Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me. Then I will teach transgressors your ways, so that sinners will turn back to you. Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God, you who are God my Savior, and my tongue will sing of your righteousness. Open my lips, Lord, and my mouth will declare your praise. You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.
PSALM 51:7-10 (NIV)
Psalm 51 is one of the most important passages of scripture for aspiring ministers, the vocational and volunteer alike. David’s words here speak to you, me, and all of the people of God, equipped as Ephesians 4:12 says, to do the work of ministry. This psalm is inspiring and hopeful, but to get to the fruit of the passage, we have to admit something about ourselves we would much rather hide: failure.
Today the fear of failure has the power to cripple people like few things can. Not wanting to be dismissed or defeated or exposed has choked out more voices and paralyzed more activity in our world than just about any other fear we could hold. We prefer to operate in safe environments, to stay in our lane, to keep the game on Easy Mode, and so we have built a world to accommodate. Even on the rare occasions we do venture out into the unknown, we prefer our risks heavily calculated and fully insured. So much of the comfort in our world exists specifically to counter any fear of failure. As much as possible, we aim to guarantee success.
None of this has to be bad, of course. Wisdom should lead us to make good decisions and steward the blessings in our lives well. But there is a place where all our efforts tip over into pride, where the only wisdom we turn to is our own and the heart remains hidden. This is the place where things fall apart and the facade finally crumbles down. This is where we encounter David.
Psalm 51 is a confession. King David has been confronted by the prophet Nathan with his sins of adultery and murder, and now there is no recourse left to David but to fall before the Lord. The blessings that had previously represented clear favor with God over David’s rule had long since turned in David’s mind to evidence of his own greatness. Dependence on the Lord disappeared, and in its place ruled the illusion of self-sufficiency. In a moment, David’s whole world shattered, and he could not run from his sin. The prospect of success vanished as the Lord brought wrath in favor’s place. All that was left was the shame of David’s failure.
Surprisingly, it’s right in this moment where ministry begins. David drops to his knees and cries out to God. He doesn’t negotiate or point to success to prove himself worthy of the Lord’s forgiveness. No, David acknowledges his sin and failure and cries out from deep within to confess and repent and plea.
If we have come to know Christ we remember this place where David sits. We know the feelings he’s expressing, maybe even recognize the words he uses. David prays for forgiveness and healing and restoration. He knows the only life available to him is through the mercy of God. He longs to find joy and to be thankful.
But David’s prayer doesn’t stop here. “Restore,” he pleas. “Then I will teach transgressors you ways, and sinners will return to you.” What separated him from God can also be the substance of testimony. David’s failure could become God’s success.
What could David teach these sinners and rebels? What words could he offer them should God restore to him the joy of salvation? David knows he can come to these people and speak right to their fears, to their failures, to their falls. He is confident because he knows their language and shared their sin. But God rescues, restores, and gives new life. The paths flesh carved become the roads evangelism walks.
Christian service pours out of this realization. The heart that knows change is filled with gratitude and pours out testimony. This is the calling we all share together, the ministry New Testament believers knew well, where each person came to church with something to serve each other (1 Corinthians 14:26). Like David, we carry with us the memory of our failures, but we also carry songs and teachings and revelations that proclaim the Lord’s mercy. Psalm 51 reminds us that encounter failure, not dismissing it or factoring it out of our lives, is the key to humble worship and healthy ministry.
It’s vulnerability that keeps this fire of thanksgiving stoked. When you survey the failures of your past and all your mistakes borne of pride and selfishness and idolatry, you can’t help but look at where you are and see a place only God could bring you. This is the beginning of ministry, the place where we recognize that restoration is through the Lord alone. It is right here where we can’t help but praise and teach and serve.
God when I was a slave to sin, following the world and disobeying Your will, I deserved death. But You loved me from a heart rich in mercy and sent Your Son to give me life. Grace saved me when I was at my worst, and now I sit where I don’t deserve, by Your side. I know that I’m only here because of You. Help me remember my past, so I might again cherish my present and believe in my future. Help me see that this gift of grace is a song to sing, a lesson to teach, a joy to proclaim. AMEN.
From what failures has God rescued you? How have you turned your pain to praise? Remember that the sin that broke you is a sin others still carry. In your gratitude for Jesus’ saving work, share your story today with someone who needs to turn to Christ.