Not Results but Effort

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There is one crucial mistake that Christians often make. I was reminded recently that this has been the way of things since the very first days of the Christian movement.

This particular mistake is mentioned by St Paul, somewhat tangentially to his main point, when he chides the immature Christians in Corinth for their divisions.

Apparently there have sprung up ‘fan clubs’ for the different apostles in the church. Each group sets up its apostle as the ‘main man’ and denigrates the others.

St Paul scolds them for their immaturity; of which their division is the proof;

“For ye are yet carnal:

for whereas there is among you envying, and strife, and divisions,

are ye not carnal, and walk as men?” (1 Corinthians 3:3, KJV)

They are spiritual babies, not yet capable of living according to the spiritual nature; that nature which bears as its fruit love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness and self-control.

But, and here we come to my point, the mechanism that has given rise to their division is in the basis of their estimation of the relative worthiness of the apostles.

It seems that they have been arguing about which apostle is the best, and have based their arguments on the results of their ministries.

At first glance this might seem reasonable enough, shouldn’t people be objectively evaluated on results? Isn’t that what best practice is always about? Recognizing and rewarding excellence and thus encouraging others to strive for it too.

Whilst this may seem reasonable in the domain of human endeavour, Saint Paul moves quickly to show it is completely inadmissible in the spiritual sphere.

Taking an example from the world of farming, he shows the stupidity of such evaluations.

“I planted the seed,

Apollos watered it,

but God has been making it grow.

So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything,

but only God, who makes things grow. (1 Corinthians 3:6-7, NIV)

To whom is the harvest due – The sower who sows the seed? The one who waters and cares for the growing plants? The one who comes along at the optimal time to wield the sickle and gather the harvest in?

St Paul’s reply is that the harvest is due to none of them! Rather it is the God who has been active in each of their ministries who owns the glory of the harvest.

The workers do deserve some credit, but it is their efforts that determine their merit, not their results.

“The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose,

and they will each be rewarded according to their own labour.” (1 Corinthians 3:8, NIV)

Which is actually an example of God’s perfect justice.

Anyone who has grown crops knows that there is an inherent unpredictability in the process.

The first time I grew potatoes, I planted 75 plants and harvested enough potatoes to keep me and my family all the way through winter and well into spring. The next year I planted 100 plants yet harvested half the amount! The weather was different, pests more voracious, which made for a poorer harvest.

In the spiritual realm, St Paul reminds us that there is also an inherent unpredictability in the process.

It is God who makes spiritual life to appear and to grow.

The way in which He does this, the timing of it and the relative fruitfulness of it,

is only His to determine.

Thus equivalent levels of effort from us, God’s co-workers, will not guarantee similar results.

Thus it is an example of God’s perfect fairness and justice, that He rewards us according to our efforts, not our results.

Which is where Jesus’ famous statement,

But many who are first will be last,

and many who are last will be first. (Matthew 19:30, NIV)

starts to make real sense.

Some super-successful Christian leaders, mega-church pastors, world-famous evangelists, may actually be shown, in the final analysis, to have been rather mediocre. Perhaps they simply harvested where others had sown? Maybe they were merely a ship, swept forwards on a great wave of the prayers of the saints? Maybe they just had the fortune to be in leadership in a particular place at the particular time when God chose to act mightily?

Whilst some untiring lay-pastor, someone who has struggled his whole life to lead a tiny congregation in some remote backwater and who has little to show for his efforts, may prove to be one of God’s greats.

It’s all about effort, not results.

All of which should give us all pause for thought. For God’s fairness cuts both ways.

When we see great blessing on our ministry, we should recognize the very real possibility that it has little to do with us.

When we experience only frustration and failure, we should know that not one single instance of effort for the cause of Christ will be unmarked or unrewarded. Failure does not indicate God’s displeasure, nor His lack of interest in our work for Him.

This is why St Paul sums up his teaching as follows;

“By the grace God has given me,

I laid a foundation as a wise builder,

and someone else is building on it.

