Conversatio Divina

Part 8 of 16

Telling the Truth: David, Imperfection, and the Jesus Way

Chris Webb

01.  Introduction

I met Michelle in a refuge for homeless and street people. She stood out from the tired and ragged crowd. Her clothes were colorful and eye-catching, her hair violet and spiked. We shared coffee together as she talked quickly and nervously, enlarging every sentence with circling hand movements while the cigarette in her fingers left swirling trails in the air. Delicate tattooed lines traced up her arms, threads of green and blue punctuated by dark needle marks.

Her conversation meandered around the contours of her life. She told me how she enjoyed spending her days soaking in the warmth of the refuge, sheltering from the cold street corner where by night she turned tricks to earn her daily bread. We talked about Sasha, her three-year-old daughter who moved between playgroups, friends, and grandparents, always under the watchful eye of anxious social workers. Michelle told me a little—but very little—of her own chaotic and troubled childhood and rather more of her unpredictable present, a life sketched out among the hookers, addicts, dealers, crazies, and johns who made up most of her world.

The longer Michelle talked, the more my heart was breaking. Hearing her story was like watching a road accident unfold in slow motion. Wounded by the degradations others had visited on her and surrounded by others equally damaged and desperate, she had made a series of tragically poor choices that had left her life a shattered wreck.

02.  A Twelve-Step Church?

I wondered: where should Michelle go to church?

I’ve been very fortunate. The churches I’ve pastored over the years have been delightful communities of good and devout people who genuinely loved God and wanted to reach out into the world around them. But in most of them, we would have struggled to welcome Michelle into the pews. A cleaned-up and recovered Michelle would have been wonderful, of course. Had she been dragged out of the gutter into the arms of Jesus, had she kicked the drugs and whoring and gone off singing to seminary—then glory, hallelujah! Now that would have been a prize for the kingdom.

But this was the real Michelle. The Michelle who is a recovering sinner and far from recovered. . . . Michelle who would leave our worship service to hit the streets again because she loves Jesus but she also wants to feed her daughter, so what else can you do? Ah, now that would have been rather more difficult.

Michelle needed a twelve-step church.

A twelve-step group like Alcoholics Anonymous molds itself around wrecked people who are still struggling and falling, not around those who are already getting life straight. No one would ever sit you down at an A.A. meeting to explain how you are letting the side down: “You know, friend, we have our reputation in the community to think about. With all this boozing, you’re a bad witness. Why not get yourself cleaned up a little, then come back and join us?” Such craziness would defy the whole purpose of the organization. Alcoholics Anonymous exists solely for the desperate drunks, not for the respectable tipplers. After all, as Jesus once observed, it’s not the healthy who need a physician, but the sick.

What, though, is the church, if not “Sinners Anonymous”? Surely we are called to be a community of recovering sinners—a home for desperate people (like Michelle, like me), who are gripped by but fighting with our destructive addiction to sin. Michelle needed a church where it was possible to say, “I am Michelle, and I am a sinner.” Where it was possible to be open and truthful about weakness and vice, about brokenness and failings. Where virtue was a goal, not an entry requirement. Michelle badly needed that church. And so do I.

03.  A Master Sinner

David would have understood that need. The story of King David meanders through page after page of Scripture, presenting us with a huge and unique portrait of sin on a magnificent scale. From start to finish it is clear that David is a far more accomplished and consistent sinner than most of the characters we meet in the Bible. Not that the Bible delivers a spiffed-up cast, by any means: Noah gets drunk and curses. Abraham lies. Moses murders. Joshua slaughters. Samson brawls. Solomon philanders. Even Paul indulges a bitter grudge against his companion John Mark. But David is in another league. He takes his wrong turns so much more widely, more creatively, and more frequently. David offers us a master class in sin.

Next time you find yourself facing a difficult situation or moral dilemma, you might find it interesting to pose a simple question: WWDD: What Would David Do?

For example, you might be getting married, and want to win over your prospective father-in-law. Well, what would David do? The Bible tells us he murdered two hundred Philistines (a grisly one hundred more than Saul’s morbid bride price), sliced off their foreskins, and presented Saul with a bag filled with mutilated genitals: a memorable gift.

Or perhaps you need to find wise and ethical ways of managing conflict. What would David do? Amongst his many exploits, we discover that while taking refuge from Saul, he led his men on raids against Philistine villages. In order to ensure that news of this betrayal of hospitality never reached his hosts, he would put each village to the sword—massacring every man, woman, child, and baby in its crib to protect himself.

Alternatively, we might consider his treatment of Moabite prisoners of war. Forcing the men to lie on the ground in a long, snaking line, he had them measured with a length of cord. The rope was stretched out—once, twice—and the men who fell under those lengths were executed. Only those who found themselves under every third length were spared. Such arbitrary acts of terror may have subjugated the rebellious province, but today they would create a very effective shortcut to a war crimes trial.

