“The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Psalm 51:17).
The following is the manuscript from a sermon preached on February 14, 2016, at Christ Reformed Church in Meeker, Colorado.
Facing our suffering
If we examine our lives, perhaps our least favorite thing is to go through suffering, particularly the kind that reveals our weakness and our sin-stained hearts—the heart that distorts the truth to make ourselves look better, exaggerates other people’s sins to make them look worse, and that always points blaming fingers at others but is blind to its own self-centered corruption.
Psalm 51 gives us a look at what happens when God pursues us in steadfast love to break through our hard hearts, to take us down a broken road. It’s about God intercepting us on the path of destruction and pointing us back to himself. And it’s about the brokenhearted conviction of our sin, without which we would not repent and return to the Lord.
The introduction gives us the context of the psalm. It comes on the heels of Nathan the prophet coming to David and confronting him about his sin. He’d committed adultery with Bathsheba, who conceived a child. To hide his sin, David murdered Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband, in battle.
This is an ultimate low moment in David’s life. And it’s low because, as he says in verse 3, he knows his sin; God has made it plain to him, and the sight of his own corrupted and twisted heart shatters him. It’s led David to see that unless God grants him a new and clean heart, he’s hopeless (verse 10).
And what’s interesting is that God invites us into this experience. He invites us to see David’s brokenness so that we might learn something about our own.
We’ll focus on verse 17 in particular, because I think it functions as something like the heart of the psalm. David has discovered an amazing reality through the midst of his brokenness and conviction over his sin. He’s realized that the whole sacrificial system, the shedding of the blood of bulls and goats, was really pointing to a deeper reality: What God wanted broken on the altar was not an animal, but David himself. The cut up animal was supposed to represent us as worshippers. God didn’t primarily want all of David’s religious activities; he wanted his broken heart to be poured out on the altar. That’s the true sacrifice that pleases God.
That’s also what God wants from you today. Of course he wants us to be in church here today, and to go about being faithful in our religious duties. But what he really desires, and what all those things are supposed to point us to, is a tender, broken heart that offers itself wholly on God’s altar. He wants, as Paul tells us in Romans 12, to offer ourselves as living sacrifices to God.
And so in this sermon I want to highlight two major things about God’s purpose in our brokenness. I hope this will do several things. If you’re broken, if sin weighs you down, if you look at your life and you want to give up, walk away from your problems, run away, whatever, I want to offer you comfort in the purposes and promises of God. I want to give you hope about the work God is doing in your life. Because he is still at work in you. Jesus has promised and he will not leave you as orphans.
But maybe you’re thinking to yourself, “I’m perfectly at ease. Not a care in the world. I don’t really see my sin as that big of a problem.” Maybe you’d rather not face your problems, rushing from one distraction to the next. Maybe you’re in the process of running away from your pain. Maybe you’re completely in denial about your own heart. Maybe you think your problems are everyone else’s fault. Maybe you look at David and say, “I would never do that.” This is what the Bible calls hardness of heart, and God warns us against it, because it would destroy us. I pray God’s word would come and rip through you today.
I want to focus on two main points regarding God’s purpose in our brokenness: First, God’s purpose in breaking us, and second, God’s purpose in transforming us through sacrificial worship.
God’s Purpose in Breaking Us
James 5:11 says, “Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.” What you should see when you look at Job’s great sufferings, and when you look at your own is, first, that God has a purpose, and second, that that purpose is merciful and compassionate.
One of the great lies we’re tempted to believe when we’re experiencing trials and the brokenness of our own sin in the midst of those things is that God has forsaken us. Maybe we feel like a lost cause. We feel like there’s no purpose behind what we’re going through. When friends disappoint us, when spouses hurt us, when people confront us and relational conflict surrounds our lives, when the sight of our own sin makes us feel there is no hope for change in us or for others, when our dreams crash to the floor, it’s easy to miss what God is doing.
But David points out a vital truth for us in verse 8. Notice what he says: “Let the bones that you have broken rejoice.” David, like Job, is confessing something fundamental about his suffering: God is at work. God brought this about. God is the one who pursued David in his waywardness and mercifully brought him to a point of brokenness and repentance. David’s brokenness is a result of God’s covenant love in action.
That’s something we’ve got to realize in our trials as well. What are you facing? What keeps you up at night? What eats away at your bones and consumes your thoughts all day long? What has you heavy? God is at work in this situation. What seems dark and confusing to us is nothing of the sort to God. He is orchestrating all things, including your deepest pain, for a purpose.
God brought this relational struggle into your life for a reason. It’s not an accident. Maybe it’s with a spouse or a child, a parent or a coworker. Maybe you’re disappointed about where your life has taken you. But in all that you face, God has a purpose that is both good and loving, merciful and compassionate.
Now I have to admit, as we look at God’s purpose in our sufferings, these are deep waters we’re wading into. One sermon is not going to resolve every question you have. These things take time. But I hope it encourages you to search out God’s word for the life-giving promises that God makes to you in your pain.
The psalmist, in psalm 119, said this: “This is my comfort in my affliction, that your promise gives me life … if your law had not been my delight, I would have perished in my affliction.” And in Psalm 34: “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.” Matthew 5: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
And it says in Hosea 6: “Come, let us return to the Lord; for he has torn us, that he may heal us; he has struck us down, that he may bind us up. After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him.”
Again, God does in fact lead us to places of brokenness. He orders the events of our lives to bring us to that point of rock bottom. But with that he gives the promise of healing and restoration. Notice the language of restoration in verse 2—this is Christ language, death and resurrection language. Paul said in Romans 6:5 that “If we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” As we’re broken and cut up, we’re also been transformed in a resurrectional way; like caterpillars turned into butterflies, God is making us into something totally new.