But each one should build with care.” (1 Corinthians 3:10, NIV)

Build with care…

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And up to now…

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In the Confessio of Saint Patrick, written around 493 AD, the old missionary bishop reflects on his life and ministry. He identifies the key lessons he has learnt in his experience of living with God and, with great honesty, he writes them down for the benefit of those who also seek to live well with God.

Somewhat surprisingly, the first thing Saint Patrick attests is the inherent fragility of his faith.

But I do not trust myself, ‘as long as I am in this body of death’ C44: 105/6

Here, Patrick quotes Saint Paul in Romans 7:24, where, again with absolute transparency, St Paul lays bare his own struggle to live in a manner worthy of a Christian. A challenge that his own body, with its inherent tendency for sinfulness, opposes.

Saint Patrick also makes clear that his struggle is not merely against recalcitrant flesh, but also against an opposing spiritual force that works in and through this weakness,

 …he is strong who strives daily to turn me away from the faith

and from that chastity of an unfeigned religion which I have

proposed to keep to the end of my life for Christ my Lord. C44: 107-109

He acknowledges the activity of a powerful spiritual adversary who uses Patrick’s own fleshly weaknesses to try and turn him away from the faith he has embraced and the God he has vowed to serve.

The hostile flesh is always dragging towards death,

that is towards allurements to do that which is forbidden. C44: 110

Whilst he does not state specifically what these ‘allurements’ are, we can well imagine the possibilities. Patrick has been called by God to leave family, friends and homeland, to exile himself in a foreign land, to minister to those of a different language and culture and to seek to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ and establish a Christian Community amongst them.

Patrick faced opposition, which was sometimes violent. He was no doubt often lonely, tired, dispirited, discouraged. The temptations that might then be rained down upon a man are self-evident.

Patrick also identifies a more subtle struggle,

And I know in part wherein I have not lived a perfect life. C44: 112

Not only are there fleshly and demonically inspired temptations there are also the constant reminder of past failures, ever-present weaknesses. These present themselves to his mind and manifest his failure to be what he should be. He has to live with the reality of his own hypocrisy, which undermines his commitment, saps his morale.

Patrick also speaks of the opposition to his mission, sometimes even active opposition, which came from within the Church.

…many were trying to hinder my embassy.

They were even talking among themselves behind my back

and saying, ‘Why does this man throw himself into danger

among enemies who do not know God?’

Not out of malice,

but it did not seem wise to them,’ C46: 137-142

The idea of an organised mission to a pagan people was, to this point unprecedented. Many within the Church considered this ‘novelty’ unnecessary, unwise, and inappropriate.

In the light of all this, we might well ask, what is it that keeps Patrick going? In the face of these opposing forces, the inherent tendency to sin of his own body, the actions of a maleficent force opposed to his faith, the constant hardship and struggle of a difficult life in a foreign culture, the harsh reality of personal failure, even the active opposition of other church leaders who question the validity of his missionary approach; where does Patrick find the courage to carry on?

Well, fortunately Patrick reveals his secret to us. He says he can say with honesty before God,

…there grew in me the love of God and fear of him,

and up to now, with God’s grace, I have kept the faith. C44: 118/9

Patrick can look back over his life and see that he has come to love God and to live in fear before him. This fear is not a negative, servile fear, but rather the proper respect and bearing towards God that is birthed in a man or woman when they have come to glimpse something of God’s majesty and grandeur, his power and holiness. The contrast between this and our own evident weakness and sinfulness is such that it engenders a holy ‘fear’. This, in turn, becomes a motivating force in our life with God. This ‘fear’ is expressed in a life that worships God in all it does.

The reality of this love for God, and this holy fear, are evidence to Patrick of God’s grace at work in his life. He testifies that this grace has enabled him, however imperfectly, to keep the faith until now. But he is not complacent. His testimony is only, ‘up to now’. He is conscious of his utter reliance upon God to bring his life of faith to a successful conclusion.

It strikes me that this spiritual advice is as helpful now in the 21st century as it was in the 5th. The spiritual realities of human existence and not changed one iota in the intervening millennia and a half.

