed. Like REALLY, truly, genuinely apologizing. This doesn’t just apply to our relationship to others. It can apply to our relationship to ourselves or to God. It can also take the form of forgiveness.
We can forgive ourselves as we see the dirt run from our skin and spin down the drain. We don’t need the guilt anymore, it has served its purpose. The dirt on our skin, or the dead skin falling from us, doesn’t define our entire body. There is more underneath. New skin is waiting to be revealed. It turns out, we always have a chance to be a new creation.
Maybe that’s why God gave us so many layers of skin!
Moreover, we don’t do this cleaning process on our own. You see we can’t reach all of our skin on our own, maybe someone as flexible as Lilly could reach her back, but I sure can’t. We can ask God to get the spots just beyond our reach. In fact we must rely on God to make us new. We can’t do this on our own power.
It turns out we are beautiful and good and we also sin and make mistakes.
I don’t understand it, but I trust that we are made in God’s image. I trust that Jesus’s death and resurrection ensured that God’s presence never leaves us, that God is always close by. I trust that we can both strive to be good and rest in the grace that tells us that if we don’t measure up, it will still be ok.
I wanted to get you all one of the natural loofah gourd things to remind us that we don’t need to carry the guilt of our sins, rather that we can participate with God in becoming a new, softer creation, but it turns out they are kind of expensive, so sorry.
I hope that one day I can read this Psalm and not feel the sick-in-my-stomach shame feeling that it gave me all those years ago. I hope I can just let that run down the drain. I also hope that we can start to heal from any shame that the church has piled on us. I hope that we can find a balance between loving ourselves and others while also taking sin seriously.
I hope that even though we make mistakes, miss the mark, and seriously hurt one another, that we can know to our core that we are loved by our Creator God, no matter what. I hope that we can lean into God’s transformative, exfoliating grace. That we can be renewed and made new.
I hope that we can know that God is near in the simple things in life; warm water, natural loofahs, soft skin, rich lotion, and cuddling up in our favorite pj’s. I hope that we can learn to see ourselves the way God sees us.
May it be so.
 “From Being Ashamed to Being Empowered.” Psychology Today. Accessed September 18, 2019. http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-urban-scientist/201005/being-ashamed-being-empowered.
 “Commentary on Psalm 51:1-17 by Joel LeMon.” Accessed September 19, 2019. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3184.
 Ibid. LeMon.
 Ibid. LeMon.
 “Commentary on Psalm 51:1-17 by James Limburg.” Accessed September 19, 2019. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=478.
 Ibid. LeMon.
 Ibid. LeMon.
Brooks, Claire Vonk. “Psalm 51.” Interpretation 49, no. 1 (January 1995): 62–66.
“Commentary on Psalm 51:1-17 by James Limburg.” Accessed September 19, 2019. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=478.
“Commentary on Psalm 51:1-17 by Joel LeMon.” Accessed September 19, 2019. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3184.
“I Talk of My Sin (to God) (and to You): Psalm 51, with David Speaking: EBSCOhost.” Accessed September 19, 2019. http://web.b.ebscohost.com/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=0&sid=91884023-fab4-4df1-bac2-16c9d9e2c393%40sessionmgr102.
Psychology Today articles:
"Insights into Human Nature from Cultural Psychology," by Marianna Pogosyan
"10 Things You Didn't Know About Guilt," by Guy Winch
"From Being Ashamed to Being Empowered," by Paul Dorbransky
Also worth noting:
My understanding of guilt/shame has been completely shaped by Brené Brown's incredible work. This includes her ted talks and her books.