Lessons for Lent from the conversion of King David

With faith and hope in God’s mercy, during Lent we make the words of the repentant King David our own: “But who can detect his own errings? Purify me of my hidden faults” (Ps 19:12).

"The Prophet Nathan rebukes King David", oil on canvas by Eugène Siberdt (1866–1931)(Mayfair Gallery, London/Wikipedia)

A prophet with a perilous mission

“And the Lord sent Nathan to David” (2 Sam 12:1). The context of Nathan’s mission is ominous. After committing adultery with Bathsheba and, in order to hide that sin, arranging for her husband, Uriah, to be killed, David has hardened his heart against graces of repentance and conversion. At this moment, he is not acting like a man with a heart like the heart of God (1 Sam 13:14). Nathan’s mission is to bring this homicidal heart to conversion.

The sacred text does not indicate that God provided his prophet with the strategy to bring about the king’s conversion. It simply says, “And the Lord sent Nathan to David,” and continues, “He came to him and said to him ….” (2 Sam 12:1). Nathan must have realized the gravity of the situation, and the risk involved. Why should the king treat God’s prophet any differently than he had poor Uriah? It is easy to imagine Nathan immediately going into vigil and fasting mode, desperately pleading for heavenly wisdom. His mission is a matter of life and death: spiritual for the king, bodily for the prophet.

The biblical narrative confirms that his prayer was richly answered. The prophet approaches the king to report a case of crass injustice. One man, who had an abundance of sheep, stole his neighbor’s one and only sheep to prepare it for a guest. The text is hyperbolic. The man with a large flock knows none of his sheep by name. In contrast, “the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. And he brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children. It used to eat of his morsel and drink from his cup and lie in his arms, and it was like a daughter to him” (2 Sam 12:3).

Nathan knew how to reach the heart of a shepherd whom God called to become a king.

Conversion of the heart

The story had its intended effect. “David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man, and he said to Nathan, ‘As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die, and he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity” (2 Sam 12:5–7). Nathan’s case of injustice was a spiritual defibrillation for David. Jolted from moral cardiac arrest, the king begins to think in terms of truth and justice again. A point of entry has opened to God’s grace.

With this, we glean a first lesson from David’s conversion, a lesson that St. John Paul II once put this way:

The Church knows that the issue of morality is one which deeply touches every person; it involves all people, even those who do not know Christ and his Gospel or God himself. She knows that it is precisely on the path of the moral life that the way of salvation is open to all. (Veritatis splendor, 3)

Conversion unto salvation is an affair or the heart, or conscience. “God, Who probes the heart, awaits us there.” There, “we are alone with God, Whose voice echoes in our depths” (Vatican II, Gaudium et spes, 14 and 16). The only place in the universe where a personal encounter with the living God, and thus conversion, can occur is the human heart, or conscience. The first effect of God’s word is to draw us there. And, the first and most fundamental commitment we can make to combat a culture of secularism and relativism is to embrace the graces of the Season of Lent and to be men and women of the heart, men and women of conscience, which is “the most secret core and sanctuary” of every person (Vatican II, Gaudium et spes, 16). Conscience is, by definition, a religious in nature. No wonder, then, that the primary strategy of God’s enemies is to make every attempt to prevent people from entering their own consciences.

Joel’s exhortation to return to God will all our heart—with our conscience—will remain scattered seed that cannot take root so long as we fail to frequent our own hearts. This is why he calls for the internalization of religious acts of penance, for the rending of hearts rather than garments (Joel 2:12–13)—in this way echoing the exhortations of Moses and Jeremiah for the circumcision of hearts (Deut 10:16; 30:6; Jer 4:4). The value of the traditional forms of Lenten penance—prayer, fasting, and almsgiving—derives from their being rooted in the heart, or conscience. To expand a line from the Catechism, which recapitulates the message of the prophets: “If our heart is far from God, the words of prayer and acts of fasting and almsgiving are in vain” (CCC, 2562).

