Psalm 19- Willful and Hidden Sins

Lately I’ve been ruminating on Psalm 19. Particularly the last section of it:

But who can discern their own errors?
Forgive my hidden faults.
Keep your servant also from willful sins;
may they not rule over me.
Then I will be blameless,
innocent of great transgression.

May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart
be pleasing in your sight,
Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.

What’s interesting here is that David prays for forgiveness for two types of sins. First, ‘willful sins’, meaning sins he consciously commits and are obvious to himself and others. Things that violate Scripture or his sense of moral compass and he does, anyway. For David, think about his story with Bathsheba.

But David also acknowledges another type of sin. What he describes here as “hidden faults.” Sins lurking underneath that he isn’t even aware of. For David, an example would be the things that preceded his affair with Bathsheba. The story starts off, “It was a time when kings went to war, but David stayed back.” Why did he stay back? Sloth? Apathy? Boredom? In staying back, he often wandered restlessly on his rooftop. It was in one one of those moments he spotted Bathsheba. There were a lot of things at work underneath, in David’s soul, that led him towards a national scandal.

One major premise of the spiritual formation I’m working on is that internal (and often subconscious) motivators drive external sins. (Now, I’m not original on that idea. Jesus made that clear over and over, as did Solomon, Paul, Augustine, Evagrius Ponticus, Carl Jung, etc., etc.)

In Psalm 19, David says something we all can relate to- “Who can discern their own errors?” It is hard to see ourselves clearly or recognize all the things at play within us. As Richard Feynman laments, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself. And you are the easiest person to fool.” David asks God, “Please forgive me of all the things I’m not even aware that I said, did, or thought today.”

So how do we grow in awareness of things hidden (sometimes intentionally) from ourselves? David gives us a few ideas in the Psalm.

First, Scripture can grow our awareness of self and sin. David says earlier in Psalm 19, “[The decrees of God] are more precious than gold, than much pure gold; they are sweeter than honey, than honey from the honeycomb. By them your servant is warned; in keeping them there is a great reward.” Karl Barth once famously wrote, “I have read many books, but the Bible reads me.”

Second, Meditation and Reflection. At the end of this Psalm, David prays, “May the meditations of my heart be pleasing in your sight.” The Hebrew word for meditation here means, “ruminate.” What you think about over and over, tossing about in your mind. What we spend our time thinking about shapes us and drives our behaviors. As Marcus Aurelius once wrote, “Our soul is dyed with the color of our thoughts.”

Ignatius had a spiritual exercise with this reflection in mind called the “Examination of Conscience.” It went like this- In the morning, think about a particular sin or fault you want to correct or mend. Then, halfway through the day, take a minute to reflect and think on the past few hours and any times you may have stumbled in that area. Make a resolve to finish the day out strong. Look back again and notice where you may have fallen short. This is simple and obviously not bullet-proof. But it could be a means of paying more attention to yourself and noticing patterns of behavior you normally ignored.

Last, another means of growing in awareness of self and sin is friendship. Solomon wrote that a person’s heart is deep waters but a man of understanding draws it out. We need good friends to help bring wisdom, encouragement, and insight. To speak truth into our lives even if it's hard to hear sometimes.

I encourage you to spend a few minutes today reading and reflecting on Psalm 19, and also listen to Citizen’s version of this Psalm, Living In the Land of Death.