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Psalm 32 & John 20

Updated: Oct 24, 2023

The dynamic between confession and forgiveness stands out to us in Psalm 32.

The Psalm seems to be ordered into three sections. A pair of beatitudes are followed by a personal story which leads to a series of teaching points. The personal story reflects on a time when the psalmist ‘kept silent’ and did not confess their sins to God. The effects of this are described in bodily terms. Bottling up their strife makes them feel as weak as someone who has been exposed to ‘the heat of summer’ for too long. This leads them to acknowledging their sin, confessing and having the ‘guilt’ of their sin forgiven by God. I don’t think it was chance that made ‘confess’ and ‘forgiveness’ stand out to Patience and I. The structure of the Psalm places these words at the centre of the page; out of the eleven verses they sit in the middle of verse five.


The focus on this aspect of faith makes me think of Wittgenstein’s appeal to guilt as a central feature of religious life. Wittgenstein suggested that there is a naturalism to religion that means belief is rooted in the needs and desires of humans, rather than in their rational assent to hypotheses of God. The experience of guilt, or feeling ‘wretched’, had import for Wittgenstein as this implied the religious believer understood the ethical demands that a belief in God would place upon them. Feeling inadequate in relation to our neighbours, and the way we should be striving to treat them, provides the base religious experience upon which observance and ritual can make sense. The way the Psalmist sits with their guilt and describes its impact speaks to this Wittgensteinian view.


Next, we studied John 20 and the resurrection narratives involving Mary Magdalene and Thomas. The word that we both selected from this passage was ‘believe’. In a slight put down to the disciples who were on the road to Emmaus, John describes himself as seeing and believing as soon as he witnessed the empty tomb (v.8). Mary and Thomas, however, are similar to the disciples from Luke because it takes time for them to be convinced of Jesus’ resurrection. First, Mary has to hear her name spoken and ‘turn’ around to see that Jesus is not the gardener. Second, Thomas demands the physical evidence of Jesus’ wounds before he can ‘stop doubting and believe’. Patience and I agreed that on re-encountering John 20 our perceptions of Thomas had changed. Traditionally seen as an example of weak faith (due to his need for evidence) it was notable to us that Thomas is at a disadvantage in that he did not get to ‘see’ Jesus prior to being told. In Matthew and Luke ‘seeing’ that Jesus has returned is crucial and so it only seems fair that Thomas would expect some evidence for himself. What is more is that his desire for corporeal evidence is satisfied, Jesus makes the effort to provide an opportunity for his body to be touched as well as observed. While it is stated that ‘the blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed’ it is not obvious that everyone can be as confident as John expects and the story of Thomas is evidence for that as opposed to being against it.


Finally, the notion that those in the future will believe without having seen anything (i.e., with a lack of justifiable evidence) is funnily contradicted by the text’s self-referential nature. The Gospel drops knowing remarks about itself in both chapters 20 and 21. In 20:31 it states that ‘[this account is] written that you may believe’. The importance of coming to know God through writing attests that belief cannot exist in a vacuum or be as simple as some remarks in John 20 suggest.


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'‘Christianity is not a doctrine, not a theory about what has happened and will happen to the human soul. [Rather, it is] a description of something that actually takes place in human life […] “consciousness of sin” is a real event and so are despair and salvation through faith; those who speak of such things are simply describing what has happened to them, whatever gloss anyone may want to put on it' - Culture and Value, Wittgenstein.


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