Man Pouring Out His Heart to God in Prayer
Folksongs of Faith

How to Handle a Bad Conscience

Author: Ray C. Stedman

A London psychologist once told Billy Graham that seventy percent of the people in mental hospitals in England could be released if they could find forgiveness. Their problem was a bad conscience and they could gain no relief from the guilt and pressure under which they lived.

I read once of a man who wrote a letter to the Bureau of Internal Revenue saying, "I haven't been able to sleep because last year, when I filled out my income tax report, I deliberately misrepresented my income. I am enclosing a check for $150.00, and if I still can't sleep, I'll send you the rest." That is one way of handling a bad conscience but I can predict that it will not work. The only way that works is the way set forth in this fifty-first Psalm.

This is one of the few psalms where we are given the historical background from which it arose. The inscription reads, "A Psalm of David when Nathan the prophet came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba." That identifies clearly for us the incident out of which this psalm arose.

It was the time when David became involved in the double sin of adultery and murder while he was king. He had walked with God for many years. He was widely known as the Sweet Singer of Israel; he had gained a reputation as a prophet, a man who understood the deep things of God; and he had established himself as the long time spiritual leader of his people. Then suddenly, toward the end of his reign, he was plunged into this terrible double sin.

The interesting thing is that David himself records this sin for us. It must have been a painfully humiliating experience to the king. You remember the account. He was on his palace roof one day when the army had gone out to battle and he saw a beautiful woman bathing herself. His passion was aroused and he sent over messengers and ordered her to be brought to him. He entered into an adulterous relationship with her for she was a married woman. Her husband, a soldier in David's army, was away fighting for his king.

Later, when David learned that she was expecting a child, he panicked and tried to cover up. He ordered the husband home from battle and sent him down to his home, hoping that he would sleep with his wife and the child would then be accepted as his own. But Uriah was a soldier, committed to battle, and though he came home at the king's orders, he would not go down to his own house but slept with the soldiers at the palace and returned to the battle the next day.

David knew that ultimately his sin would be found out so he took another step. This is always what sin does -- it leads us on deeper and deeper, farther than we ever intended to go. Before the king knew it he found himself forced into a desperate attempt to cover up his evil. He ordered Uriah, the husband, to be put in the forefront of the battle where he would most certainly be killed. When news of Uriah's death reached the king he felt he had safely covered his sin. In Psalm 32 David records how he felt during that terrible time when he was trying to cover up his sin. "When I kept silence," he says, "my bones grew old through my groaning all day long," (Psalms 32:3). For a year he tried to live with a bad conscience. But, as the story records, God sent a prophet to David. God loved this king, loved him too well to let him go on covering up and thus damaging himself and his entire kingdom by this hidden sin. So God sent the prophet Nathan to David.

Because David was king, Nathan knew he would have to approach him subtly, for his own life could have been in danger if he had blatantly accused the king. So Nathan told him a story. He said that while he was abroad in the kingdom a certain incident occurred which he felt should be brought to the king for judgment. There was a certain rich man who owned a flock of sheep and a traveler came by to whom he wanted to show hospitality. But instead of taking one of his own sheep and offering it for food, he went to his poor neighbor who only owned one little ewe lamb, and took that lamb and prepared it for the man who had come to him. When David heard this he was indignant and cried out, "Such a man ought to be made to restore four-fold what be has taken and then be killed himself," (2 Samuel 12:5-6).

In a most dramatic moment the prophet Nathan pointed a long bony finger at the king and said, "You are the man!" (2 Samuel 12:7 RSV). David knew then that his sin was uncovered. He fell on his face before God and out of that experience of confession comes this beautiful fifty-first Psalm, which traces for us the proper way to handle a bad conscience. It opens with a prayer for forgiveness.

Have mercy on me, O God,
  according to thy steadfast love;
  according to thy abundant mercyblot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
  and cleanse me from my sin! (Psalms 51:1-2a RSV)

What a marvelous understanding of the nature of sin and the character of God's forgiveness is found in those verses! There are three things David asks for. First he understands that sin is like a crime. If a criminal is going to be delivered from the effects of his crime he needs not justice but mercy. Sin is an illegal act, a violation of justice, an act of lawlessness, of rebellion and therefore requires mercy.