Like Patrick, anyone who seriously tries to respond to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, will immediately find himself / herself in the midst of an heroic struggle of epic proportions.

The spiritually twistedness of our human flesh will, like those shopping trolleys with wonky wheels, reveal immediately its unfailing tendency to shoot off in the wrong direction.

If this were not bad enough the situation is worsened by a spiritual adversary who will stoop to any base level, try any underhand trick, in order to knock us off course. One of his favourites being to simply remind us of our imperfection, of our manifest hypocrisy, that we are not the perfect Christians we try to be and know we should be.

We may well also encounter, alas, opposition from within the Church itself, people who don’t understand our calling and who cast doubt on our work for God.

There is only one thing that will keep us on track and help us bear up in the face of such trials – the reality of a love for God and a holy fear of God that is growing, however slowly, in our hearts through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit of God.

None of us can ever say more than,

‘And up to now, with God’s grace, I have kept the faith’ C44: 119

 

 

Leaving in order to be more present

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At the end of St Luke’s gospel there is a surprising statement regarding the disciples’ reaction to Jesus’ ascension into heaven. We are told,

 “Then they worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy” (Luke 24:52 NIV)

 

What is totally unexpected is the disciples’ emotional reaction “with great joy”.

 

They have just lost their Lord, their leader, their companion. They have been commissioned to undertake the seemingly impossible mission of taking the message of Jesus to the world,

 

“The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem” (Luke 24:46b-47 NIV)

 

And yet when their beloved leader disappears from view they are filled with a great joy? How can this be?

 

It is true that some people have such a negative presence that when they leave we can feel relief, a lightening of the atmosphere; to quote the well-used phrase, some people can brighten a room just by leaving it!

 

But that it exactly the opposite of what people experienced around Jesus. Crowds flocked to hear him, people followed him, little children loved to be around him.

 

The natural human reaction to separation from those we love is not joy but sadness. So why were the disciples joyful at Jesus’ departure?

 

The answer to this conundrum is given in St John’s gospel. Jesus announcing that he is going to return to the Father states,

 

“I am going away and I am coming back to you.” (John 14:28 NIV)

 

These two actions, going and coming back, are not opposites but intrinsically part of the same event.

 

Jesus has to leave in order to be present in a new, greater and, deeper way.

 

The ascension event is not the departure of Jesus to some remote corner of the universe, but rather His moving to a new state of existence whereby He is eternally present, everywhere.

 

“Ascension does not mean departure into a remote corner of the cosmos but, rather, the continuing closeness that the disciples experience so strongly that it becomes a source of lasting joy”[1]

 

“(Jesus) presence is not spatial, but divine. ‘Sitting at God’s right hand’ means participating in this dominion over space”[2]

 

“Now, through his power over space, he is now present and accessible to all – throughout history and in every place”[3]

 

It is in sensing this new closeness of Jesus that leads the disciples to worship and joy.

 

Indeed, the mission of the disciples (and the Church) is rooted in and flows from this new experience of Jesus. This experience of the inner closeness of Jesus has as its consequence, a bearing witness to the world. It is an experience that will only have its fullness when the Spirit of Jesus is poured out at Pentecost.

 

An incident in the life of Jesus gives us a helpful picture of this new reality.

 

After having performed the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves Jesus sends his disciples away in the boat whilst he goes “up on the mountain” to pray.

 

A storm comes up and the disciples are terrified and it seems the boat is about to sink.

 

Jesus, with his Father on the mountain is able to see their predicament and so comes to them, walking on the water, he joins them in the boat, he calms the storm and with him they continue to their destination (Mark 6:45-52).

 

This is a picture of Jesus and the Church. From his ascension perspective at the ‘right hand of the Father’, Jesus is able to watch over his church, able to come to our aide at any moment.

 

“I will go away, and I will come to you – that is the essence of Christian trust, the reason for our joy.”[4]

 

 

[1] Ratzinger J. Jesus of Nazareth – vol. 2, p281

[2] ibid., p283

[3] ibid., p284

[4] ibid., p285

Surgery in Scripture

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There are two parallel stories of surgery in the Bible.

