Monday, May 25, 2015

Sinning Against Whom?

King David, consumed by lust for Bathsheba, commits adultery with her while her husband Uriah is out fighting the Ammonites on David’s behalf. When Bathsheba informs David she is pregnant, the king contrives to hide the evidence of his sin by recalling Uriah from the battlefield in hope that he will sleep with his wife and believe the child his. But Uriah is a loyal servant of the crown and a patriot. He declines to go home to his wife and enjoy the benefits of peace and family while his nation is at war and his fellow soldiers still in danger.

Knowing discovery is certain, David then compounds his wickedness by ordering Joab, the commander of his armies, to put Uriah in the most dangerous possible position and allow him to be killed in battle. The plot succeeds, and after allowing her an appropriate period of mourning, David marries Bathsheba.

Done and dusted, as they say.

Of course God cannot let this stand. He sends Nathan the prophet to confront David on his behalf, call him out for his sin and pronounce a series of judgments on him the consequences of which poison the remainder of David’s reign, divide Israel, scar his household and stain his legacy.

Oh, and the child sickens and dies under the hand of God.

In between, David repents. The fifty-first psalm records David’s humble recognition of his sin. But among many other things in that Psalm, he says this:
“Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.” 

Hold On a Second

You see the theological problem here: It’s those pesky “you” and “you only” bits. Because it just ain’t so. Sin is never “only” against God, and we have the word of the Lord Jesus himself on that score. Remember, he himself said “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault”. In the same context, Peter asks him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him?” Were it the case, this would have been the perfect opportunity for the Lord to tell Peter that all sin is technically against God, so really there’s nothing for you to forgive. Instead, he tells Peter to forgive “seventy-seven times”, which we rightly take to mean forgiveness is never to be withheld.

Clearly it is possibly to sin against people other than God. You can even sin against yourself: Paul talks about sexual immorality being a sin “against your own body”. 

So let’s face it, David sinned against a whole bunch of people here.

He sinned against Uriah: first cuckolding him, then manipulating him and finally conspiring to murder him. He sinned against Bathsheba, using his power to put her in a position where she may well have feared for her life; even if it is argued that she was entirely willing and complicit, he at very least subjected her to a source of temptation she should never have encountered. He sinned against the members of his household that he sent to bring Bathsheba back and forth to his palace by involving them in his crime and its cover-up. He sinned against Joab, effectively ordering him to put his own soldier to death. He broke faith with his army by putting them in jeopardy unnecessarily. He sinned against the people of God by bringing down on himself the judgment of God, which had serious consequences for them. He sinned against his unborn child.

It’s a long list, and it ought to remind us that a similar itemization of culpabilities could be recited each time you and I sin, whether or not we stop to analyze all the actual and potential fallout from our selfish choices.

Working It Through

So, fine, David was wrong: his sin was not “only” against the Lord.

But no, that really won’t do, will it. That’s a very unsatisfying answer. For one, David was a prophet and, much of the time, a very godly man. The Lord Jesus himself speaks of a time in which David, “in the Spirit” called him Lord. Are we going to start debating which of David's statements are “in” or “out” of the Spirit?

The Lord’s approval doesn’t certify every utterance of the king as infallible but it does mean we ought to take what he says a good deal more seriously than when the Bible simply notes a man’s opinion, as happens from time to time. He chose his words carefully and he meant what he said, even when he didn’t fully understand it.

Perhaps then David was merely speaking poetically, and the word “only” is simply a rhetorical device; a little bit of hyperbole to make it clear that David grasped the his worst sin of all was his sin against God. Perhaps he meant that the damage to his relationship with God caused by his sin was so much more significant than any other fallout from it that, comparatively, his sins against others didn’t even rate.


