David: A journey from lust to mercy
Hespeler, 26 March, 2017 © Scott McAndless
2 Samuel 11:27b-12:14, Psalm 101, 2 Timothy 2:20-26
ince back in February, I have been working my way through the famous list of the Seven Deadly Sins – a list that I have actually tweaked a bit by adding in two extras. So far we have talked about anger, pride, deceit, greed, envy, fear, and gluttony. There are two left – two of the classic deadly seven – lust and sloth and I haven’t really been looking forward to either one of them. I’ll tell you what my problem is with sloth next week, but today I’m going to focus on lust.
The problem I have with talking about lust is the tendency that has developed in western society to confuse sin with sexuality in general. It was something that mostly began with the Victorian Age as far as the English speaking world was concerned. Christians began to think and speak as if the only sin that mattered was any sin connected to sexuality. The connection became so strong that even to this very day when Christians hear the word sex, they automatically think of sin and when they hear sin they automatically think of sex. This is ultimately a very unhelpful association on the one hand because it definitely keeps us from dealing with the whole breadth of sin that can actually do a lot of damage in the various parts of our lives. On the other hand, it taints our view of sexuality in general in very unhelpful ways.
So before I can talk about lust I feel as if I have to affirm that there is, in fact, nothing inherently sinful about sex or about sexuality. It is, in fact, a very positive thing and a gift of God. It is a drive placed into us by the God who created us and who says to humanity in Genesis, “Be fruitful and multiply,” knowing full well that there ain’t but one way to do that. Sex is given for procreation but also for bringing people together in love and mutual support, of which we believe that marriage is the highest expression.
So, whatever it is, if it is sinful, lust is not an expression of the healthy sexuality that God has given us. I would, in fact, define lust in these terms: it is any violation of another person for pleasure or for passion. It is what happens when somebody is shamelessly used, taken possession of or suppressed. The helpful thing about that definition is that it makes it clear that lust is not exclusively a sexual thing. It is quite possible to violate or exploit somebody sexually, of course, and that is sadly how it is often expressed. But it is also possible to violate or exploit people in other ways. Avoiding lust is not a matter of avoiding sex as such, but it is always about respecting the honour and integrity of another person.
I think that it is important to understand this distinction because there is a certain type of person who is particularly susceptible to this sin. I think that the best way to describe such a person to you – with their strengths as well as their weaknesses – is to give you a Biblical example. There are many to chose from because many heroes of the Bible fit into this type, but the one who fits best is, perhaps, King David.
Think of what you have heard of the career of David. He started out as the youngest son of his family. A shepherd and a singer, he was never given anything. He had to have the courage to take it all for himself whether that meant challenging a giant like Goliath to one-on-one combat or fighting against the entire kingdom and army of his predecessor in the kingship: King Saul.
But David loved that kind of thing. He clearly thrived on the challenge of taking on the biggest enemies and overcoming them. He never gave up, never backed down, never surrendered. It was what gave meaning to his life and when he didn’t have that – when he didn’t have a big enemy to fight – he either created one or he got bored or depressed and that was when he made some of his biggest mistakes.
Fortunately, David’s tendency to oppose was not always in the service of his own interests. He actually had a feeling for the poor, the oppressed and the mistreated. And if anyone was able to make him see their needs or their plight he would always be quick to use his power and ability to set things right for them.
These personality traits made David the good king that he was. Sure he was a little rough around the edges and not everyone approved of his methods, but he got things done and they were usually the right things. But these personality traits are not exclusive to David alone. There have been many people down through the ages who have taken very similar traits and done great things in the world. Martin Luther King Jr. was one such person. His life was filled with a passion to oppose and destroy an evil system of racial inequality. He too thrived on the same kind of energy.
Other great examples of his type are Winston Churchill, Fidel Castro, Mikhail Gorbachev, Bill Clinton, Saddam Hussein, Barbara Walters and Roseanne Barr. All of these people were at their best when they were challenging the established system, battling clear enemies and bringing about change. We may not appreciate what they accomplished in every case, of course, but, agree or not, we cannot deny that they had a big impact on the world and on human history.
So we definitely need people of David’s type. They are the people who often lead us into the breakthroughs that the world needs. But as helpful and necessary as they are, there is a dark side that tends to go with this personality type. They are led, in all things, by their passions and by a desire to make other people bend to their will or to their vision. That means that there is a constant temptation to violate the independence or the will of other people to bend them to their passions or desires. They tend to struggle with what I have defined as the sin of lust.
