Sir Godfrey Gregg D.Div
“Who can understand his errors? cleanse thou me from secret faults.” Psalm 19:12
The secret faults of which the psalmist is speaking in this verse are the faults that are secret from even ourselves. They are the sins and failings of your life and mine of which we are unconscious. There are some faults we can keep secret from the world, and yet they are well known to those at home. The people we meet in the street may not suspect them, but our wives or mothers know them all too well. And there are other sins which a man may do in business so that his name smells rank among honourable dealers, yet the shadow of them may never touch his home nor the innocent faces of his adoring children. Such faults are secret beyond a certain circle. Love casts the mantle of her glorious silence around them. But it is not these of which the psalmist thinks when he cries, “Cleanse thou me from secret faults.” He thinks of the faults and sins which in the sight of God we are committing, and yet we are ignorant of them and have never been awakened to them and are not conscious they are there at all.
Now that there are such faults in every one of us may be demonstrated along many lines. Think, for instance, how certain it becomes when we remember what we see in others. Is there anyone known to you, however good or beautiful, on whose faults or failings you could not put your finger? Is there any friend or lover or child or wife or minister whose weakness you have not long ago detected? They may not see it–it never obtrudes on them–they are quite unconscious that it is obvious to you. And so also as our neighbours move among us daily, and we see a hundred faults which they are blind to. Do not exempt yourself, I beg of you, from this general censure of humanity. You are bone of their bone, flesh of their flesh, born with their weakness, tempted with their sin. The very fact that all of us can see the mote that is in our brother’s eye is proof that we have one in our own.
The certainty of such faults is proved again by our general ignorance of our own nature. There is not a man or woman whose life is not full of secret possibilities. Let the finger of love but touch a woman’s heart, and you shall hardly know that woman by and by. Let motherhood come with all its infinite mystery, and she is enriched to the very heavens. Let a man be converted by the grace of God, as Paul was converted on the Damascus road, and life is expanded into undreamed-of fullness. We all surprise each other now and then, and now and then we all surprise ourselves–when love comes, or some great wave of emotion, or the sound of a trumpet and the call to battle. And if we believe in secret possibilities, on the basis of which Christ wrought from first to last, must we not also believe in secret sins? The fact is we should believe it instantly if it were not for the presence of self-love. Love thinketh no evil of the loved one, even when the loved one is oneself. And so in our secret virtues, we believe, and in the hidden possibilities within us, but from our secret faults we turn away. That common attitude is intellectual cowardice. It is a man’s first duty to face all the facts. To flatter other men is bad enough, but to flatter one’s own self is far more deadly. And therefore if you believe in hidden heights within you, I ask you also to believe in hidden depths and to cry as David cried, “Cleanse thou me from secret faults.”
The Power of Habit
The exercise of a long-continued habit has a deadening power. There are sins which were not secret long ago, but habit and custom have made them secret now.
I well remember when I came to New York from Florida, and how at first I found it hard to sleep at nights for the incessant noise of the railway and street. In Florida, when night fell, the quiet was perfect. The countryside might have been wrapped in snow. There was no sound except the wind and sometimes the mystical calling of the sea. And then in the city, there was the midnight traffic, and the jar and jolt and shrieking of the railway, and I would lie awake repeating, “Sleep no more, New York City hath murdered my night sleep.” All that lasted for a few weeks, and then the train noises and clamorous voices became silent as I grew accustomed to the noise. And they died away and were no longer audible and never again disturbed the beatitude of rest. The noise was as loud as ever, and still, the train rattled through the dark, but habit had made me oblivious to it all.
For good or for evil in this life of ours, habit is always busy doing that. Things that would wake us once and make us jump with fear are robbed of their power to disturb our slumber. And so the sins that long ago were open, and shocked us and made us blush to think of them, may have become with passing years our secret sins. You would have been very unhappy once when the day was over if you had flung yourselves down upon a prayerless bed. And yet it may be that you do it now with never a thought that you are grieving God. You would have been miserable once and full of guilty shame had you been cruel, dishonest, or impure. And yet it may be that today you sin these sins without any inward unhappiness at all. My brother and sister, that is Satan’s triumph–to take our open sins and make them secret: to take the faults that shamed us long ago and make us habituated and accustomed to them. When a man has ceased to be shamed and shocked by sin, when he does habitually what once he loathed and hated, let him beware for his immortal soul, for final impenitency crouches at the door. “Cleanse thou me, O Lord, from secret faults.” They were not secret once in happy childhood. Then they distressed us and sent us out in misery, but they do not distress us for a moment now. So from the pressure of habit and of custom, touching us all into a certain hardness, we may be sure that we need to apply the psalmist’s prayer to ourselves as well.
The Most Perilous Sins
And may I say that among all our sins there are perhaps none more perilous than our secret sins. And they are perilous just because in them we have the preparation for our open falls. Our great sins are seldom momentary overthrows. They seldom reach us like bolts out of the blue. These dark and tragic falls that we all know are not isolated and independent things. They reach us by the hidden ways of darkness and out of the silent and interior life so that on every hour of wreckage and disaster there is the pressure of our secret faults.
For every noble act you ever did, there was a conscious and an unconscious preparation. You were getting ready for it not only when you strove, you were getting ready when you never dreamed of it. By every virtue you clung to in the dark–by every beautiful thought you ever cherished–by the self-denials of each routine morning–you have been getting ready for your nobler hours. That is the road by which we reach our victories, and that is the road by which we reach our tragedies.
Our sudden overthrows, when the character was forfeited, are never quite so sudden as we think. Through secret faults–through covetings unchecked–through lusts unbridled when they were still imaginations–a man goes out to his hours when peace is lost and the shame of the vanquished is written on his brow.
Professor Drummond, in his Tropical Africa, tells of the secret ravages of the white ants. He tells of their enormous powers of destruction and how insidiously and secretly they work. He tells how a man may be sitting in his hut and may think of it as strong as on the day he built it, when suddenly he may discover that there is nothing around him but a shell. Silently the white ants have been at work eating out the heart of every beam: no one has seen them–no one has heard them toiling–no one has had any warning of their presence. And then in a moment comes the revelation when the very pillars of the house tremble, and the secret ravage is revealed.
“Cleanse thou me from secret faults–keep back thy servant from presumptuous sins.” Answer that first prayer, our blessed Saviour, and in it, we shall have our answer to the second. For all those open shames of word and deed that we cannot remember without self-loathing are but the lurid flowering of that nightshade whose roots are in the secret of the heart.
Our Utter Need of Christ
In closing, I am eager to suggest to you that our secret sins have one peculiar benefit. Above all other sins which we commit, they lead us to feel our utter need of Christ. Let me make that plain by a simple illustration. If some beautiful garden that you love is only disfigured by a week or two, it is quite within your power to pull those weeds out though they may be tough as crabgrass or as venomous as poison ivy. But if the soil is bad–filled through and through with seeds–tangled with root-stocks of pestilential things–then cleaning it out is quite another matter.
My brother and sister, when you come to think of it, that is like the garden of your heart. If all that needs to be rooted out are a few habits, then do it in God’s Name, for you have the power to do it. But when you awake to the appalling certainty that down in your heart there is a world of sin, in that hour you realize your utter helplessness. Not what we know, but what we do not know, is the deepest cry of the human soul to Christ–that world unfathomed beneath the range of consciousness out of which spring adulteries and murders. You cannot reach that world which lies unseen, away deep down in your mysterious being, and yet unless it is reached and cleansed by somebody, you know there can never be a victory for you. It is just there that Jesus Christ draws near. He is able to save even for the uttermost. He is able and willing this very day to work a radical cleansing within you.