Once, years ago, when I was a kid, a friend of mine and I were racing down a country road, trying to get every last mph we could out of a pair of the kind of tiny motorcycles that were all the rage when I was a boy—90 ccs of sheer power. Bent over to keep down the wind resistance, we were staring into the faces of our speedometers.
My friend veered off the road and into the ditch. Out of nowhere, a culvert appeared; but when he and that little whizzing bike climbed back up he hit the lip of pavement and did an full somersault on his Honda—at least that’s how I remember it.
I hit both my brakes—hand and foot—and my Bridgestone stopped on a dime. But I didn’t. I got myself launched and somehow instinctively pulled my body into a ball, threw my right arm over my head, where it caught the pavement full force in the wild tumble that followed.
When I came up, my entire arm looked as if it had been savaged with a ratchet. I still bear a scar.
Later, at dinner, I kept the story, and my arm, under wraps, didn’t say a word to my parents who weren’t, from the getgo, thrilled about the motorbike.
That evening, we had a ball game. The coach took one look at the blood seeping through my sleeve and set me on the bench.
When I read this most central line of the story David tells and the psalm he writes—“then I acknowledged my sin”—I can’t help think of my bloodied arm because nobody ever told me to curl myself up into a ball if I was hurled from a motorcycle. No one had reviewed safety procedures when racing madly on a Bridgestone 90.
Something innate got called up for duty. Without the slightest coaching, the persistent instinct to live kicked in and I didn’t get badly hurt because our will to survive at any cost is powerful and robust; there is something in all of us that will do everything it can to push us beyond pain and death.
That instinct operates just as assuredly psychologically as it does physically. I wouldn’t have told my parents what happened that day on a country road if they’d boiled me in oil (they wouldn’t have). Why not? Sheer survival. Similar instinct.
Presidents Nixon and Clinton both stone-walled when they shouldn’t have—Nixon over a third-rate burglary, Clinton over a tryst. Why? Instinct. Self-protection. The will to survive. Human motivations we all share.
Confession, or so it seems to me, often runs contrary to those very impulses. Here, in this psalm, David tells the story so matter-of-factly—“then I acknowledged my sin,” as if it was no big deal to come clean.
But it is. Always. Acknowledging our sin is difficult because we fight something basic in ourselves when we do it.
The whole story of Psalm 32 is here in this single verse: “I acknowledged my sin.” It’s just that simple. But two Presidents—and all of us too at one time or another--were brutalized because they couldn’t.
I may be wrong, but I’d guess that right now whoever is reading these words is having trouble forgetting something he or she never confessed. I can see you now, nodding. Confession is good for the soul but rough on the instincts, murder on our humanity.