The Uniqueness of God

One thing we can say for sure: there are three things about the God against whom David sinned that distinguish him from all other parties who may have had legitimate reason to feel offended:

1)    Only God is holy enough to correctly assess the wickedness of sin. We can all do a quick-and-dirty analysis of who might be hurt by any particular action, as I have done above, but none of us can truly see the full extent of the damage we (or anyone else) do when we sin. We can’t see sin’s effects in the next generation. We can’t measure the genetic damage we pass on when we abuse ourselves. We can’t calculate how many others are stumbled or damaged in their faith by our example, and how many may be turned away from the faith entirely. And these are all just questions of scope. What about degree? How foul, how repellent is our sin, really? We are so used to living in it, committing it and watching it that our consciences are ill-equipped to evaluate how far removed we are in our fallen state from the nature of God. Only God is able to paint a true picture of sin and its effects.

2)    Only God is righteous enough to call the sinner to account. Nobody else has the “moral high ground”, as we like to say these days. We talk about walking a mile in a man’s shoes to understand him, but the Lord Jesus walked many a mile in ours. While doing so, he could confidently say about his Father that “I always do the things that are pleasing to him”. Having lived as a man and having done so impeccably, he is eminently qualified to judge men and therefore the Father has committed the entire judicial process, so far as man is concerned, to the Son. In stark contrast to that perfect moral authority wielded by Jesus Christ, you sin against me and I sin against you over and over again. With our track records, we cannot call one another to account in any meaningful, legitimate sense. We are all pots calling kettles black when we complain of the injuries done to us by others.

3)    Only God is fair enough to dispense judgment. Poor David: he’s taking his lumps today. On another occasion when David sinned, God sent the prophet Gad to give David a choice between three penalties: three days of pestilence, three years of famine or three months on the run from his foes. Ouch. David wisely responds this way: “Let us fall into the hand of the Lord, for his mercy is great; but let me not fall into the hand of man”. In so choosing, David showed himself not merely cognizant of mercy of God, but also of man’s propensity to grind his fellow man under his heel when given the opportunity. Our judgment of our fellows is relentlessly unfair, inconsistent, arbitrary and disproportionate. Man, who takes delight when the mighty fall, is just as ruthless when a weaker party fails. On other occasions, we fail to judge sin at all, or even to speak up about it. We either pelt the sinner with rocks or grant him a free pass, depending on our whimsy. God, on the other hand, always judges rightly.

Taking God Out of the Picture

Take God out of the picture and sin vanishes with him, doesn’t it. If we are all random products of a random universe, from where do I derive any right to complain about what you do to me? It is only when you add a perfect God establishing a righteous standard of behaviour grounded in his own nature that we can even begin to see where we fall short of it, or indeed to speak of sin at all.

Thus all other parties hurt by David’s sin have cause to be offended only in the most limited, derivative way by comparison to God. Uriah, had he lived, could only lodge a complaint against David by referencing, consciously or otherwise, the nature of the Almighty. He could only claim a right to the loyalty of his wife or his fellow man because God is by nature faithful and therefore rightly demands it of his people.

In fact, all our “rights” derive directly from the character of God.

David Had It Right

No, David was not wrong when he used the words “you and you only”. God, through Nathan, says much the same thing: “Why have you despised the word of the Lord, to do what is evil in his sight?” he asks him.

The rejection of God’s word and his failure to be thankful for what he had been given are David’s fundamental sins, the sins that give rise to all others. If they want redress, Uriah, Bathsheba and the nation will have to get in line.

Nathan goes on: “... you have despised me and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife”. David’s primary offense was a lack of regard for God. He had neglected to factor heaven into the equation when he set about trying to satisfy his desires.

The Lesson for Us

There’s a moral to the story, of course. We all have things we want out of life, though they are not necessarily as obvious as a woman bathing on a rooftop. How do we go about achieving them?

Specifically, when we set out to satisfy our desires in this life, where is God in our thinking? Are we grateful for what we have received? Are we content with our lot, or are we looking to upgrade all the time? Are we conscious of the boundaries God has set for us? Do we give any thought to whether our actions might be inconsistent with his nature and therefore offensive to him?

David had the right idea. Sin is, first and foremost, against “you and you only”.

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