The pastoral situation I have chosen is one in which a person has come forward with a troubled conscience from having been unfaithful to her or his spouse. In order to address this issue, I thought it best to make use of a specific text, Psalm 51, the psalm of David's contrition after having committed adultery with Bathsheba. The elements in the text which will be of use in counseling are the psalmist's faith in God, his confession of having done wrong, his desire for spiritual renewal, his promise to proclaim the praises of God and his emphasis on interior, rather than exterior religion. These will be examined in the context of a counseling session.
To begin, I would reassure the individual that she or he was not alone. I would then bring the text, and, setting it before the person, inquire as to whether she or he was familiar with the story behind the psalm. In case she or he was not, I would briefly describe how David had seen Bathsheba on the roof of her house bathing, then had called her over and gone into her. I would add that David had subsequently ordered Bathsheba's husband Uriah to a position at the front line of battle to ensure that he would be killed. At this point I would state, with good probability, that whatever the person had done, surely it could not have been so grievous as it had been in David's case. I would add that no matter how great the sin, forgiveness was available.
The psalm's opening, “Have mercy on me O God, in your faithful love, in your great tenderness wipe away my offences” (New Jerusalem Bible) provides the proper theme for the person to consider, namely the “faithful love” and “great tenderness” of God. It would be a good idea to have the person read the verse aloud and then to ask whether she or he had had any experience of the mercy of God. I would ask her or him to list some of the ways in which God had been faithful and to meditate on these briefly. If she or he was hard pressed because of a heavy conscience, I would list some of the general ways in which God shows love to all creation, such as providing food, family, friends and health, if appropriate. I would state that with such an investment in us, God would surely be willing to provide whatever things we needed for life, whether tangible or intangible.
Next, I would touch on relationship to God, in order to provide a context for brokenness, or separation, from God. I would then have the individual read verses 3 and 4 of the psalm, “For I am well aware of my offenses, my sin is constantly in mind. Against you, you alone, I have sinned, I have done what you see to be wrong.” If the person seemed to be truly under the conviction of sin, I would direct her or his attention to the phrase, “Against you, you alone, I have sinned,” in order to establish the fact that God cares what happens in our lives, and the fact that even if sin is committed against another individual, it is really God who suffers. If the person was not that open about discussing her or his sin, but seemed to need further prompting, I would ask her or him to think about her or his sin for a few moments, and, if necessary, to write it down on a piece of paper. By bringing the sin to the light, I would hope to defuse some of its hold over the individual.
When she or he felt comfortable about discussing the sin in the open, I would have her or him continue to read the psalm: “that you may show your saving justice when you pass sentence, and your victory may appear when you give judgment”. With this verse I would have the person consider, once again, that God is kind and willing to assist those that turn to God. I would point out the psalmist's emphasis on the importance of God's character, and also the fact that God acts in mercy for the sake of God's good name, in addition to the needs of God's creatures. I would ask the person if she or he could think of a good reason why God would want a good name among people. If she or he replied cynically that God must be an egomaniac, I would suggest simply that God really is kind, but that in order for more and more people to have access to God, a good testimony would have to be established among people, so they would turn to God reflexively during times of need (and otherwise) rather than despair. Thus, I would add, God's good name really serves our needs, and not God's supposed ego.