In the first surgical procedure, God causes Adam to fall into a deep sleep; He then opens up Adam’s side and, from one of Adam’s ribs, forms Eve.

Eve is a divine gift that completes Adam. Eve enables Adam to achieve his full human potential. In partnership with her, Adam is now capable of fulfilling the rôle God called him to – to care for and develop the Earth.

The second biblical example of surgery is when Jesus hangs dead on the cross. Jesus was understood as fulfilling the original calling of the first Adam. Whereas Adam failed in his calling, he was weak, he sinned, he also brought sin into the lives of all Mankind, and was therefore the cause of a separation between God and Man, Jesus  – the last Adam – comes to reverse all this.

The last Adam comes to succeed, not fail. The last Adam will stay faithful to the end. The last Adam will reverse the consequences of the first Adam’s failure. By His sacrificial death the last Adam will obtain for humankind the forgiveness of sin and therefore make possible a reconciliation between Man and God.

“For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ!” (Romans 5:17 NIV)

 

“For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.” (1 Corinthians 15:21-22 NIV)

 

“So it is written: ‘The first man Adam became a living being’; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual. The first man was of the dust of the earth; the second man is of heaven. As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the heavenly man, so also are those who are of heaven. And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man.” (1 Corinthians 15:45-48 NIV)

So while Jesus – the last Adam – is “asleep” on the cross, His side is also pierced. Not by God but by a Roman spear. This time what is taken from Him is not a rib, but instead water and blood are seen to flow out of the wound.

The early Christians saw here a striking reference to the water of baptism and the blood of the Eucharist.

All of which is highly significant. For it is through baptism we are brought into the Church; and it is through the blood of the Eucharist we partake of the life of Christ – a blood that cleanses us from sin, and gives new life.

So the water and the blood which flow from the side of Christ symbolize the Church – the Bride of Christ.

“For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Saviour… Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.” (Ephesians 5:23, 26-27 NIV)

 

“I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.” (Revelation 21:2 NIV)

 

“I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy. I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to him.” (2 Corinthians 11:2 NIV)

Like Eve, taken from the side of the first Adam, the Church the Bride of Christ, flows out of the side of the Last Adam. Like Eve, the Bride is to be a partner for the Last Adam. Someone who will work with Him in the mission of establishing the Kingdom of God in the world.

Two Adams. Two surgeries. Two new, cherished partners who result. All doing well.

The Surgeon seems to be on top of His game.

 

Which ‘Son of the Father’ Do You Want ?

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There is a very interesting moment during the trial of Jesus by Pontius Pilate.

Pilate offers the crowd a choice. He intends to grace a Jewish prisoner in honour of the Passover Feast and asks them who do they want?

They can have Barabbas or Jesus.

Barabbas was a political terrorist, someone who was fighting to overthrow the Roman army of occupation.

Interestingly, Barrabas means “Son of the Father”, it is a Messianic title.

So in this choice, the Jews – the Old Testament people of God – are being offered either a leader who uses violence and the weapons of power to try to bring about the kingdom of God, or one who comes only with the weapons of truth and sacrificial love.

Who do they want?

They choose Barabbas.

In some ways this is a choice that continues to confront the Church – the New Testament people of God – down through the ages.

Will we choose the true “Son of the Father” whose way is the way of peace, powerlessness, self-giving; or do we want a leader who will wield worldly power, Jesus or Barabbas?

The success of the Church is measured by the degree to which she eschews power and embraces powerlessness; when she comes with only the weapons of truth and love. The truth that is expressed fully in the one who said,

“I am the way, the truth and the life. No-one comes to the Father but by me.”

Exchanging Glory for Disgrace or How to Become a Pagan

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« They exchanged their glory for something disgraceful » (Hosea 4 :7b, NIV)

The book of Hosea is a very interesting description of the mechanism of apostasy –  how the people of Israel slid from the worship of the true God into paganism – and the results of that apostasy.

