Most of you know that I like books. If you have any doubt about the fact, all you need to do is to look at the walls of my office, or the basement of our house, or the bookshelf in our bedroom, or the desk in the living room….I digress. Having said that, there are a few books that have had a huge impact on my life, my thought, my beliefs. One of those books is called “The Acceptable Sacrifice”, and it is a book by John Bunyan.
The name John Bunyan may be familiar to some of you. (He is no relation to Paul Bunyan, the mythical logger with statues built in his honor in Minnesota).He was a rather well-known rabble rouser of a preacher in his time, as well as a well-known author after he died.
John was converted from a self-serving, pleasure-seeking life to a life surrendered to Jesus Christ when he was 25. He quickly became a deacon, and after a while, a preacher of the gospel in the Independent and Baptist churches that he preached in. Since it was, at his time, illegal to lead a church that was not a part of the church of England, and illegal to preach the gospel in places like fields and prairies, he was arrested for his activities.
Once Bunyan ended up in jails in England, he began to write in order to instruct people in faith while he was a prisoner. One of the books he wrote was a book called Pilgrims Progress, an allegory of the Christian life that rates second in book sales in the English language all time (the Bible ranks first all time).
The book I hold in my hand is a book he was writing before he died. It is shorter than most books for that reason. And it was published four years after his death. “The Acceptable Sacrifice” looks at Psalm 51 as a guide for Christian spiritual formation. And what Bunyan concluded, in a way that runs counter-cultural to his time and ours, is that one of God’s greatest gifts is a broken heart.
Well, as much as I tried to argue with his points, I could not really do it. Bunyan’s words were firmly grounded in this Psalm of David. They are firmly grounded not in this passage, but throughout Scripture. God’s seems to best in cracked pots, in hearts that allow God to break them, in the contrite, the needy, the desperate, and those who are lost without Christ, and wholly dependent on him.
It is helpful to see what sacrifices are less important to God. Look at verse 16. Sacrifice is not as important. Burnt offerings are not what God desires.
In other words, in contemporary English, a broken and contrite heart is more valuable to God than what you can do for him. A broken spirit is a better gift to God than any amount you can throw in the offering plate. A broken heart is more honored by God than any words you can say, any song you can sing, any prayer you can squeak out. Instead of any of these things, God wants to see you humbled and needy, broken and helpless.
When David wrote Psalm 51, he wrote it after he had been confronted about the sin and the deceit that was present in his life. Everyone had seen it, but him. Everyone had noticed his apathy and selfishness, his sin and the evil way he had treated people with but Him. And when he was confronted with his sin, when he had his face rubbed in the truth of his wrongdoing by someone who cared enough to risk life and limb to confront him, he wrote this Psalm. He realized that it all started with a contrite heart. A broken spirit. His life changed when he had to come to God helpless, without excuses, without bravado, with nothing to offer, and nothing that could make up for anything that he had done wrong, and simply admit that he could not do life, at least a good life on his own. He needed to place his life in God’s hands, and let God do with it as he wished.
We are more like David than we care to admit. I am not talking about the Psalm 51 David that is full of repentance. I am talking about the pre-Psalm 51David who paid no attention to the fact that he mistreated Bathsheba, committed adultery, and then to cover up adultery committed murder—even though everyone else noticed and shook their heads.
We have a tremendous propensity to ignore, forget about, avoid, and push away dealing with our own sinfulness. Furthermore, we have a way of minimizing, justifying, and sometimes even celebrating those sins we cannot simply ignore.
We can only hope that God sends us someone who stops dead in our tracks, and holds up a mirror to our lives, and helps us realize just how lost, wretched and helpless we are. We can only help that somehow God stops us in our tracks and challenges us to turn around and change.
We tell ourselves that our sin doesn’t matter, and it rots our souls from the inside out.
We tell ourselves that our sin doesn’t hurt anyone, but our angry outbursts, and our unhealthy habits poison our relationships, our work, and our world.
The sacrifice God finds acceptable is a broken heart. A broken and contrite spirit. The author of the Psalm says this in direct relationship to the sin he had treasured and ignored in his own life.
If we cannot look at the sin in our own lives, if we cannot look at God, and see how our sin has broken his heart, has prevented us from being able to have the impact and influence in his kingdom that he wanted us to have, then we need to examine ourselves a little further.
If we cannot look at how the sin in our lives has hurt and pained the ones we hold most dear, and let that break our hearts, we need to pray that God will teach us humility and give us hope.
And so we begin the journey of Lent. The journey with Jesus toward the cross. Many of us take on a spiritual practice of fasting from something we love, or adding a habit we need in our lives during this season. We don’t do this in an effort to somehow make God happy with us for a while. We do this to bring ourselves closer to God. When we strip away that habit or pleasure we enjoy, we learn to be more humble and broken, and depend on God for what we need. We find that we lean on thousands of small things for satisfaction and happiness instead of turning to God. And when we add a spiritual practice into our lives, we make room for God to enter our lives in a new way. As we fail and have to begin again in our Lenten journeys, we also come to a point where we allow God to help us identify and surrender to him those empty and broken places in our lives. Either way, the practice of Lenten is not a virtue in itself, it is a path toward the Acceptable Sacrifice, the broken and humble heart that can be molded by God to do his will.