Then he says, "Blot out my transgressions," and thereby he reveals that he understands sin is like a debt. It is something owed, an account that has accumulated and needs to be erased.

Finally he cries, "Wash me thoroughly, and cleanse me." He understands that sin is like an ugly stain, a defilement upon the soul. Even though the act fades into the past, the dirty defiling stain remains a stigma upon the heart. So he cries out and asks to be delivered from these things.

Notice that he understands well the basis for forgiveness. He asks on the basis of two things: first, "according to thy steadfast love." He understands that he himself deserves nothing from God, that God is not bound to forgive him. Some people are never able to realize forgiveness because they think they deserve it, that God owes it to them. But David knows better. He realizes that only because of God's love does he have any right even to ask. On the basis of that unqualified acceptance, that marvelous continuing love-that-will-not-let-me-go, he says to God, "I am coming to you and asking now for this."

Second, "according to thy abundant mercy," again indicates his understanding of the character of God. God is not a penny pincher; he does not dole out bits of mercy, drop by drop. No, he pours it out. His are "abundant" mercies. When God forgives, he forgives beyond our utmost imaginings. Here are a few of the figures of speech which are used in the Old Testament to depict the forgiveness of God. "As far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us" (Psalm 103:12). How far is that? Well, how far do you have to go east before you start going west? You never come to "west." Then God says he will "cast all our sins into the depths of the sea" (Micah 7:19). Someone has added that he puts up a sign that reads, NO FISHING. Do not go down there and try to fish old sins out once God has dealt with them. What relief comes when we begin to understand this fullness of God's forgiveness.

Then David goes on to point out the way to lay hold of forgiveness.

For I know my transgressions,
  and my sin is ever before me.
Against thee, thee only, have I sinned,
  and done that which is evil in thy sight,
so that thou art justified in thy sentence
  and blameless in thy judgment. (Psalms 51:3-4 RSV)

Here is a frank and full acknowledgment of sin. He says, "I know my sins, I'm not trying to cover them up. They are always before me, this double act of adultery and murder. I am guilty." He does not try to cover them or to blame God for them. He says, "It's not your fault, God; it's mine." That is another reason many cannot find forgiveness for sin. They suffer for years with a guilty conscience because they are not willing to come to the place where they acknowledge their sin. They will not call it what God calls it. We all tend to cover up sin and make it sound nicer than it is. We use pleasant names to describe it.

Is it not interesting that we have one list of terms to describe sin in us, but an entirely different list to describe the same sin in someone else. Others have prejudices, we have convictions. Others have a foul temper; we are seized with righteous indignation. Thus we try to cover over our sins. But we can never be forgiven while we do this, for the first step in the process of forgiveness is an acknowledgment of sin.

There is a most horrible hymn which goes,

If I have wounded any soul today,
If I have caused one foot to go astray,
If I have walked in my own willful way,
Dear Lord, forgive.

"Lord, there is a slight possibility that I might have done some of these evil things, although it is not very likely. But if I have, then forgive them." That kind of "confession" can never lay hold of the forgiveness of God.

If we are going to defend ourselves, the Apostle John argues in his first letter, then we cannot have the defense of that heavenly-appointed Advocate at the Father's right hand who is ready to defend us. If we defend ourselves, if we say it is not our fault because this happened, or someone did this or that other thing, then the Lord Jesus Christ cannot defend us. But if we do not defend ourselves then we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the Righteous. He will defend us and his defense is perfectly acceptable to God.

It is clear that David understands well the need to acknowledge his guilt, name sin for what it is, and not to charge God with the blame. It is so easy to do the latter. We say, "Well, God, it's the circumstances you put me in. If it weren't for the fact that years ago you allowed me to be married to this woman (or that man), I would never have done this thing. Or, you made me work for this company. Or, it's the people I live with -- my neighbor -- someone else." Whenever we blame it on someone else we are ultimately blaming it on God.