To be very clear, this does not mean that they are always tempted to use people sexually. For many this problem will manifest in how they use people in other ways. We see that in the case of David himself. He did have ways of using his power and influence to exploit people and their service. He used Mephibosheth, last surviving son of his old friend, Jonathan, to consolidate control over his kingdom. He used Joab, the commander of his army, to commit murder in order to cover up his adultery with Bathsheba. But, by far, the most famous example of the time that he used somebody is the time that came before that one: his adultery with Bathsheba.
The story goes that David was out on the roof of his palace (the highest building in the city and another expression of his power) and was spying on his subjects when he spotted a woman bathing. She wasn’t, by the way, doing anything wrong. I know that popular imagination says that she was bathing on the roof as if she was somehow trying to attract the king’s attention but it never says that in the Bible. If anyone was in the wrong place, it was the king, not her. The king sent for her, slept with her and then created a major crisis and made Joab commit murder, trying to cover the whole thing up.
It is a textbook illustration of lust, not because it was sexual but because it was all about David violating Bathsheba’s person. She had no power to refuse him when ordered to the palace and dared not refuse his invitation to bed either. This does indeed seem to be a sin that people of David’s personality type struggle with more than any others.
We see the same pattern in the life of Martin Luther King Jr. for example. He did great things and dreamt great things but somehow couldn’t escape the temptation to abuse both his wife’s trust and many other women with a long string of affairs. I hardly need to tell you that another one of my examples, Bill Clinton, has had a similar problem. I don’t know why there is a connection between this personality type and this sin but it seems to have something to do with the ability that such people have to engage people in the great schemes that they envision. The temptation to use that power to exploit other people for personal ends must seem irresistible at times.
So David fell into that trap pretty clearly in the case of Bathsheba and her husband Uriah. What’s more it is not too hard to see that it was pattern in his whole life. (Bathsheba wasn’t the first woman that he married after her husband died under questionable circumstances.) For that matter, both Bathsheba and that other woman, Abigail, were far from the first women that David married! I do not mean to excuse this kind of behaviour in anyway, of course, but I think it is fair to say that it comes from an attitude that seems to go with this particular personality type.
So there is a potential dark side to this personality, but there is a reason why David is a hero in the Bible. There is a reason why God seems so often to use people like him to do great things in the world. It is not because they are perfect and it is not because we are supposed to just overlook the things that they sometimes do in their lusts. But, while God can use them as they are (for nothing limits God’s ability), there are also things that God would like to do for them that they might be whole and complete.
In the case of David, I think we can see God working on him in our reading this morning through the agency of his friend and advisor, the Prophet Nathan. Nathan knows that David had done wrong – that he has sinned against Bathsheba and Uriah and that he has betrayed the trust of all the people in the quest to serve his own lusts and to cover up the consequences.
But Nathan is a wise man. He knows David and he knows how people like David operate. If Nathan were just to come in and confront David with what he has done, he would just respond with the classic defence mechanism of a David: denial. Imagine Bill Clinton when faced with a similar accusation. His denial, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman,” came to his lips so easily and so believably because he really believed that it was, in some sense, true. No one can do a denial like a David.
But Nathan’s confrontation did not go like that. Nathan came in and didn’t speak about what David had done wrong. He instead drew David into a scenario that appealed to the king’s deep commitment to justice. People of this personality type, perhaps because of their strong passions, have a strong sense of justice. When people are being mistreated, they see it and want to do something about it.
So Nathan, wisely, knowing that David has a blind spot when it comes to seeing his own lusts describes an injustice that somebody else committed that is (in a way) an analogy to what the king has done. Of course, David immediately gets angry and calls for justice to be done. That is when Nathan can reveal that he has actually been talking about the king all along.
Here, I think, Nathan has revealed to us how God likes to work in the life of someone like a David. Head on confrontation, forcing them to see their flaws, is rarely going to work. These are people who love confrontation and will only dig in when one arises. But that doesn’t mean that redemption of a David isn’t possible. God gave them their passions – including a passion for a better world. God wants to use them to create that better world and has done so often. But God also wants to use those passions, once he has broken down their defences and denials, to build a better them. God’s passion is always for us and that we might be the best people that God has created us to be.
So look beyond the associations that you might have with the idea of lust. Learn to appreciate the whole person who might struggle with this particular sin. We cannot excuse the sin and we cannot forget the damage that it can cause. God doesn’t. But part of helping people who struggle with such things is to recognize what about them actually makes them great and part of God’s plan to build a better world.