The first thing to note was that it was a very subtle process.

Bit by bit elements from paganism slid into the theology and religious practice of Israel.

Worship began to be seen less as “the chief end of man”, the achievement of his ultimate purpose and potential, the expression of a relationship in which a person rightly relates to the God who made them, sustains them and loves them; and became merely a form of human-divine commerce – mankind worships and in return the gods make the crops grow.

This change in perspective moves people from purity to pragmatism. It becomes less a concern “Are we worshipping God in the way we should?” and more about “Are we getting what we want?”

If it works, do it.

The other mechanism in the move to apostasy is the move from theocentric worship to anthropocentric worship. It is less about pleasing God and more about enjoying the experience.

If it feels good, do it.

Following these two changes spirituality gradually mutates.

The people of Israel start to include bull statues (the symbol of Baal) in their worship spaces. At the start this is justified by their designation merely as “pedestals” – the invisible Yahweh is stated to be “standing” on top of these statues, therefore the religious innovators can still claim that worship is being directed towards Yahweh.

Of course the reality is that people end up worshipping the statues.

One innovation leads to another. What other elements – which are either fun to do, or seem to be efficacious in getting the results we want – can we borrow from the surrounding nations?

Soon we find the worship of Yahweh has mutated from holy worship undertaken by a purified people into a form of religious feasting with cultic sex thrown in.

We see that change has a dramatic effect on the moral life of the nation – cursing, lying, bloodshed and adultery become part of everyday life (Hosea 4:2).

Worship makes the world.

 

However, we might think that whilst this may be an interesting historical study it has little to say to us today. However, we would be wrong in thinking that.

Spiritual realities don’t change.

The same forces that operated then still operate now. Christian churches face the same temptations as the ancient Israelites.

 

The temptation to move from a motivation in worship that is drawn from the understanding that it is our highest calling and fulfils our greatest human potential;  to a motivation which is expressed by the question “What do I get out of it?” or “What’s in it for me?”

The temptation to move from God-centred worship to man-centred worship. Where the key concern is no longer “Are we pleasing God?” but rather “Is everyone having fun?”

These two movements will be sufficient to gradually paganise our worship.

One day we will finally move to the point where we are no longer worshipping God at all.

Our worship will be so sin-ridden that God will not accept it. Our image of god so twisted and corrupt that it is no longer God at all.

 

This is a real and ever-present danger and the Old Testament gives many examples of it at work amongst the people of God, Hosea is just one instance.

The New Testament sadly shows the same problem affecting the Church. Saint Paul warns that there are always those who will proclaim “another Jesus” and “another gospel” (2 Corinthians 11) the adoption of which leads not to the establishment of Christian churches, but rather to “synagogues of Satan” (Rev 2:9, 3:9).

The most frightening aspect of this is that those within these movements do not understand their deception.

The Israelites with all their perversion of theology and cult still thought they were worshipping Yahweh; the churches spoken of in the book of Revelation still considered themselves to be Christian.

 

The film “Dogma” gave a fantastic illustration of this process at work. The scenario was that the Catholic church, seeking to speak more relevantly to contemporary society, decided to update its image. The crucifix, with its imagery of Christ suffering and giving his life-blood to save us from our sins, was considered “too depressing”. Therefore a new icon had been developed – the Buddy Christ.

Now the key image to represent the Christian faith was not one showing both the fatal problem of sin and how God has provided a means whereby that problem can be addressed, but rather one that says, “Jesus thinks you’re cool!”

Now on one level this is true. God does love us. But the Bible holds this truth in tension with another – that our sin is killing us. It is separating us from the very love God that wants to lavish on us. We need to be forgiven for it and freed from it (shriven from it, as in Shrove Tuesday) in order to move into the experience of God’s radical love.

Thus by the simply neglect of “half the story” the Christian faith has been twisted, transformed into something quite different, it is no longer about how we can be saved but rather about being affirmed.

Notice that the same two elements are at work –

It is no longer about God – giving Him the worship that is His due and our glory and purpose – but about us and our therapeutic need to feel good about ourselves. We have moved from a theocentric perspective to an anthropocentric one.