David says, "Against thee, thee only have I sinned." It is not that he does not understand that others have been damaged by his sin. There is the woman, Bathsheba; her reputation was sullied, her character blasted, her marriage broken, her husband murdered, and her own heart grieved by the death of the child that was born, all because of David's sin. There is the man, Uriah, whose life was brought to a sudden and bloody end because of David's sin. But David now sees that ultimately sin is an insult and an injury to God. It is God's love that has been wounded. It is the God of grace whom he has injured most. When a person takes that attitude then God's forgiveness is always present. That is the only way to handle a specific sin and the bad conscience resulting from evil.

However the problem is not all over yet. Notice how David goes on to strike a deeper note in the verses that follow. He now faces the fear of repeating the same sin. How many of us have felt this way? "Oh, Lord, what a fool I was! What an utter fool I've made of myself! When I see how easily I was deceived and how easily I stumbled into this thing, Lord, I wonder about the future? What's to keep me from doing it all over again next week? If I could be deceived so easily, what's to stop it from happening again?" That is what David goes on to bring before us. Thus, in this section, we have a different prayer, a prayer for purifying power.

Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,
  and in sin did my mother conceive me.
Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward being;
  therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart. (Psalms 51:5-6 RSV)

Here he understands that his sin was not just a happenstance, a combination of unfortunate circumstances which made him do this; he now recognizes that. He says, "I now realize that I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me."

Now do not misunderstand. He does not mean that there is anything wrong with the act by which conception occurred. His mother was not sinning when she conceived David; that is not what he is saying here at all. There are some who read this as though sexual intercourse was in itself some kind of a sin. But in the marriage relationship it is blessed and honored of God and is a delight to the heart of God.

What he is saying is that the act of conception introduced him into a sinful humanity, that he was born into a sinful race in which sin was already deeply imbedded. Now there are many today who challenge this. They question the doctrine of original sin, the theological term (though it is not very accurate) for the idea that the whole race is basically fallen. But if you challenge that I would like you to answer this question: Who taught you to sin? Where did you learn to lie? Did you have to go to school in order to learn how to be dishonest, to lie or to cheat? Did your parents carefully train you in how to deceive others? No. Every parent here knows that children do these things naturally, they are "doing what comes naturally." This evil shows up in a baby almost as soon as the baby can express itself. There is a rebellious independence, a self-assertiveness, that is present in the tiniest infant and it is there right from the very beginning.

That is what David is saying. "I see now," he says, "that sin is not just a surface problem that can be handled lightly; it is a deep problem. It has stained my whole nature. Unless I find some solution for this polluted nature I will never be able to keep from falling back into sin again." So now he begins to pray for help in the inward life, which is where God wants truth to be found.

In these next verses we find outlined an eight-fold path that one must follow to keep from falling back into a repeated pattern of sin.

Follow these carefully. Each is important.

First, he cries, "Teach me wisdom in my secret heart." "Give me," he says, "an understanding of the facts of life. Show me reality, show me the way things really are." In other words, help me to understand the truth about myself, that I am a fallen being and that this pollution has penetrated my whole nature. Teach me to start there in my secret heart, to accept as fact what is so clearly declared in your Word. I need to understand, Father, the basic facts that reveal reality in life.

The second thing is,

Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
  wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. (Psalms 51:7 RSV)

Hyssop is a sponge-like plant that grew in Israel which was used to apply the blood of the offering to the altar, or the doorpost, or whatever. To be purged with hyssop is a figurative expression that declares the need for a blood sacrifice. Again many people are troubled about this. Why all this blood in the Old Testament? Why the millions of lambs, bulls, and goats and the continual flow of blood? Some have even called Judaism a "slaughterhouse" religion because of this. But God makes very clear that all of these Old Testament sacrifices were pointing toward the one blood sacrifice of the Lord Jesus. His life had to be laid down in death. These were but symbols, pictures, of that ultimate sacrifice.