And there is so much more. Do we even need to dwell on the incident with Bathsheba—a sordid tale of not only adultery and deception, but also murder? Uriah quickly found that being close to the king could become very dangerous indeed. He was not the last to learn that lesson. Even on his deathbed, David’s last words were guidance for Solomon regarding how those who had wronged David should suffer and die. Vengeful and vindictive to the last, David is painted in the same terrible hues as any tyrannical warlord or Mafioso.

This is the unpalatable truth about David—and yet, it is not the whole truth. For this same David is also described in Scripture as “a man after [God’s] own heart.”1 Samuel 13:14. All Scripture quotations are taken from the New Revised Standard Version, Updated Edition, copyright © 1989, 2021 The National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. When the sons of Jesse are brought before Samuel, the Lord rejects one after another until his gaze settles on David because, we are told, “The Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”1 Samuel 16:7. This makes me wonder: what exactly did the Lord see in the heart of this man? Reading through the narrative of David’s public life in the books of Samuel and Kings helps us delve only a little way into that mystery. We find a much more significant answer when we turn to the Psalms.

04.  Plundering the Psalms

Not all the Psalms are songs of David, of course. The Psalter itself tells us, through the superscriptions over many of the texts, that this is a collection pieced together by various composers: Asaph, the sons of Korah, Heman, Ethan, and even Moses and Solomon are all named as authors. And the Hebrew phrase “a psalm of David” (found in one form or another at the opening of almost half the psalms) is not as clear as we might wish. It could mean either “a psalm written by David” or “a psalm written for David” or simply “a psalm written in the style of David.” Nevertheless, it seems clear that the soul of the “sweet psalmist of Israel” is revealed throughout much of the Psalter; whatever has not flowed from his pen is still consistent with his spirit. It is here we discover the man after God’s own heart.

What would David do? He would sin much. But he would love God more. David sinned and sinned greatly. But he was shattered by his sin. David was a sinner, but he was a sinner in recovery. Consider, for example, the anguished confession of Psalm 51:

Have mercy on me, God, in your kindness.
In your compassion, blot out my offense.
O wash me more and more from my guilt
and cleanse me from my sin.

My offenses truly I know them;
my sin is always before me.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned;
what is evil in your sight I have done. . . .

Indeed you love truth in the heart;
then in the secret of my heart teach me wisdom.
O purify me, then I shall be clean;
O wash me, I shall be whiter than snow.

Psalm 51:3–6, 8–9, Grail Psalter

There is a phrase in that last verse that always haunts me: “You love truth in the heart.” David was devastated by his sin, yet I am not devastated by mine. I feel guilty, remorseful, regretful. But David was driven to his knees in horrified despair. And I suspect that the difference between us is that he was more ready to tell the truth. Like so many others, I find myself unready to speak the truth in my heart, let alone in the outside world. I am in denial.

05.  Throwing Ourselves at Jesus’ Feet

In Luke 7, we read about a meal Jesus enjoyed at the home of Simon the Pharisee. Simon was holding a reception dinner so his acquaintances would have the opportunity to spend time with this fascinating religious teacher, Jesus. We might imagine the conversation around the table: “Jesus, please let me introduce my good friend Neriah, the leader of the local synagogue. Ah, and there across the table is Hasadiah, a donor to our ministry efforts—do be sure to spend a little time with him. Would you like some dried figs? We’re all so interested to hear your thoughts on the recent controversy about the interpretation of Deuteronomy. . . .”

And then came an extraordinary interruption. A disheveled woman burst in, not invited, not welcome. She threw herself down at the feet of Jesus and began to weep. She had not a word to say; she was completely shattered, utterly broken. I have no idea what she had done, but they knew, Simon and his friends, and they were not pleased to see her. Simon was disgusted: “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.”Luke 7:39, emphasis added. But the woman knew that truth too. The weight of her sin had broken her in two, and her tears poured from the wound to wash across the feet of Christ. She loosened her hair to wipe away the tears while the rest of the company looked on, appalled.

When I read this story, I discover that I am Simon. Perhaps you are too. We go to church week by week. We sing stirring and moving hymns. We pray devout prayers. We take notes as we hear the challenging and inspiring message. Everything we do is uplifting, tidy, and orchestrated because most of the time we are not desperate. We are not shattered and broken into a thousand jagged pieces. We have not come to weep over the feet of Jesus without words and without shame. Unlike David in the Psalms, we are simply not telling the truth.

06.  Telling the Truth

I remember a young woman who came to me once in great pain and distress. An intimate romantic relationship had recently ended in the most dreadful betrayal, leaving her hurt and angry. She told me her fury and bitterness were eating away at her soul. “I know you’re going to tell me I need to forgive,” she said, “but I cannot do it.”

“Don’t worry,” I replied. “I’m not going to tell you anything of the sort. He acted like a swine. You have every right to be angry and resentful.”

She looked at me quizzically. “But isn’t it wrong to feel this way?” she asked. “Maybe,” I answered. “I’m sure it isn’t doing you any good. Counseling might help, but I’d have to refer you to someone else since I’m not a counselor. I’m a priest. I help people to pray.”

She thought about that for a moment: she wasn’t a Christian, so prayer was unfamiliar territory. But eventually she asked how I could help her to pray. “Simple,” I told her. “I think you should pray for him to die.”