In your sufferings, more than any other thing, god is leading you to a deeper union with christ.
In your sufferings, more than any other thing, God is leading you to a deeper union with Christ. As you embrace your trials and take up the cross that God appoints to you, God is bringing you closer to Christ. Peter tells us not to be surprised when we face fiery trials, but to rejoice that as we share Christ’s sufferings, we will also share in his glory (1 Peter 4:12-13). You could lose everything, but as Paul put it, losing everything to gain Christ is worth it.
Did David learn this lesson? Was he pointed to Christ in his sufferings? I think he was. My friend Sam actually pointed this out to me, and it’s breathtakingly beautiful. Look at 2 Samuel 12:13-14: “David said, I have sinned against the LORD.” And Nathan said to David, “The LORD also has put away your sin; you shall not die. Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the LORD, the child who is born to you shall die.”
You see what’s happening? According to the Old Testament law David deserves death on two counts, both as an adulterer and a murderer, but his child dies instead. Hear that again: A son from David will die to restore his relationship to God. David is in the dust of death, laying in the cursed earth, the son dies, and then he’s raised up. It’s a resurrection for David. This was God’s plan all along. He was bringing David to the son who would die to restore him to God, to resurrect him to a better life than he’d ever known before.
Where is God taking you in your brokenness? To the feet of Jesus. Christ is not precious to the man who thinks he’s well; he’s glorious to men like David, fully aware of his sin, utterly crushed by his temptations and trials. He’s a physician to the sin sick and the weak. To them he is their Treasure.
Christ delights to display his power most fully in the weak, the needy and the broken.
Finally, I want to encourage you with this: Christ delights to display his power most fully in the weak, the needy and the broken. When you’re at your lowest, Christ shows up in your life at his best. Maybe like Paul you’ve cried for the burden to be removed, whatever you’re facing. But you know what our Lord says to you this morning? “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in your weakness.” And so Paul cried out, “If I am to know Christ in my sufferings, then I rejoice in them! Because they’re bringing me closer to Jesus.”
What is God doing in your brokenness? He’s bringing you closer to Jesus.
How God Breaks Us: Friends
Now I’d be remiss if I didn’t point this out: God used a fellow believer, a Christian, to intervene in David’s life. He uses ordinary people to reach into others’ lives and love them, sometimes by saying hard things. But you notice how Nathan shows up. First, would people feel comfortable confronting you about your sin? If they have, what’s your response? Do you shoot the messenger? Or do you repent and listen? Do you accept and welcome other people’s help?
Do you show up in big ways for others? Are you that kind of person for others, speaking the truth in love? If you want a friend like that, be a friend like that. I would simply encourage you today to be a friend who crosses the street to get involved in your brothers’ lives. Love those who seem disinterested in you, which is by the way a whole lot less than loving your enemies, which we’re called to do. Invite each other into your homes and lives. Eat meals together. Pray for one another. Not only is God drawing us near to himself, he’s drawing us near to others.
A hard heart will lead you to destruction, but a broken heart will lead you to christ.
This is how God keeps us from hardening our hearts. Don’t shut yourself off—that’s what will kill you. “But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” Hebrews 3:13. So be a friend like that, and remember: A hard heart will lead you to destruction, but a broken heart will lead you to Christ.
God’s Purpose: Transforming Us Through Sacrificial Worship
If you pay attention to Psalm 51, David’s idea of worship is soaked in terms of sacrificial language. That’s not surprising, since God in the Old Testament orders worship in that context: In order to approach God, a bloody sacrifice for sin has to be made. Something has to be cut up, reordered, and consumed in the fire to ascend to God. David, as we pointed out earlier, recognizes that the sacrifices God really wants is us—we are to be broken and placed on the altar, consumed in flames to ascend up to God. Again, this is Paul’s point in Romans 12: Our whole lives are to be offered up to God in service to him; we are the sacrifice he really desires.
You may think sacrificial worship is a thing for the Old Testament, but the New Testament writers repeatedly use sacrificial language to describe our worship in the New Covenant as well. There are no bulls and goats, of course, but there is the slain body and blood of Jesus Christ, as we find in the Lord’s Supper. And there’s the preaching of God’s word, which we’re told in Hebrews 4:12 is a living and active sword, extremely sharp, which cuts us up and prepares us for communion with God.
In his book, “The Lord’s Service,” Jeff Meyers puts it this way:
“God did not ultimately take pleasure in animals slaughtered, chopped up, and turned into smoke on the altar…God really delights in the sacrifice of his people. This is why we say that the foundational sacrifice of Christ has not simply put an end to all sacrifice and offering, but instead has manifested its true meaning. Jesus shows us the way of sacrifice, true human sacrifice, in his life and self-giving death on the cross.”
God is, first, transforming us through the sacrificial worship of the Lord’s Service. We come into his presence, we confess our sins, he cuts us up by the preaching of his word, consumes us in the fire, and we ascend into his presence to eat a meal with him. He commissions us, and we, being transformed, are sent out into the world to transform it. This is to be a pattern for our whole lives.
Second, God is transforming us through our fiery trials to offer ourselves as living sacrifices. As the Spirit convicts us of sin, as we look to Christ in our sufferings, God is transforming us into something more glorious—something sacrificial and Christ-like. He is transforming us into true worshippers.
Finally, I’ll close with Joel 2:12-13, as a word for you to depart with. In it hear the call to receive God’s work in your life and return, brokenhearted, to him: “Yet even now, declares the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, weeping and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”