I know what it feels like to have sinned. Like any human, I have made mistakes and fallen short; and it’s often in those relationships that are closest to my heart that it’s hardest to admit guilt, whether privately or aloud. But when I am able to admit my own sin, I often end up feeling contaminated, or tainted, like there’s something heavy on my chest or in my gut that I just have to get rid of, somehow.
And so, much like the psalmist in today’s psalm, I might use language to describe how I feel that equates sin with dirt, muck, or a stain to be removed from clothing. And, on the flipside, I might liken the desired state of unity with God with purity, cleanliness, and whiteness.
To some extent, I get it; I might want to see myself as a piece of clothing that can be returned to its “natural” stainless state, which both affirms my goodness and the ability to undo the sin. And when working with wool, those who want to be able to dye it, or to show off its purity or cleanliness, white is the best base color or “natural state” to work with.
The similarities stop there, and so do the usefulness of the metaphor. For reasons that should be obvious, equating sinlessness with whiteness is no longer acceptable for us as Christians. The same could (and should) be said of linking sinlessness to purity and cleanliness, for they too are concepts that become all too easy to employ in the building of patriarchy, white supremacy, and all the other systems of injustice that plague our society.
Instead, let us look to what the psalmist actually desires: God’s mercy, love, wisdom, joy, gladness, and, perhaps most of all, closeness to God. These are the things that the psalmist, and anyone who feels that they have wronged a friend, actually desire. When I know I’ve wronged someone, I often feel like I wish I could just tell them to forget what I did, look away from it, pretend it the slight isn’t there, or some other form of “washing away” and “purging” me of my sin in their mind.
But what we actually desire from a friend isn’t to be purged of the undesirable parts of ourselves. What we truly desire is to be accepted and loved; and this same desire shows itself in the actual longings of the psalmist. Like any human who wishes they could just press “rewind” and undo something they just did, the psalmist wishes for their transgressions to be “blotted out.” But true salvation doesn’t leave us with parts of who we are missing; it means taking the whole of who we are, and redeeming it through undeserved love, which we Christians call Grace. That’s what friends do for each other, and that’s what the psalmist, and each one of us, can truly hope for from God.
Peter Levenstrong is Associate Rector at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco. Having grown up non-religious, he enjoys bringing “a fresh pair of eyes” to examine the tradition of the Episcopal Church, and is particularly interested in the intersection of faith and justice. You can find him online on Twitter at @_Rev_Lev.