Next, I would have the person read the psalm until she or he reached verse 7, “Purify me with hyssop till I am clean, wash me till I am whiter than snow.” I would ask the person at this point if she or he understood what the psalmist was talking about. If the person indicated that she or he did understand, I would ask her or him to relate any experiences of renewal that she or he had had previously. If the person said that she or he had never had such an experience, I would briefly relate one of my own, then ask her or him to read on in the psalm, until she or he reached verse 10, “God, create in me a clean heart, renew within me a resolute spirit”. At this point, I would make inquiry of the person as to whether she or he felt that this was a good thing to ask for, “a clean heart”, and whether such a thing were at all possible. If the person replied positively, I would ask her or him to elaborate on what she or he thought this consisted in. If the counselee showed signs of understanding something of the spiritual dimension of religion, I would perhaps pray with her or him at this point the very words of the verse, that God would provide each of us with a clean heart. If the individual showed signs of distress at the concept of renewal, I would then ask her or him to continue reading the next couple of verses, “do not thrust me away from your presence, do not take away from me your spirit of holiness. Give me back the joy of your salvation, sustain me in a generous spirit.” These lines contain a wealth of ideas about relating to God that would necessitate some level of word-study and perhaps also some theology. I would have the person consider that God is a person, and the source of life, and ask her or him what she or he thought it might be like to be near God, and whether she or he would like to be nearer God. I would make inquiry with regards to the individual's knowledge about the spirit of God, to ascertain what theoretical or experiential knowledge she or he might possess to better situate the discussion. If she or he made reference to the holiness of God, I might ask her or him to elaborate so as to get a sense of God's immanent presence within the counseling session. I would also have the person consider the word, “salvation”, from its Greek root, sozo, in all of its various connotations in reference to relief from death, hell, disease and anything else that separates a person from God.
Following this I would have the individual continue reading the psalm until she or he got to verses 14 and 15, “Deliver me from bloodshed, God, God of my salvation, and my tongue will acclaim your saving justice. Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will speak out your praise.” Here I would ask the person if she or he had ever made a deal with God. If she or he responded by saying yes, I would ask her or him to explain, if she or he felt free to do so. If the person's experience was to have promised God to do something for God if God did something for the person, I would ask if God had, indeed performed what the person asked for. If she or he said that yes, indeed, God had done what the person asked God to do, I would suggest that God was faithful and deserving of our praise. If the person said no, that God had not done what the person had asked of God, I would make further inquiries as to the real need that the person had at the time, and whether, perhaps, God had been faithful, after all. For example, if the person said she or he had asked God to make her or him wealthy and had promised to give a good portion of the money to charity but that this never took place in the manner desired, I would ask the person if she or he had enough food to eat and clothes to wear and whether anything more than this would really make for better living in any case. If the individual showed signs of bitterness at perceived failures on the part of God, I would have her of him go back and reread verse 6, “But you delight in sincerity of heart, and in secret you teach me wisdom.” I would then move into a discussion of the exterior and interior forms of religiosity, asking the person what she or he felt the difference between these two modes was, if any. If the individual seemed to understand the value of the inward relationship with God, I would go back over the kind and merciful character of God, assuring her or him that forgiveness was free and available for the asking. If the person expressed the idea that religion was conformity to a set of rules and that God required obedience, I would have her or him read verses 16 and 17, “Sacrifice gives you no pleasure, burnt offering you do not desire. Sacrifice to God is a broken spirit, a broken, contrite heart you never scorn.” I would then ask the person if she or he knew what was meant by contrition. If she or he said no, I would explain that the word carried the notion of being ground down into powder, like talc. I would have the individual consider the difference between a change of heart and the observance of ritual, and then ask which she or he thought was more important. Hopefully, by this point, the person would see that inward spirituality was the more important factor in renewing one's relationship with God, and a good basis for changing one's ways in the future.
I would have the person read to the end of the psalm, and have her or him reflect on the meaning of verse 18, “In your graciousness do good to Zion, rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.” I would suggest to the person that this was a metaphor the psalmist was using to express a desire to be restored from guilt, for God to build up his character again by removing the stain of adultery from his conscience. I would then ask the brother or sister to pray with me to God that God, in God's mercy, would do the same in our lives.
The 51st psalm is very useful for counseling people burdened with guilt, especially the guilt of infidelity. It shows the weaker side of king David but holds out the hope that the love of God is able to overcome the most grievous of sins. It shows the relationality of God, and the excellence of interior spirituality over exterior religion, and so brings great value to the instruction of faith. It will continue to point out the grace of God in restoring the penitent.