Psalm 51: A Psalm for Screwups (How God Leads Us to Wrestle with Our Failures and Run to Him)
We all dread getting caught in the act. Take my student Steven, for example. He was thrilled to discover his parents would be out of town for the weekend. So he quickly texted his friends, planned a party for Saturday night, and convinced his older brother to get him some alcohol. The party was going to go down in history as one of the best memories of high school—until Steven’s mom and dad came home early on Saturday night. Steven was caught in the act. He couldn’t hide his poor decisions from his parents, and as a follower of Jesus, Steven felt like he had angered God as well.
Being exposed as a screwup is a critical moment in a student’s life and faith. As youth workers, the way that we respond to students in their moments of failure will help to shape their view of God and the church as well as their view of grace. The question that stands at the core of the failing person’s heart is: “I understand that God’s grace is for others but could God’s grace really be for me?”
One of the most famous screw-up stories in the Old Testament is that of King David and Bathsheba. Here’s the CliffsNotes version of the story: David fails to go to war like kings should. He falls into lust over Bathsheba, which leads to adultery, which leads to murdering her husband to cover it up. He is then confronted over his growing list of sins by the prophet Nathan, leading him to write Psalm 51 as a prayer of response to God.
Psalm 51 serves as an excellent gospel guide in leading students to wrestle with the gravity of sin and the greatness of grace. David gives us the following gospel truths to which we can point our students when they have been exposed in sin:
Sin is serious and effects our relationship with God.
It is part of our fallen human nature to want to gloss over sin in our own lives. We rationalize that sin is not a big deal since everyone is a sinner. But as David approaches God in his prayer, he is clear about the seriousness of his sin. He calls it a “transgression” (v. 1, 3), an “iniquity” (v. 2, 5), and “evil” (v. 4). David acknowledges that he was born a sinner (v. 5), yet doesn’t excuse his sin. David sees that his failure has hurt the people around him, and his relationship to God as well (v. 4).
Being caught is not a fun place to be for us or for our students. The sinful decision can no longer be covered up. Being caught requires coming face to face with the reality that you have screwed up. You are a failure, and now others know it, too.
Remind your students that a proper response to failure is to acknowledge the seriousness of sin. Only when our students see the depth of their wrongdoing against God can they truly experience the beauty of God’s grace towards them in Jesus.
Sin requires mercy and cleansing from God.
Since sin is fundamentally against God, sinners stand in judgment before God. Throughout Psalm 51, David writes as a convicted felon standing before a judge. He begs for mercy (v. 1) and acknowledges that God has the right and power to punish him for his sin (v. 4). As screwups, we and our students stand before God needing His mercy (v. 1) and His cleansing (v. 2, 7, 10). Like David, our students stand in a desperate place needing God’s intervention.
When students come to terms with their failure, their approach will often be to do better and try harder. They will often try to overcome their sin through good decisions and performance, but that is the path away from grace. The gospel calls us to acknowledge that we cannot achieve what we truly need, therefore we stand before God deeply in need of Him.
It is in this moment of failure where as youth leaders we need to remind our students both of the gravity of our sin and the greatness of the gospel – that Jesus took all of our screw-ups on Himself at the cross and spoke “it is finished” over our failures.
Grace results in true transformation.
Throughout Psalm 51, David writes of the transforming power of God’s grace, which results in forgiveness instead of judgment. He asks for God to cleanse him (v. 7), to restore him to joy (v. 8). David begs God to give him a clean heart and a pure spirit (v. 9-10), God’s salvation (v. 12) by the presence of the Holy Spirit.
Because Jesus died on the cross for our students’ rebellion, they can be transformed as well. When they are found in sin (or even when sin remains hidden), we must urge them to pray “Create in me a clean hear, O God!” At the cross, Jesus took the punishment and penalty for our sin so that we can now walk in freedom. This is the gospel hope that we must remind our students: That all who have failed can experience a changed heart through the rescue of Jesus.
Grace is expressed in a story to tell.
For David, grace is expressed in the way he lives and what he values. Because of the grace he has received from God in response to his failure, David now shares about grace with others (v. 13). He can’t help but sing of God’s grace (v. 14-15); he now lives his life as a sacrifice to God and His purpose (v. 16-19). God’s change in David’s life has caused David to now be about bringing change in the lives of others.
Once our students have experienced God’s grace, they will have stories of hope to tell. They will be able to speak from personal experience the truth that our past failures don’t define us. They begin to live from the truth that transformation is found not in trying harder but surrendering to the One who makes you new. Like David, they can proclaim the grace that is available because Jesus took their sin upon Himself at the cross.
The gospel is good news for screwups because the grace of Jesus abounds for our sin. As youth workers, let us run to Jesus for His grace in the midst of our own failures and let us encourage our students to run towards that same transforming grace. Psalm 51 serves as a clear invitation to walk and live in that grace.
A note from the editors: Psalms are meant to be experienced, helping us to take the truths of God’s character deep into our souls. Here’s a song based on this psalm for your encouragement: by Shane and Shane.