Now I really had her attention. Since she had little experience of prayer, I suggested she might want to use words from Scripture to help frame her experience and emotions. We pulled out a Bible and looked together at Psalm 55, part of which reads:

If this had been done by an enemy,
I could bear his taunts.
If a rival had risen against me,
I could hide from him.

But it is you, my own companion,
my intimate friend!
(How close was the friendship between us.) . . .

May death fall suddenly upon him!
Let him go to the grave:
for wickedness dwells in his home
and deep in his heart.

Psalm 55:13–16, Grail Psalter

She was surprised to find these words in Scripture and shocked at my suggestion that she turn them into prayer. But I was insistent. “You can’t make God angry with this prayer,” I argued. “After all, he wrote it.” I pushed the Bible into her hands with the lines above underlined in pencil. “Pray this,” I urged her. “Pray it every day. You need to pray. And if you are going to pray, whatever else you do, tell the truth.”

The next time I saw her, a few weeks later, she was disappointed. She had prayed the psalm faithfully every day, but her ex-lover still lived.

Some months after that, we met for a third time. I asked her if she was still praying that psalm. “Yes and no,” she replied. “I’m still praying from the Psalms, but not that one. It doesn’t fit any more. The anger and rage—they’re going, fading away. There are other psalms that seem to be more true now.”

She had learned to tell the truth, to herself and to God. The truth had not been attractive or pleasant. Still, as she had come into the presence of God, not to play games but to be painfully honest, God had reached out and touched her, and she had changed.

07.  Becoming a Church of Truth

When will our churches become places where we can be that honest with God and one another? When we are able to tell the truth, we will be a church ready for Michelle—and a church for sinners as well as saints. But right now, we usually do not tell the truth about ourselves. Nor do we tell the truth about our sin. And it cripples our spirits because only those who face the truth about themselves are able to face the truth about others— and if we cannot deal with the truth about others, we cannot love them. We can only wait until they change, become something else, something better, before we can love.

The Desert Christians understood this well and strove at all times to tell the truth about themselves and their failings. This, of course, was the reason they were able to show such extraordinary compassion and mercy toward others.

One delightful story about those early Egyptian monks tells of Abba Makarios meditating outside his mountain cave one morning. As he prayed, he saw a devil walking past, heading toward the monastery at the foot of the mountain. Makarios called out to the spirit and asked what he was doing. “I’m heading to the monastery to tempt the brothers,” replied the devil. “With most of them, to be honest, I have little success. But one of them . . . ah, Theopemtus! Whatever I offer him, he accepts it. Yes, Theopemtus is a marvelous sinner!”

Later that day, Makarios made his own trip to the monastery. When he arrived, the brothers rushed out to meet him, wondering which of them was to be honored with a visit from the saintly Abba. But, to their astonishment, Makarios walked past and headed straight for the cell of Theopemtus, the reprobate monk with a disgraceful reputation. Theopemtus welcomed him nervously, and after a few prayers they sat down to share a meal. “Tell me Theopemtus,” Makarios said quietly as he dipped his bread into the thin vegetable soup, “how are you getting on?”

“Oh, very well indeed!” Theopemtus spluttered, now terrified.

Makarios wiped a small piece of crust around the empty bowl and then sat back thoughtfully. “Can I confess something to you, Theopemtus?” he said gently. “I’ve been living as an ascetic on this mountain for decades now. Years of fasting and prayer. And yet I still struggle terribly with lust. Can you believe it?”

A great silence fell between the two men. Then, quietly, Theopemtus replied, “Abba, I’m not surprised. It’s the same with me.”

Makarios laughed: “So I’m not alone! Still, you’d be amazed to know how troubled I am by anger.”

Theopemtus smiled back, and replied, “Abba, there too we are alike.”

And so, one by one, Makarios encouraged Theopemtus to confess his struggles, by first confessing them in himself.

The two men parted, having first agreed to renew their commitment to pursue holiness and to pray for one another. The next day, Makarios was again meditating outside his cave when he saw the devil stomping back up the path from the monastery in a wild temper, cursing and spitting. Makarios called out and asked him what was wrong. “It’s that wretch, Theopemtus!” came the angry reply. “I don’t know what’s happened to him. Horrible little saint! He’s stubborn as a mule; I offer him every kind of temptation, but he won’t give in. He ruined!” And as the devil stormed away, Makarios threw back his head and laughed.This story is adapted from the account in Apophthegmata Patrum. An English translation can be found in Benedicta Ward’s The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, rev. ed. (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Press, 1985), 126–7.


Chris Webb is the president of Renovaré, an effort to help individuals and communities to become more like Jesus so that the Church in all her multifaceted expressions might be renewed. an Anglican Franciscan and a graduate of both the university of Wales and Trinity College, Bristol, Chris has ministered in a wide variety of churches in Britain; he served as a vicar to blue-collar industrial, white-collar suburban, and rural farming communities in Wales and spent a year working with a church for the homeless in southwest England. Chris, his wife Sally, and their four children live in Castle Rock, Colorado.