But now the question comes: Why that? Why did he have to die to forgive our sins? The only answer is: Sin is so deeply imbedded in us that it cannot be cured by anything but death. The old life has to die. God cannot improve it. Even God cannot make it better, he cannot cleanse it or wash it; he can only put it to death. David understands that now. He says to God, "If you are going to deal with this terrible fountain of evil in me, I can see that it must be put to death. It must be purged with hyssop, then I will be clean."

Then the third step,

Fill me with joy and gladness;
let the bones which thou hast broken rejoice (Psalms 51:8 RSV)

The Hebrew here really means, make to hear -- "Make me to hear joy and gladness." In other words, "Say something to me, God. Not only lay the basis of cleansing in a blood sacrifice, but tell me what it means. Say something to me about it. Let me have your word about it, and that will make my bones rejoice. If you tell me the truth, then I know it's true."

The fourth step is,

Hide thy face from my sins,
  and blot out all my iniquities. (Psalms 51:9 RSV)

Here he is saying, "Father, if I'm going to be able to be free from falling again, then something has got to be done about the past. I can't always be having it thrown up to me forever. That only depresses me and discourages me and if I'm going to have to live with my wretched, miserable past, I will be defeated over and over again. So, God, I'm asking you, hide your face from my sins and blot out my iniquity." Certainly God is ready and willing to do that. David is only asking for what God has said he would do.

Now look at the fifth step.

Create in me a clean heart, O God,
  and put a new and right spirit within me. (Psalms 51:10 RSV)

See the progress he is making here? He sees he must deal with this old life, this old heart, his old past, that it must be put to death. "But Lord," he says, "I'm tied to it. If this old life and old heart naturally incline me toward evil, and I, doing what comes naturally, do that which is wrong, then obviously what I desperately need is a new heart which naturally does good." That is what he is asking for. It is all-important.

The sixth step follows:

Cast me not away from thy presence,
  and take not they holy Spirit from me. (Psalms 51:11 RSV)

Some have interpreted this to mean that the Old Testament saints could lose their salvation once they possessed it. I do not think it means that at all. What the psalmist is praying for here is the assurance that the Holy Spirit would be with him. It is exactly the assurance given us in Hebrews13, "Be content with what you have; for he has said, 'I win never leave you nor forsake you'" (Hebrews13:5). David needs, and asks for, that assurance.

The seventh step,

Restore to me the joy of thy salvation,
[That is, believing all this to be true, put back into my heart that gladness and joy which comes from being accepted of you. And finally,]
  uphold me with a willing spirit. (Psalms 51:12 RSV)

Give me a will that wants to do what you want me to do even though I may struggle at times. It takes all eight of these steps to keep on walking free from sin. Anyone who is acquainted with the New Testament knows that this is exactly what God has already provided us in Jesus Christ.

Several years ago, while preparing to preach a sermon on this psalm, I received an anonymous letter from someone in my congregation, saying that he was a Christian but was involved in a very serious and continuing moral failure. The letter was an attempt to be honest and tell me the trouble in his life. I didn't know if that person would be in the service the next Sunday or not, but I hoped he would be.

I decided to refer to the letter in my sermon for two reasons: Because it was anonymous, and I could do it without betraying a confidence; and because the problem was of such a serious nature that I wanted to help the person if I could.

The writer had acknowledged that he knew the action was wrong, but finally excused himself on the basis that God had not yet given him the power to break away from it.

Now that was self-deception. The truth is that God has given us the power to break away from these things. Peter dearly declares: "His divine power has granted to us all things that pertains to life and godliness" (2 Peter 1:3). The very possession of the life of Jesus Christ in us is the power that it takes to break away from habits of sin. No person will ever be free from the awful grip of evil upon his or her life until he understands that he already has from God all that it takes to be free, if he will but step out upon it.

