The End of the Guilty Conscience

While writing notes on the psalms for God’s Justice, I am re-reading C.S. Lewis’ Reflections on the Psalms. Lewis’ reflections seem a trifle strange to me this time. He focuses on aspects of the psalms that seem repellant to him as a modern, Christian reader. He makes me think that times have changed, or I have anyway.

For Lewis frequently invokes the guilty conscience, which approaches God in fear and trembling not because of God’s might but because of God’s judgment. With such a mindset the worst thing is to presume on God, to speak brashly and self-confidently. And this is, generally, the puzzzling feature of the psalms for Lewis: they are brash. Lewis’ first chapter is on the psalmists’ longing for God’s judgments to rain down on the earth. To Lewis “the Christian pictures the case to be tried as a criminal case with himself in the dock; the Jew pictures it as a civil case with himself as the plaintiff. The one hopes for acquittal, or rather for pardon; the other hopes for a resounding triumph with heavy damages.  Hence he prays, ‘judge my quarrel, or ‘avenge my cause.'” [p. 10]

For the psalmist insists–against all the instincts of a Christian like Lewis–that he is in the right. God knows, he says repeatedly, that he is blameless. He sometimes lists the things he has not done: “Though you probe my heart, though you examine me at night and test me, you will find that I have planned no evil; my mouth has not transgressed. Though people tried to bribe me, I have kept myself from the ways of the violent through what your lips have commanded. My steps have held to your paths; my feet have not stumbled.” (17:3-5)

That is the sort of thing that Lewis takes as incipient Pharisaism. It sounds too cocksure, it sounds arrogant and insufficiently conscience-stricken. Better the more introspective (though rarer) confession of Psalm 51: “I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me…. surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.” (51:3-5)

I suspect that the influence of N.T. Wright has gradually drawn me to be comfortable with the psalmists’ proclamations of innocence. They are not claiming to be perfect, but they are claiming that they are on God’s side and have acted like it. Similarly, the apostle Paul: “as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.” [Philippians 3:6]

The medieval Christian, I am given to understand, approached God with great fear; he was afraid of hellfire because of his many sins. That was Luther, who to his everlasting relief and joy discovered God’s mercy. Luther thought of God’s justice with something like terror; whereas the psalmists too obviously thought of God’s justice as the sweetest thing. They longed for it, they dreamed of it.

When the psalmist claims to be blameless, he is not exactly saying (if I read him correctly) that he therefore deserves to be vindicated. He has not been so perfect as to put God in his debt. That idea would be nonsensical to him. Rather, he is saying that his blamelessness puts him squarely on God’s side. He is saying he is no traitor and no hypocrite. He has stuck to a God whose very nature is justice, who has promised great things to his chosen people, who will set the whole world right with peace and justice to the benefit of the poor and oppressed and those whom he has rescued from slavery in the Exodus. That is the side the psalmist claims to be on. He is a loyal subject to the God of justice. Let justice reign.

It’s a way of thinking–outward, historical, communal, confident–very different from the introspection and caution of Lewis’ model Christian. Lewis sees it as something pre-Christian, which we can learn lessons from but utterly cannot imitate. I am not so sure. It actually sounds to me not so unlike Peter and Paul and–Jesus.

At any rate, I think western culture has turned firmly away from the guilty conscience. I’m not so sure you can make Billy Graham’s appeal of “peace with God” any more. The postmodern person doesn’t feel a need for it. It’s a language he doesn’t understand.

He does, however, understand the language of justice. He sees that the world needs putting right. The mind of the psalmist need not, I think, seem so alien as it did to Lewis a generation ago.


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