The judgment about sin

Returning to the conversion of David, to make a just judgment, a judgment based on the truth, is the very office of a king. So, it was normal for a prophet to bring a case of injustice before him. But, while David thinks he is judging a situation concerning someone else, for Nathan this is preparation for another judgment, this one concerning David himself. Thus, Nathan takes the decisive step when, following the king’s verdict against the man who stole his neighbor’s precious lamb, he says, “You are the man” (2 Sam 12:7). There is a perfect parallel between Nathan’s story about sheep and David’s treachery. For, at the time that David slept with Bathsheba, he could have slept with any of his several wives at the time; instead, he took the one and only wife of Uriah.

“You are the man.” There is no place for David to hide. He stands “naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account,” verifying that “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb 4:12–13). Nathan’s prophetic word appealed to the king’s office to judge and thereby drew him back into the moral dimension, into the sanctuary of his conscience, which he had desecrated by despising the word of the Lord. In so doing, the prophet placed the king in the position of being judged by the truth of God and of participating in that judgment.

“For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get” (Mt 7:2). God did not send Nathan to accuse David of having sinned. That would result in the judgment about sin coming from without. But God wants the judgment about sin to come from within. So, He sent Nathan in order to bring David to accuse himself of having sinned. This is the second lesson about conversion and God’s wisdom to draw from David’s encounter with the prophetic word of God. God wants us to participate in the judgment about sin. He wants us to see what He sees. He desires us to be one with Him in the truth about sin.

This is simply a corollary of His desire for full communion with us. God does not want to be alone in knowing the truth about sin. Having made us in His image, He has endowed us with the dignity of responsible freedom in the truth. He treats us in keeping with that dignity. In fact, God’s goal in revealing Himself as mercy is to restore the dignity that has been lost or diminished by sin. Reflecting on the Parable of the Prodigal Son, St. John Paul II stated that sin is “the tragedy of lost dignity, the awareness of squandered sonship,” and that God’s mercy “is totally concentrated upon the humanity of the lost son, upon his dignity” (Dives in misericordia, 6).

The goal of God’s mercy, fully revealed in Jesus Christ, is to restore the dignity that has been diminished or even lost by sin. Out of regard for that very dignity, God calls us to participate in its restoration:

When a man goes down on his knees in the confessional because he has sinned, at that very moment he adds to his own dignity as a man. No matter how heavily his sins weigh on his conscience, no matter how seriously they have diminished his dignity, the very act of truthful confession, the act of turning again to God, is a manifestation of the special dignity of man, his spiritual grandeur (Cardinal Wojtyła, Sources of Renewal, 142).

The New Covenant: The gift of a conscience purified by the blood of Christ

This brings us back to conscience, and the final lesson of David’s conversion. Human dignity is inextricably bound up with conscience because God’s voice, and thus His law, echo in the human conscience:

In the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which … holds him to obedience … always summoning him to love good and to avoid evil … a law written by God; to obey God’s law is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged (cf. Rom 2:14–16).… There he is alone with God, Whose voice echoes in his depths. In a wonderful manner conscience reveals that law which is fulfilled by love of God and neighbor. (Vatican II, Gaudium et spes, 16)

The centrality of conscience in Christian anthropology is rooted in the apostolic Church’s understanding of Christ’s fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophecy of a new covenant that the Lord will write on the hearts of His people (Jer 31:31–34). Jesus clearly has this in mind when He institutes the Eucharist at the Last Supper, referring to the sacred chalice as “the new covenant in my blood” (Lk 22:20; 1 Cor 11:25). The most complete exposition of this comes in chapters eight through ten of the Letter to the Hebrews. Whereas Jeremiah spoke of the heart, Hebrews speaks of conscience. The new covenant is the gift of a conscience purified by the blood of Christ (Heb 9:9, 14). Christ confers this gift by virtue of His paschal mystery, through His Church and the Sacrament of Baptism (Heb 10:20–22; 1 Pet 3:21).