David is also asking for help. "Lord, give me this willing spirit," he says, and God immediately gives it. Then it must be acted on. That is the point. Do not wait for a feeling to come that you are forgiven. God has said you are forgiven. Do not wait for a feeling of power to possess you. God has declared he has already given you the power. As you believe him (and that is what faith is) you can do what you need to do and what God wants you to do.

That is what happened with David, and that is what happened with the anonymous letter writer. After preaching that sermon, I found out the person had been in that service, because later he wrote a second anonymous letter. This time he shared how God had used that message to deliver him from the grip of the evil relationship he had described before.

Finally, David outlines for us the ministry that follows one who has found this kind of forgiveness. First, there is the ministry of teaching.

Then I will teach transgressors thy ways,
  and sinners will return to thee. (Psalms 51:13 RSV)

Here is the reason why many people do not become Christians today. Their teachers are not teaching out of experience. Instead of talking about forgiveness as an academic subject, those who have really been forgiven ought to be sharing how wonderful it is to be set free. Many are struggling along in guilt because they have never seen what a relief, what a glory it is, to have God refuse to hold a man's transgressions against him. Teaching others should always follow the experience of forgiveness.

Then comes praise.

Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God,
  thou God of my salvation,
  and my tongue will sing aloud of thy deliverance
O Lord, open thou my lips,
  and my mouth shall show forth thy praise
For thou hast no delight in sacrifice;
  were I to give a burnt offering, thou wouldst not be pleased .
The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
  a broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise. (Psalms 51:14-17 RSV)

What a wonderful understanding these men and women of the Old Testament had of the nature and character of God! They knew that he was not interested in burnt offerings and animals. They saw beyond all that. This man says, "I will praise you, God, for two things: 1) You have taken my guilt away, you have delivered me from bloodguiltiness; and 2) You have broken my willful spirit. That broken spirit, that contrite heart before you, is all the sacrifice you are looking for. So I can praise you, God, for having broken my stubborn will and brought me to the end of myself."

Then David, as king, realizes that he has affected his whole kingdom by his sin, and so he concludes with these words:

Do good to Zion in thy good pleasure;
rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. (Psalms 51:18 RSV)

As the king he has caused his whole nation to be in jeopardy because of his sin. The very walls of the city (a symbol of its security) are under attack because of the evil that he has done. So now he says, "Lord, in your greatness, in your goodness, and by your forgiving grace, build it all up again. Heal the hurt to my people and to my kingdom."

then wilt thou delight in right sacrifices,
  in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings;
  then bulls will be offered on thy altar. (Psalms 51:19 RSV)

Then worship will be realistic. It will not be a mere form; it will be real. Every song sung, every psalm read, every prayer uttered will not be a mechanical perfunctory repetition of words but the healthy articulation of a heart that has been cleansed and set free.

Do you know that every person is a king over a kingdom? Each one holds a certain area of influence. Our family, our friends, our loved ones are in a sense a kingdom over which we have much influence as a king. What happens to your kingdom when sin reigns unchallenged in your life? It falls apart. You know that, do you not? But God offers to restore that kingdom, to build it up again, to make it real this time, to heal the relationships and build them on a right basis.

Surely our society is suffering as perhaps it has never suffered in the past history of America from the sins of adultery and sexual immorality which have destroyed the fabric of society. How we ought to be praying that God will answer this prayer for America: "Do good to Zion in thy good pleasure and rebuild the walls of Jerusalem" which have been destroyed by the sin of our hearts. Then we shall see God restore that kingdom to us, as David did.


Our Father, we ask you to heal the hurt of our hearts. You have broken them, Lord, you have caused us to see that we are damaging the very ones we love, and damaging ourselves; destroying, doing terrible hurt to each other and ourselves by clinging to our evil. Now, Father, help us to praise you as David praised you for sending to him that faithful prophet who pointed the finger and told him that he was the man, he was the trouble of Israel. We sense your love, Lord, in pointing out to us things in our own hearts and lives that are wrong and doing damage. Help us, in the words of this psalm, to confess it, to acknowledge our guilt and to receive from you the cleansing that is your delight to give. We ask in Jesus' name, Amen.