Secondly, spirituality is no longer concerned with holy worship and the tools for the rigorous process of transformation into Christ-like holiness. It is no longer focussed on remedying what is wrong with us (our inherent sinfulness) but merely affirming us as we are. We have moved from a concern to worship God rightly, to a concern for the “feel-good” factor.

It is in this context of this very real and ever-present danger of apostasy that we can see the vital necessity of holding fast to the Bible and to its traditional interpretation and to be very careful about testing any new “insights” that would radically alter Christian belief and behaviour.

 

The Scariest Verse in the Bible

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“But he did not know that the Lord had left him” (Judges 16:20c, NIV)

 

Samson’s birth had been announced by an angel and was miraculous in the sense that his mother was a barren woman and unable to have children.

He was set apart for God from his birth. Consecrated  as a Nazarite, an Israelite who expressed their devotion to God in a particular ascetic discipline of life.

Samson grew up in this way and the Spirit of God came upon him, but in an unusual manner. The Spirit of God gave Samson extraordinary physical strength and fighting prowess. Over a period of 20 years he performed some truly amazing exploits against the perennial enemies of Israel, the Philistines.

Yet Samson’s physical strength was alloyed with an almost pathetic moral weakness, particularly in the area of sexual morality – he went with prostitutes, he had affairs.

Finally Samson broke his Nazarite vow about not cutting his hair and his divinely gifted strength was taken from him.

Yet Samson did not perceive the loss.

The Spirit of God had been withdrawn from him – yet Samson did not notice.

This is perhaps one of the scariest verses in the Bible.

It shows us that it is entirely possible for people who have lived lives of consecration to God, been used as channels of God’s Spirit in amazing ways, yet not be able to perceive when that Spirit is withdrawn from them.

How can this be possible?

The Bible teaches us that sin acts as a form of progressive spiritual blindness.

The more we sin, the more we grow incapable of perceiving spiritual truth.

In effect sin is really nothing less than paying homage and giving obedience to the one who is called in the Bible the Deceiver and the Father of Lies.

It is therefore not surprising that such activity leads to increasing spiritual confusion and deception.

Ultimately we get so far in our sin that God withdraws His Spirit completely and leaves us to our self-chosen deception.

We get to the place where we can no longer discern God’s presence, God’s truth, God’s activity.

We become like Samson – he did not even realize that God’s Spirit had left him.

 

Perhaps we should consider the recent changes in Christian thinking and behaviour in this light?

In recent times divorce and remarriage have become accepted in Christian circles, even though the Bible makes it clear that this is not God’s will.

We see that churches largely accept Christian couples living together outside of marriage.

There is a strong move within Christian churches to accept homosexual activity as compatible with holiness and Christian faith.

 

Are these radical changes in our thinking and behaving driven by a movement to become more holy, more pure, to more radically bring our lives into line with the purity God commands of us, because He is holy?

Or are they rather a consequence of an increasing sinfulness within the Church, occasioned by a cultural context which is moving further away from Christian values as is dragging the Church along.

Has our increasingly sinful behaviour resulted in an increasing spiritual blindness and inability to discern what is good and pure and true amongst the people of God?

 

“Have mercy on me, O God,

according to your unfailing love;

according to your great compassion

blot out my transgressions.

Wash away all my iniquity

and cleanse me from my sin.

For I know my transgressions,

and my sin is always before me.

Against you, you only, have I sinned

and done what is evil in your sight;

so you are right in your verdict

and justified when you judge.

Surely I was sinful at birth,

sinful from the time my mother conceived me.

Yet you desired faithfulness even in the womb;

you taught me wisdom in that secret place.

Cleanse me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;

wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.

Let me hear joy and gladness;

let the bones you have crushed rejoice.

Hide your face from my sins

and blot out all my iniquity.

Create in me a pure heart, O God,

and renew a steadfast spirit within me.

Do not cast me from your presence

or take your Holy Spirit from me.”

(Psalm 51:1-11, NIV)