Lent is the liturgical season of preparation for accompanying Jesus through His paschal mystery, for the forgiveness of sins, during the celebration of the Sacred Triduum. Lent is like a great prolongation of the Penitential Rite at the beginning of Mass, during which we “acknowledge our sins and so prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries,” that is, to participate fully, consciously, and actively in the eucharistic celebration of the paschal mystery. Lent is a season of intense stewardship for the baptismal gift of a conscience purified by the blood, that is, the merciful love, of Christ. By thanking Christ for this gift, we merit to receive yet greater graces for the continuing purification of our consciences and a deeper participation in His paschal mystery. By deepening our awareness of the evil of sin, we also deepen our awareness of the depths of God’s mercy.

With faith and hope in God’s mercy, during Lent we make the words of the repentant King David our own: “But who can detect his own errings? Purify me of my hidden faults” (Ps 19:12). Because the Lord desires that we participate in our own conversion and in the judgment about sin, we know how He will answer this petition. Through His word, He will enlighten our consciences: “to do its work grace must uncover sin so as to convert our hearts …. Like a physician who probes the wound before treating it, God, by his Word and by his Spirit, casts a living light on sin” (CCC, 1484).

All of this constitutes the grace of the new covenant, which Lent calls us to ratify anew by confronting the truth about sin with the truth about God’s mercy in our consciences:

Conversion requires convincing of sin; it includes the interior judgment of conscience, and this, being a proof of the action of the Spirit of truth in man’s inmost being, becomes at the same time the start of a new grant of grace and love: “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Thus in this “convincing concerning sin” we discover a double gift: the gift of the truth of conscience and the gift of the certainty of redemption. The Spirit of truth is the Consoler. (John Paul II, Dominum et Vivificantem, 32)


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About Douglas Bushman 17 Articles
Douglas Bushman is Director of Parish Formation and Mission at the Church of St. Joseph in West St. Paul, MN. He is well-known as past director of the Institute for Pastoral Theology at Ave Maria University and the University of Dallas and for his courses on Ecclesiology, Catholic Spirituality, John Paul II, Vatican II, Pastoral Theology, and the New Evangelization. He is the author of The Theology of Renewal for His Church: The Logic of Vatican II’s Renewal In Paul VI’s Encyclical Ecclesiam Suam, and Its Reception In John Paul II and Benedict XVI(Wipf and Stock, forthcoming).

6 Comments

  1. A blessing.

    David was a man after God’d own heart. Nathan reminded him of his connection with God.

    Yes, may we all have the heart of David (at his best) the courage of Nathan and the wisdom of Solomon.

    Lord Jesus be close to us that we may be a blessing to others.

  2. “The gift of the certainty of redemption” (Bushman quote from John Paul II). If the greatest Apostle Paul expressed confidence rather than certainty, and Augustine counseled never to assume that certainty it’s best to qualify what John Paul likely meant. It’s possible that, “it includes the interior judgment of conscience, and this, being a proof of the action of the Spirit of truth in man’s inmost being”. Although, only God makes that final judgment. Furthermore, a moment of that interior truth is a moment. If it were achieved it must be maintained.
    The best spiritual composure is trust in the word of Christ. For example, insofar as Bushman’s beautiful interpretation of David’s conversion King David in the Psalms expresses suffering, questioning, and doubt very similar to Saint Paul’s acknowledgment of his doubts, weaknesses, admission that he hasn’t achieved certitude. Rather he relies in the confidence of the gift of faith on Christ’s words in fighting the good fight.
    It’s that fight realizing the continuous need to make spiritual combat that must continue, and only within the interior sense that the battle is never won until it’s over, that the person continues to invoke Christ for the grace and spiritual fire to meet all challenges. I rejoice in my doubts, my weaknesses, for when I am weak, then I become strong, because Christ strength then descends upon me (The Apostle).

