Updated: Mar 29
Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann says, provocatively, “Churches should be the most honest place in town, not the happiest.” Why can’t we be both?
March 27, 2022
Dr. Todd R. Wright
Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann says, provocatively, “Churches should be the most honest place in town, not the happiest.”
Why can’t we be both?
The psalmist points to a path of honesty and happiness. There is a note in most translations that gives credit to David for this psalm … and David knew all about both sin and forgiveness!
So, right out of the gate, the psalm says, “Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered!”
If the phrasing makes you think of the beatitudes, you’re right, including the surprise twist:
We expect to hear …
Happy are those who win the lottery … or at least their office March Madness bracket.
Happy are those who welcome their new baby into the world or their spouse home from the hospital!
Happy are those who live in harmony with their neighbors: whose countries are not being invaded; whose houses are not being shelled; who are not fleeing with only the clothes on their backs!
We expect happiness to be tied to the things that are cause for celebration in this world!
But the psalmist is very specific. Soul-deep happiness is not tied to a cash windfall, or the miracle of health, or the benefits of peace, as wonderful as those things are! No, the psalmist says the key to happiness is God’s forgiveness!
By that measure, we ought to be happy. We carve out valuable time in the service each Sunday to confess our sins, to evoke being washed clean, and to proclaim God’s abundant grace.
And yet, I wonder, do you think of that as a happy moment … or just awkward?
Amanda Benckhuysen sounds like she has taken a survey:
“We don’t like to talk about sin. Especially if it means talking about our own sin. We would much rather talk about injustice, or evil, or the ways in which another’s sin has contributed to our own brokenness. Because talking about sin is hard. It is hard to acknowledge that there is something wrong with us of which we are the main authors and contributors. It is painful to feel the shame of not measuring up to what we know we should be. It is unsettling to recognize that our thoughts, actions, and behaviors hurt others and contribute to the brokenness of our world. Acknowledging where we have fallen short can be brutally disturbing.”
Well! If she is right, our reticence must break God’s heart!
Here is this gift, lovingly selected with just us in mind, in the perfect size and style, something we need, something that will bring happiness, and we shy away from the package.
Worse, as the psalmist notices, leaving it unwrapped causes us to groan and wither!
But Benckhuysen isn’t finished: “The antidote, the psalmist offers, is confession. Not silence. Not covering up. Not ignoring. But going to that uncomfortable place, facing our sin and shame, and admitting them to God.”
If we are honest, we have much to confess – sin that is festering like an infection; sin that is spreading like cancer; sin that is sucking the life out of us, like a leach.
Rachel Held Evans writes, “My mother used to tell me that we weren’t the type of people to air our dirty laundry. But this is a cultural idiom, not a Christian one. We Christians don’t get to send our lives through the rinse cycle before showing up to church. We come as we are – no hiding, no acting, no fear.” She is able to say that because of the message of Psalm 32!
She then proceeds to make a list. See if anything here describes you:
“We come with our materialism, our pride, our petty grievances against our neighbors, our hypocritical disdain for those judgmental people in the church next door. We come with our fear of death, our desperation to be loved, our troubled marriages, our persistent doubts, our preoccupation with status and image. We come with our addictions – to substances, to work, to affirmation, to control, to food. We come with our differences, be they political, theological, racial, or socioeconomic. We come in search of sanctuary, a safe place to shed the masks and exhale. We come to air our dirty laundry before God and everybody because when we do it together we don’t have to be afraid.”
We don’t have to be afraid because God is ready to forgive us, to heal us, to fill us with all the life that sin has stolen from us!
One scholar muses, playfully, that if the Sundays in Lent had named themes like Advent does (Hope, Peace, Joy, Love), then this Sunday would celebrate forgiveness!
While the psalmist piles up term upon term to catalog sin – transgression, sin, iniquity, deceit – that stack is matched by the terms used to describe God’s response.
In The Message, Eugene Peterson describes how God’s grace overwhelms our failures:
God wipes the slate clean and gives the psalmist a fresh start!
God holds nothing against the one who holds nothing back!
Their guilt dissolves and their sin disappears!
God showers them with love at every turn!
So, be honest, is there anything better than our end of this bargain?
We confess and God forgives.
Actually, that isn’t quite right. That makes it sound like a transaction.
In fact, God is the one who starts things off by welcoming us with open arms and offering us grace before we speak. We dare to confess because we already know what God will do in response!
Is there anything that will happen this week that is better news?
Is there anything that could fill us with more joy?
Happy are the people of God – in every place and generation we are forgiven!
Or, as Peterson puts it: Let everyone sing together; let all honest hearts celebrate God!
 Quoted in Searching for Sunday by Rachel Held Evans, page 66
 From her commentary on the text for The Christian Century, 3/31/19
 From Searching for Sunday, pages 70-71
 Also from Searching for Sunday, page 71
 I am indebted to Beth Tanner for this idea - see her comments on Psalm 32 in The Christian Century, 3/6/16