Reflection on Psalm 51 and the Heart of Transformative Change
Psalm 51: 7, 10
“Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow……..
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
And renew a steadfast spirit within me.”
This Scripture is the memory verse for Step 7 in the Twelve Step study that we use with women at Titus 2. Today I was considering these verses as a young lady and I discussed this Step and I had these thoughts about it:
This series of requests for cleansing by the Psalmist depicts a familiar pattern in Scripture…..a progressive movement.
The first phrase, “Purge me with hyssop” suggests a ritual and communal act of cleansing, symbolic and utilizing a purifying agent that is physical. It cleanses the environment and all who are in it and is commonly used to cleanse and consecrate the temple, homes, etc. By participating and being in the midst, we signal our willingness to enter into the cleansing process.
The second phrase, “Wash me and I shall be whiter than snow” represents a next stage…a personal external cleansing that leaves one “white as snow”…. This “wash” stage of cleansing is on the body and it deals with the outer appearance as seen through the eyes of God after we are covered by the righteousness of Christ. This is familiar language used to represent the imputed righteousness that is ours with justification.
The next phrase, “Create in me a clean heart, O God” represents the interior, deep work of sanctification. It is the imparted righteousness that is true transformation through “circumcision of the heart.”
In the same way Isaiah 1:18 presents this dual process of imputed and imparted righteousness with similar language:
“Come, let us reason together.” This suggests an invitation into a ritual and communal approach as a point of beginning.
“Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.” Snow is something that creates the appearance of cleanliness by covering over the underlying reality. This parallels the work of justification by Christ’s death and reveals how God sees us after our profession of faith in Christ.
“Though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.” Wool is white in and of itself. This parallels the imparted work of righteousness that occurs with sanctification, not just covering over our sins, but actually transforming us into something that is white itself, not just covered with white.
The final phrase in this Psalm 51 plea is, “and renew a steadfast spirit within me.” To renew something suggests that it has been there previously or is recognized as the Creator’s intent for the individual. The Psalmist is seeking a return to a posture of firm and unshakable faithful righteousness after a personal moral failure and disobedience. The writer’s restoration begins in community and progresses through degrees of depth, intensity, and renewal to the very core, each part in the process guided by the loving extended hand of God who hears the sinner’s plea and forgives.
When examined in this progressive way, the verses make it clear this is a desire, a pleading, for whole and complete restoration….within community, externally and to one’s deepest heart and he implores God to make him faithful going forward, as well. Not a bad plea for all of us, but especially for women doing their Step 6&7 for the first time.
This movement from the communal and less intimate cleansing to the deeper work within is observed in the women who come to Titus 2. They begin their journey by acknowledging humility before others and expressing a repentant desire for change in a community setting where such public responsibility and accountability are required in Steps 1&2. Then, as they encounter the love of Christ and profess belief that their hope for healing lies in faith in Christ, they experience the justifying grace that brings them into right relationship and to peace with God in Step 3. Then the internal transforming work of the Spirit begins to produce the characterological transformation examined in Steps 4&5. In Steps 6&7 they engage in an exercise of “putting off” the old person and “putting on” the new by enumerating their specific character defects before God and praying specifically for each one to be removed by God and for God’s own character to be placed in the void that is left, bringing them to peace with themselves . By this time in the process, the women themselves say “I am different”…..Then in Steps 8&9, they make amends and experience reconciling peace with others. In Steps 10&11 these women review and practice the skills, disciplines, and habits that will allow them to remain in this new peace with God, self, and others. In Step 12 they find the voice and the means of witnessing to others about how God has transformed them.
This verse reveals the nature of the Twelve Step process, communal to intimate, redeeming through and through from the outside in, using the Body of Christ as the Spirit dwells among and acts upon those whom God draws into fellowship. The Twelve Steps are not a mechanical process to be performed and checked off like a “to do” list. They are an act of holy worship over time as God takes up residence in one’s soul.