    • Dear brother and pastor:

      Paul could express confidence because he met the Lord on the way to Damascus and was caught up to the third heaven on a different occasion. He persecuted the church, yet was accepted as a kinsman in Christ. He was a man of profound intellect and faith. The Lord used him as a reliable guide in spiritual matters.

      John 8:12 Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

      John 6:35 Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.

      John 3:36 Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.

      1 John 1:9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

      2 Peter 1:3 His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence,

      We boast in Christ because of His virgin birth, sinless perfection in fu;filling the law, His death o the cross and resurrection.

      Yours in Christ,

      Brian Young

  3. .” Thus in this “convincing concerning sin” we discover a double gift: the gift of the truth of conscience and the gift of the certainty of redemption. The Spirit of truth is the Consoler (John Paul II,

    Quote “Whether in the valley or on the mountain-top, we need the affirmation of God, for the God in the valley is the same God on the mountains”

    And this affirmation is given in a known presence/reality of His Holy Spirit.
    “But when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret”
    So, we pray to our Father by going to the inner room of our hearts where behind a closed door (Undisturbed) in secret (Sincerity) where others are not aware that we are praying with silent petitions and exhortations, in whatever time or place we might be.

    “Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret (Sincerity) , will reward you”

    With His Grace via the Holy Spirit as we receive grace when we have sincerity of heart before Him without which it is not possible to form a true relationship with Him as The Holy Spirit can only dwell within an honest/humble heart.

    We are taught to pray without ceasing, which could be described as trusting in God from moment to moment, we do this when we see ‘all’ through the eyes of faith, trust in God is not just about words, rather it is a movement of the heart, that induces a shared honest relationship with Him, and underpinning this relationship, is our humility before Him. (St Bernard, Humility; a virtue by which a man knowing himself as he truly is, abases himself)~

    When we place our trust in Him, no matter how broken (Sinful) or feeble our attempt/effort might be, we will receive grace in the ‘present moment’. If we continue to do this in humility our faith/trust will be strengthened, as we slowly ‘die to self’ while taking up our daily cross (Brokenness), The Holy Spirit will show/lead all honest seekers, “how to find and experience God”.
    Then led by the Holy Spirit we will be able to say the words of this teaching and actual mean them So, you also, when you have done everything commanded of you, should say,

    “We are unworthy servants”

    The Holy Spirit prompts us to cry out Father! With His beloved Son as His Holy Spirit inspired/gave His Beloved Son the pray which glorifies His Name as we are taught to say in Unity of Purpose while being guided by the light of the Holy Spirit to reflect and absorb the words within the pray.

    Our Father, who art in heaven
    Hallowed be thy name (sacrosanct, worshipped, divine, INVIOLABLE )
    thy kingdom (Of Gracecome (via your Holy Spirit, then)
    thy will, (Will) be done, on earth as it is in heaven
    Give us this day our daily bread (While with your Mercy we would be fed)
    Forgive us our trespasses as we (Also) forgive those who trespass against us
    Lead not into (*The Test of) temptation but deliver us from evil#

    *Our Father does not lead us into temptation but he does permit us to be put to the test.#
    Job1:6-12: Job’s afflictions began from the malice of Satan, by the Lord’s permission, for wise and holy purposes.
    Proverbs 17:3 A crucible is for silver and a furnace for gold, but the LORD tests the heart
    Matt 4:1 Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil

    So, pray not to be put/’led to the Test/of temptation’ as He was, rather, Father protect/keep us ‘awake’ and ‘deliver us from evil”

    Because: When Jesus returned to the disciples and found them sleeping, He asked Peter “Were you not able to keep watch with Me for one hour?” then teaching him and all of us also to “Watch and pray so that you/we will not enter into temptation For “the spirit is willing, but the body is weak.”

    So, here I am Lord, “your most unworthy servant”

    kevin your brother
    In Christ

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